Cover image for For the Love of Murphy's: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer By Jason Togyer

For the Love of Murphy's

The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer

Jason Togyer

BUY

$38.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03370-9

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03371-6

292 pages
8.5" × 10.5"
72 b&w illustrations
2008

Keystone Books®

For the Love of Murphy's

The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer

Jason Togyer

“As pointed out in the book’s introduction, superstores such as Target and Wal-Mart run the roost now. But thanks to For the Love of Murphy’s—partially compiled from interviews with some one-time employees—the story and legacy of yet another of the region’s great institutions will not be lost.”

 

  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

Winner of a 2009 AAUP Book Jacket Award

To see trailer for the book, click here.

Five-and-ten stores were immensely popular during the middle of the twentieth century, selling cheap, dependable goods to people from all walks of life. Now the product of a bygone era, these stores were revolutionary in their time, but few today appreciate how important they were in creating our present-day consumer culture. In this sensitive yet honest look at one of the best-known chains of five-and-tens, Jason Togyer traces the history of the G. C. Murphy Company, headquartered in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

Though not the largest chain, nor the first, Murphy’s is remembered today as a commercial trailblazer—a corporation run with honesty and integrity, and, at its peak, a retailer whose more than five hundred stores managed to outsell those of the giant F. W. Woolworth Company by a factor of three to one. Making extensive use of both the company archives and anecdotes from former employees and customers, McKeesport native Togyer re-creates with outstanding detail the world in which the G. C. Murphy Company emerged; its survival and growth during the Great Depression; its response to a strained economy during World War II; its fight against rapidly expanding competitors, such as Kmart; its struggle and recovery in the 1970s; and its unsuccessful battle to stave off Wall Street raiders in the 1980s.

Though modern-day shoppers may not know the Murphy name, they know its legacy. From its adventurous selling tactics to its strict code of corporate ethics, the G. C. Murphy Company should be remembered not as a dusty relic, but as a pioneer in the American business world.

“As pointed out in the book’s introduction, superstores such as Target and Wal-Mart run the roost now. But thanks to For the Love of Murphy’s—partially compiled from interviews with some one-time employees—the story and legacy of yet another of the region’s great institutions will not be lost.”
For the Love of Murphy’s is an excellent account of the history of a great five-and-ten. Jason Togyer has truly captured the ‘behind-the-counter’ view of an innovative retail organization.

“The G. C. Murphy Company is very special to me. My management style and work ethic grew from the experience and training I acquired over a sixteen-year period as a G. C. Murphy employee. I worked as a part-time stock boy in the early 1950s and then spent five years full time in the management training program, working in seven different stores. After serving in the Marine Corps, I returned part time to the G. C. Murphy Company—and while attending Penn State University, I worked in the downtown State College store.

“I highly recommend For the Love of Murphy’s to anyone who has had the experience of working in a five-and-ten retail store. Students of marketing management and merchandising, young entrepreneurs, and small-business owners will also gain immensely from the wealth of information in this book.”
“I grew up with the G. C. Murphy Company. My grandfather, dad, and uncle all worked as electricians and traveled all over the country to stores, and I later became a secretary at the G. C. Murphy Company ‘home office.’

Going to Store No. 12 in Downtown Pittsburgh was a real treat! Ah, those wooden plank floors, the lunch counter, the bulk candy counter. . . . I now work in the executive offices of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh and every time I go past that Murphy store now I could cry—knowing what it used to be and seeing what it has become.

All of us old ex-Murphyites who lost our jobs because of the Ames takeover say we’d still be there if Murphy’s was! We’d never have left—what a great job we had!”

Jason Togyer is managing editor of The Link, the magazine of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword

Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Bethel Park, 1970

2. A Revolution in Retailing

3. The Macy’s of Appalachia

4. Can You Spare a Dime?

5. The Murphy Girls

6. At War at Home and Abroad

7 Meals at Murphy’s

8. The Fabulous Fifties

9. The Pride of the Chain

10. McKeesport Yankees in Dixieland

11. Determination and Diversion

12. Happy Holidays

13. Home Runs and a Few Errors

14. Triumph and Trial

15. Aftermath and Legacy

Notes on Sources

Bethel Park, 1970

The preparations had gone right down to the wire, but the G. C. Murphy Company’s newest store in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, was as ready as it was going to get. True, the construction workers hadn’t finished up until late the night before, but it didn’t matter because Store No. 802 was going to open on time. Outside, the thousand-car parking lot was freshly paved and striped. Inside, two hundred employees were ready for work under manager C. W. “Chuck” Henderson, who’d recently transferred to Pittsburgh from one of Murphy’s big flagship stores—the massive five-and-ten in Washington, D.C., known within the company as No. 166. Some of Henderson’s employees were new hires, but most were experienced, having worked at other G. C. Murphy stores.

Stacked just inside the front entrance were plastic laundry baskets and women’s raincoats—giveaways for the first customers through the door. The laundry baskets were an appropriate (and a little bit ironic) feature, though few people realized it at the time. Back in the early 1900s, Mr. George C. Murphy himself had featured cheap laundry baskets at the grand-opening sales of his first five-and-tens around Pittsburgh. He had been dead now for a little more than sixty-one years, but somewhere, maybe, George Murphy was chuckling.

Inside Store No. 802, the shelves were stacked high with specials. The automotive department had oil going for 40¢ a quart; hardware had gallons of paint for $2; and leather gloves cost $3.44 in ladies’ wear. There was a shiny new cafeteria waiting, too, with 114 seats and a New Orleans Bourbon Street motif. The opening-day specials would include a full-course turkey dinner for $1 and strawberry pie for 44¢ a slice.

And, thank goodness, the notoriously fickle spring weather in Pittsburgh seemed to be cooperating on that Wednesday before Memorial Day in 1970. The morning was cool but clear, and temperatures were expected to hit the mid-seventies by that afternoon.

The only question remaining: Would any customers be there? The executives of the G. C. Murphy Company had plenty of reasons to worry. The chain, based in the nearby steel mill town of McKeesport, had 520 variety stores (most people still called them five-and-tens, though few, if any, items were still available for a nickel or a dime) from Connecticut to Florida, including some large locations in shopping malls and major cities. But it had never operated a store this big—just a shade more than 150,000 square feet.

Nor had the company ever been in the high-volume, low-margin discount business. Until recently, employees had been forbidden to even use the word “discount.” The late Jim Mack, son of the man who helped rescue the G. C. Murphy Company from bankruptcy in 1911 and the former company president who died unexpectedly two years before, had insisted that all stores present a “premium” image.

Most Murphy executives and even many store managers knew what had happened a few years earlier when a photographer for the magazine Chain Store Age snapped a picture of an innovative display at a Murphy store in upstate New York. In the background was a sign with the word “discount” on it. Mack hit the roof, first threatening to fire the store’s manager, and then demanding the negative from the publisher so that the photo could be destroyed.

He wasn’t the only one who disliked discount stores. Walter C. Shaw Sr., who with Mack’s father had bought the Murphy chain out of insolvency, “was very much against those big stores,” says Bob Beyer, who worked in the company’s architectural department. “He did not like them at all.” Shaw had died in 1962, but his influence still loomed large over the G. C. Murphy Company, and his son remained on the board of directors. Murphy’s was a tradition-bound company, and one of these traditions was helpful service. It had been a wrenching decision for Murphy’s to move its salesgirls out from behind their counters, install checkout lines, and allow customers to serve themselves; executives were convinced the changes would harm the company’s image as “The Friendly Store.”

Elsewhere in the industry, some old-time full-price retailers also looked on the upstart discount chains with scorn. “Do you know what discounting is?” one old-time retail executive told a reporter. “It’s nothing more than selling inferior merchandise on Sundays.” True, with their barn-like interiors, bare fluorescent light fixtures, and clothing displayed on plain pipe racks, early discount stores had none of the class or elegance of department stores such as Pittsburgh’s Joseph Horne Company or even the showmanship and razzmatazz of big variety stores such as Murphy’s. But in their hearts, most Murphy executives knew that the chain had to move into discounting. They were being passed up by their old five-and-ten rival, Michigan-based S. S. Kresge Company, whose namesake had been a business partner of Mr. Murphy and a personal friend of former Murphy president Paul Sample.

In 1961, the rundown old Kresge company, whose small, downtown variety stores were lagging behind those of competitors such as Murphy and F. W. Woolworth Company, changed its entire direction by closing many of those locations and opening big, suburban discount stores called Kmarts. Their success was instant and phenomenal—Kresge, which did $419 million in sales in 1960, was doing more than three times that volume in 1970. It had three hundred fewer Kresge dime stores but three hundred big new Kmarts, including seven right on the G. C. Murphy Company’s home turf in Pittsburgh.

Murphy executives studied the new Kmarts with admiration and a little jealousy. They saw things they wanted to copy and things they wanted to improve on, and they knew they could learn from Kresge’s mistakes. Blueprints and proposals for Murphy discount stores were even drawn up in the mid-1960s, but in secret for fear of bringing down Jim Mack’s wrath. When Mack died, one executive remembers, “The plans came out of the desk drawers the next day.”

Still, despite all the preparation, dealing with a high-volume discount operation was uncharted territory for Murphy’s, remembers Paul Hindes, who started his forty-three-year career with the company in 1942 as a stock boy in a five-and-ten south of Pittsburgh. By 1970, he was buying infants’ and children’s wear for the chain. “I’m not sure we knew how much [merchandise] we were going to need in that Bethel store,” says Hindes, one of the scores of employees from the Murphy headquarters, or home office, who stayed all night Tuesday to get the building ready. “We were working with types of displays we had never worked with before.”

Murphy’s advertising and promotions departments were considered among the best in the field—the company had pioneered variety store advertising and was the first five-and-ten chain to run television commercials in the 1940s—and it was running flat out to promote the new store. Twelve pages of advertising ran in the city’s biggest newspaper, the Pittsburgh Press, on Tuesday afternoon, guaranteeing that about a quarter million people were aware of the new store.

The newspaper further obliged by running several stories about the G. C. Murphy Company’s new venture. In the process, some unknown editor made a mistake that would be repeated for the next fifteen years by newspapers and customers alike and would grate on Murphy employees every time they heard it. The Pittsburgh Press had referred to the new store as the “Murphy Mart.” It was supposed to be “Murphy’s Mart,” though, just as everything else about the new store, the name had been the subject of a protracted debate at the home office.

Marketing studies indicated that, thanks to Kmart’s popularity, the word “mart” now meant “bargain” to consumers, and some executives insisted that the new Murphy discount stores have the name “mart” in them. Other retailers had reached the same conclusions when they launched their own discount chains; for example, Federated Department Stores called its stores Fed-Marts. Inside Murphy’s, many people felt their company’s name had high recognition, so “Murphy” had to be included, says Luther Shay, who was managing the merchandise investment control department. That ruled out one contender, “M-Mart,” which in retrospect was probably too imitative of “Kmart.” In any event, M-Mart “didn’t get to first base,” Shay says.

Hindes remembers that the clothing buyers wanted to capitalize on Murphy’s popular line of work clothes. “We wanted to call the stores ‘Big Murph,’” he says. “We had a drawing of a big lumberjack guy holding a sign that said ‘Big Murph.’ They didn’t go for it.” Bill Kraus, another home office buyer, suggested “Murphy’s Merchandise Marts,” evoking the famous Merchandise Mart in Chicago. He suggested the name be abbreviated “M-M-M” or “Three-M’s.” The fear of provoking a lawsuit from the other 3M in Minnesota squelched that proposal. Thus, the Bethel Park store, and all its progeny, would be christened “Murphy’s Mart,” a compromise name that never pleased some in the company and confused customers for years to come. “We were stuck with it,” Kraus says.

Even the location, which wasn’t an entirely auspicious place to launch a new business venture, was a compromise. The first Murphy’s Mart was supposed to be a brand-new store north of Pittsburgh in the semi-rural community of Harmar Township, but Murphy’s sharp-eyed real estate men were able to secure the Bethel Park building, which had been occupied by a failed shopping complex called The Mayfair. Murphy’s construction division quickly converted the location for the company’s needs, and the store was ready to open months before the Murphy’s Mart in Harmar.

Yet it begged the question: If The Mayfair had flopped in that spot, why would Murphy’s succeed? Sure, Murphy’s had a long and honorable history in more than twenty states. In Pittsburgh, four generations had grown up with the company. But it was known for five-and-ten stores—the kind of places where kids shopped for candy, mom bought lipstick and thread, and dad bought pipe tobacco and fishing lures. Those were low-volume, low-price items, not the higher-priced lines of clothing, appliances, and housewares that were the lifeblood of discount houses.

It wasn’t a given that Murphy’s even knew how to sell fashion apparel and automotive supplies, much less that the public’s warm, nostalgic feelings for the Murphy name would be enough to draw customers away from Kmart, which incidentally had also placed several pages of advertising in Tuesday’s Press, possibly to combat the publicity Murphy’s Mart was receiving.

If Murphy employees still had serious doubts Wednesday morning, they evaporated along with the dew. At 10:00 A.M., Ed and Ken Paxton—brothers and the company’s president and chairman, respectively—helped cut the ribbon at the Murphy’s Mart entrance. By then, the thousand-car parking lot that had seemed so vast a few hours before was filled to capacity and customers were crowding the doors. For the next four days, employees of the new Murphy’s Mart sold everything they could get their hands on.

The first day, more than $140,000 in merchandise was sold. “Opening day, you couldn’t get near it,” recalls Fred Speidel, who was an assistant manager. “Every road to the place was blocked off. The volume was so much! . . . Up to that point, the biggest volume store I had ever been in was doing $200,000 a year.” By Saturday night, the Murphy’s Mart on Route 88 had done $455,215 in sales, including $10,000 at the restaurant, which translated into quite a number of 44¢ slices of pie.

Perhaps the Murphy name had some magic in it after all. Although they’d previously never run a discount house, there apparently was magic in those Murphy’s employees, too. After all, they’d been through the company’s rigorous in-house training program, which was the envy of the retail industry. Bob Bishop, a zone manager at the Bethel Park store, remembers that when the books closed on its first full year of operations, it had done $18 million in sales, “and that was a lot of money a long, long time ago.”

The impact on the community became humorously evident to Bishop a few months later. One of the hot items at the Bethel Park Murphy’s Mart was ladies’ polyester pantsuits. Murphy’s Mart was such a hit in the communities south of Pittsburgh, Bishop recalls, that “every corner I went to for the next month, I saw those pantsuits because we sold so many of them.”

The Bethel Park store would have problems to overcome, of course, as would the next two Murphy’s Marts in Harmar and Connellsville. Murphy’s would have to streamline its procedures, some of which had been in place for more than sixty years. It would have to shake off its dime-store mentality, which stressed high profit margins and low sales volume, to instead go for low profit margins and high sales volume. Murphy’s fervent desire to catch up with Kmart by opening dozens of Murphy’s Marts would eventually threaten to sink the company.

New management closed the money-losing locations, trimmed some of the bureaucracy, and turned the company into a Wall Street darling in the early 1980s. That, ironically, would sow the seeds for the G. C. Murphy Company’s eventual destruction—the surprising success of the humble retail chain in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, attracted the attention of corporate raiders.

Nobody knew that in 1970, of course. Instead, the exciting new Bethel Park store seemed to be the dawn of a great new era for a venerable old company, which was much beloved by customers and employees. The first Murphy’s Mart “was the turning point for the company,” says Ed Davis, Murphy’s longtime public relations man, who, as had so many executives, started his career in the stockroom of a small-town five-and-ten.

Bill Kraus had been discouraged by the company’s conservatism and had watched Kresge’s runaway success with increasing dismay. At one point, he even entertained a job offer from an Arkansas five-and-ten operator, Sam Walton, who had recently opened his own Kmart-style discount stores called Wal-Marts. In the end, Kraus couldn’t tear himself away from Murphy’s, which he, as did so many employees, viewed as a family.

So when the Bethel Park store opened and the sales division started reporting the unprecedented volume of merchandise it was handling, Kraus felt his pride in Murphy’s swelling. He didn’t think of leaving again. “When it opened, it was dynamic,” Kraus says. “I thought, ‘Man, we have finally hit it.’ We were on our way.”