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The sign on the old Lazarus store

Retail Firsts

The 1890s saw the installation of the glorious marble Niagara Soda Fountain, at a cost of $1,600. The Lazarus family maintained that the fountain would give customers an extra incentive to come to the store—and it was an instant success! Another customer attraction was the check-cashing service, added when Fred Lazarus, Sr. noted that a nearby bank closed at 3 p.m., even though there was a long line of Civil War veterans waiting to get their pension checks cashed.

A Renaissance clock tower, outlined in electric lights, was added in 1895. Lazarus had its own electric light plant across Town Street, connected by tunnel to the store. A steam weather whistle tooted the forecast three times a day, and Lazarus customers received "whistle code" cards. A store employee was designated to calm the horses outside when it blew.

Salesmen at Lazarus

Post-war demand for men's clothing was so great that there were at least 200 men's wear shops on High Street in the late 1860s. This high demand gave Simon Lazarus an idea ahead of its time. According to Charles Lazarus, "Simon went to New York and came back with 200 ready-made suits; 10 or 20 years later, there were 10 tailors up and down High Street!"

The Lazarus store had two things going for it in the 1860s: the beginnings of an adjustment policy ("It fits or you don't pay") and a one-price policy. At that time most retailers didn't mark the price on their goods: customers and merchants dickered over prices. Simon Lazarus was one of the first to clearly mark prices. Once more, Lazarus was an innovator in terms of retail policies!

Lazarus moved ahead in the 1910s with merchandising innovations in the advance of ready-to-wear clothing. Separates (shirtwaists—dating back to the 1890s Gibson Girl styles—and skirts) and one-size-fits-all styles, such as the flounced wrapper and the dolman cloak, became popular. Produced on sewing assembly lines at low cost compared to custom dressmaker clothes, the clothing line won a huge mass following for Lazarus.

The store that had been twice as big as needed when it opened in 1909 became cramped by 1921. In 1909 only the first three floors were used for selling merchandise. By 1919, Lazarus expanded sales to five floors and the basement of the new store. In 1921, an extension was built and new High Street windows were installed, along with new entrances. The Lazarus Enthusiast boasted that "Rome wasn't built in a day but that has nothing to do with our windows which were! The feat was, to our knowledge, the first of its kind…The glass [was] put in, lights installed…carpets laid, painted and trimmed all in time for Columbus folks down town Sunday evening. Some job! Some speed!" Several months later, "Elevator capacity doubled! The largest passenger elevators in Columbus, three new ones added to the original bank of four," boasted the Enthusiast.

Colonial Room menu

The 1926 expansion, the Town-Front building, more than doubled the size of the store. A complete home furnishings and appliance store was added. The Pavilion Tea Room joined the Main Dining Room on the 5th floor, and the Colonial Room replaced the Balcony Tea Room. 1926 also saw the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee Year, which began with a New Year's Eve Street Dance, parade, and radio broadcast. All performers were Lazarus associates. In February that year, thousands of Columbus residents lined the streets for a mammoth parade depicting the progress of Columbus and Lazarus in 75 years.

America had little to celebrate, however, in the late 20s. With the stock market crash of 1929, the country was struggling to keep on its feet. Thanks to loyal shoppers and associates, Lazarus enjoyed a banner year in 1929 with sales of $12,875,000. In return, Lazarus instituted a personnel policy devoted to retaining the store's veteran personnel despite drastic drops in sales over the course of the 30s. The only items that continued to sell well during this time were electric refrigerators, washers and radios which went into mass production, ladies sportswear, and the dollar housedress: "a whale of a buy for a dollar."  In 1933, Lazarus began promoting charge accounts. Air conditioning was added to the selling floors in 1934, making Lazarus one of the first big stores in America to promise shoppers a "cool" experience. In 1935, Lazarus developed the "Few-Pennies-a-Day Plan (FPD)" with "NO Down Payments."  Some retail critics called the plan a move toward retail bankruptcy, but Lazarus' view was "We already have a deferred pay plan with a 20% down payment. If we are willing to trust customers for 80% of the purchase, why not trust them with 100%?"

Lazarus women's bowling team

Lazarus Associates

The teen years of the twentieth century also saw the advancement of associate benefits. In 1912 the Lazarus Savings Association, a forerunner to the credit union, was established. In 1913, the Lazarus Enthusiast, the company's monthly paper, was inaugurated. In 1914, the first Twenty Year Club meeting was held, consisting of 13 members, all men, with service records ranging from 22 to over 50 years. In 1915, the store boasted 350 associates, and Margaret Henninger commented on an associate benefit at that time: "If an associate went 60 days without an error, she was entitled to a half-holiday. That meant no error on cash register or sales book, and no tardy marks."

The Lazarus family took the health and well-being of their associates seriously. Since the turn of the century, bowling had become a favorite sport, and the first bowling club met weekly in 1902. Interest in the team, which featured Fred Jr. and Simon Lazarus, was so widespread that the store's advertising mentioned the bowling team's ratings. Years later, in 1935, the store's big bowling league became the nucleus of the Lazarus Athletic Association, which offered table and lawn tennis, bowling, gun, glee, and reading clubs, and occasionally baseball—all for the enjoyment of Lazarus associates.

In 1936, Lazarus came to the aid of their associates with financial gifts—each received $25 to $70, depending on their number of years of service. In November 1941 the store management distributed Good Business Bonus checks worth two weeks' pay for all associates employed since before June 1, 1941.

The Red Apple Pin

Red Apple PinRed Apple PinRed Apple Pin

In the summer of 1948, the first Red Apple Pins for courtesy were awarded to associates who were nominated for the honor by letters from customers. The associate who received five courtesy commendations wore a bronze apple. The silver pins denoted ten commendations. Gold pins represented twenty commendations.

ad for bargain basement

The Bargain Basement

Also in 1917, Lazarus became one of America's first stores to open a Bargain Basement stocked with manufacturers' closeouts. The Bargain Basement became a perennial favorite of Columbus shoppers who looked forward to "stock sales." In the years just after World War I, many stores went out of business, and Lazarus sometimes purchased closeout stocks, in their entirety, for quick sale in the Bargain Basement. The stock sales could include anything and everything, and prices were always low, "going at 25¢ to 50¢ on the dollar." Customers would "tumble down the steps from the street doors by the hundreds when they opened," said Sadie Hess, a long-time employee of Lazarus. Eventually, the Basement Store served as a complete store-within-a-store, with its own buying staff, merchandising and advertising offices.

Thanksgiving shuffle

In 1939, the last Thursday in November fell on November 30. This meant there were only 24 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fred Lazarus, Jr. proposed that the consumer economy could be helped, in most years, if Thanksgiving occurred on the fourth Thursday in November instead of the last Thursday. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned of the suggestion, he was enthusiastic about such a change.

He announced the news too quickly for Fred Jr. to inform his brother Simon, however. Simon Lazarus was upset because the new date created a problem for his favorite spectator event, the Ohio State University Thanksgiving football game. "What damn fool got the President to do that?" he demanded. "You're looking at him," said Fred, Jr. In 1941 the new date was legalized in most states.

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We are indebted to several institutions for sharing the wonderful images that bring this story to life: The Ohio Historical Society, WBNS, and The Columbus Dispatch. In addition, we are grateful to The Columbus Foundation for supporting this production.