The Marshall Field Way


“To do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, to do some things better than they were done before.” – The Marshall Field and Company idea

A pair of slouching, gum-snapping clerks lean against the counter and complain about their hours while one tosses my purchase in a bag. A stone-faced saleswoman rings up my sale without making eye contact. My “Excuse me, can you help me?” falls on deaf ears. Whenever I’m on the receiving end of bad service, I can’t help but think, it’s not the Marshall Field way.   I mentally travel back to my days at Marshall Field and Company on State Street, the jewel of the city, where I worked after my freshman year of college. A summer hire, I hopped off the bus at the iconic green clock at State and Washington and strode into this retail palace every morning, thrilled to work under the Tiffany mosaic-domed ceiling and to be surrounded by white Corinthian columns and gleaming glass counters that showed off the merchandise I couldn’t dream of owning.

Rarely did girls from my neighborhood shop at Field’s. When it was time for a new Easter dress or socks and underwear, my mother took me to Goldblatt’s or mailed in an order to Montgomery Ward’s. When I was little, my mother took us downtown once or twice on the bus to gape at the Field’s windows and to meet Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their helpers Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly in their Christmas village. In my eyes, this was the real entourage from the North Pole; the guy in the musty suit and the cotton-ball beard at Goldblatt’s was simply a stand-in. When my friends and I were old enough to go downtown on our own, we traipsed through Field’s just to gawk at the Bobbie Brooks coordinates we couldn’t afford, then spent our babysitting money at Sears or Stewarts.

My job at Field’s began with a weeklong training. Before we neophytes could appear on the sales floor, we were indoctrinated into the Marshall Field way, “Give the lady what she wants.” A shopper from Winnetka didn’t have to take her newly-purchased tea towels with her while she lunched in the Walnut Room on seven. She’d see those tea towels at her front door by the next afternoon, delivered by a friendly driver in dark green Field’s truck. Returns? Anything and everything were accepted, no questions asked. A testing lab was on the premises, too, so a product that didn’t wear well could be checked to see if it was Field’s-worthy.

I learned about the Field’s that everyday shoppers didn’t see. The employee cafeteria on the twelfth featured a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. On the thirteenth, the candy factory created the famous Frango mints and the carpentry workshop crafted the magical window displays. The first basement was for bargains, of course, but farther below a couple of subbasements were off-limits to shoppers. On payday, we rode a nearly-hidden escalator to the payment window where a clerk handed us envelopes holding cash. Yes, cash – counted out to the penny. With a twenty percent discount and my department manager’s encouragement to shop during slow times, I struggled to harness my will-power. For years after, I cherished my one splurge — a kelly green wool coat, double-breasted with brass buttons and a Mandarin collar, and the silky Marshall Field’s label sewn inside.

Every summer in the 60’s, Field and Company hired specially-chosen college coeds to help girls heading off to campus choose just their perfect collegiate wardrobes. I wasn’t granted the prestige of a fashion board girl, who wore a specially chosen ensemble deemed just right for college life. That summer, the board girls worked in Carnaby-Street-themed culottes and blazers — black wool with white pinstripes, black tights, and clunky black shoe-boots. A “mod” black hat resembling a British bobby cap was perched on their heads while they sold what girls might really wear – oxford cloth blouses and cable knit sweaters with matching knee socks.

In the towel department where I was assigned, established sales people working on commission lorded over their glass cases, while I approached customers and rang up sales – too many, it seemed. The veterans complained, and I was delegated to the returns desk. I practiced the Marshall Field Way, smiling at every customer and acquiescing to their every request. Brides tossed unwanted gifts on my counter and cashed in, not even bothering to retrieve the handwritten card Aunt Mildred might have signed, still tucked in the tissue paper in the green box. A North Shore matron complained that her towels purchased five years prior were beginning to fray. We took them back. A washcloth whose color that didn’t complement a husband’s eyes? A laundered bath sheet no longer needed? A musty box of linens found on a closet shelf? I gave each lady what she wanted, just like Mr. Field would have expected.

At Marshall Field, I saw a world outside my neighborhood. On lunch breaks, I wandered through every department and lingered over the lovely things we girls from the Southwest Side didn’t own – Pendeleton wool skirts, Pappagallo shoes, Villager dresses in demure floral prints. I rode the elevators where Dorothy Lamour, once a Field’s employee, was discovered by a Hollywood band leader. I people-watched in a quiet, wood-paneled lounge where well-heeled patrons met for conversation and a respite from a day of shopping. There, customers made calls on pay phones surrounded by lacquered wood dividers and perused the collection of phone books from all over the country. My copies of Hawaii and The Grapes of Wrath came from the books department on the third floor and I read them on my bus rides. After work, my friend Sophie, a candy department salesgirl, and I caught the Archer Express and nibbled on a Frango or two she’d bought for us for the ride home.

Toward the end of the summer, the manager tried to woo me away from returning to college. I had a future at Field’s, he said. I passed on his offer. But my Marshal Field skill set stays with me. I appreciate the quality of thick and thirsty Royal Velvet terry cloth, and my linen closet features towels folded the Field way. Like so many Chicagoans, I was disheartened when Field’s was sold to Macy’s, and the fabled customer service and quality took a nosedive. Knowing what good service can be, I don’t easily take “no” for an answer. The snootiest, most demanding shoppers taught me how to get along with some challenging folks I’ve faced during my teaching career. Customer service can be a pretty good way to go, even outside of the big store on State Street.


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