Imagination in Business
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
BY LORIN F. DELAND
WHEN Napoleon caused the names of his dead soldiers to be inscribed on the face of Pompey’s Pillar, some one criticised the act as “ a mere bit of imagination.” “ That is true,” replied Napoleon, “ but imagination rules the world.”
The subject of imagination is a large one. Even our morals come, in part, from the imagination, — as the virtue of pity. Doubtless it would be impossible for a human being absolutely devoid of imagination to feel the emotion of pity. But let us consider the application of imagination to one thing: namely, to business. It would be easy to trace the world’s inventions to its imaginative men, and tell of the gain to the individual from a single thought. We had all watched children go scuffling along to school, stubbing their toes at every step, and it meant nothing to us. But one day an imaginative man watched them, and saw the effect of putting a thin strip of copper across the toe of the boy’s boot. The world gave him a million dollars. It could afford to, out of the many millions it saved. Or, leaving inventions aside, we might trace the imagination which made the waterfall of Niagara feed the electric lamps in the city of Buffalo, twenty miles away.
But, confining our thoughts within an even smaller circle, let us follow the workings of the imagination in the most material form of business, — that of ordinary merchandising. I believe that imagination is as valuable — I do not say as essential, but as valuable — in the management of trade, as in any of the arts. It is as valuable, it is as applicable, and with the single exception of the art of literature, it is as essential.
But just what do we mean by imagination ? If our research is to be carried to any distance, the word should be clearly defined. Is not the best definition, to put it concisely, this: Imagination is the synthesis of the mind; that is, the opposite of analysis ? It is the putting together of things into a compound, not the separation of a compound into its parts. It is the relating of one thought or object to another and different one; or, rather, the relating of separate elements or objects. Its nature is dual; it manifests itself in two directions,— range and intensity.
Here on the wall hangs a sword carried in the Civil War. Two men of imagination look at it. One of them instantly imagines the conditions of society which brought about the war; he thinks of slavery, of the horrors of the middle passage, of the scenes of terror in the Bight of Benin, and lo, in a twinkling he is a hundred years and three thousand miles away from that sword. That is range. The second man looks at the same sword, and he sees the battle, the charge at the fortifications, and the fearful slaughter. He hears the bugles blowing the advance, and he listens to the deafening roar of the cannon and the higher-voiced rattle of musketry. The groans of the wounded sound in his ears. Already a whole epic is acting itself out upon the stage of his brain, and that simple sword is its beginning and its end. That is intensity.
Imagination, then, is the ability, upon seeing any object, to construct around that object its probable or possible environment ; thus, apprehending any force, to realize what produced it, and what it will produce. The man of imagination writes a drama. His dramatic instinct apprehends the power of contrasts; he constructs a plot; he realizes what each person will do, and why he will do it. His characters take possession of his will; they act out their own destiny, — often against their author’s own desire. He relates it all together.
Take the simplest instance of this relating of one thing to another in business. Let me say here, in passing, that I shall not introduce into this article any supposititious occurrences; each illustration is an actual fact, either in my experience, or of which I have been cognizant. And one other point: it is difficult at times to draw the line between imagination and sagacity. Starting in sagacity, a man’s action often proceeds by imagination. The two become blended. Perhaps it is not too much to claim that, as sagacity emerges from the present, the existing, and the seen, into the future, the unborn, and the unapprehended, it becomes imagination. I shall try to confine myself to instances of action which proceed forth from imagination.
We were about to consider the simplest illustration of this relating of one thing to another in business. Let me tell the story of two bootblacks. We can scarcely go lower in the business scale. These two boys, of about the same age, I found standing, one Saturday afternoon, on opposite sides of a crowded thoroughfare in Springfield. So far as could be judged, there was no preference between the different sides of the street, for an equally large crowd seemed to be moving on both sides. The bootblacks had no regular stand, but each had his box slung over his shoulder, and, standing on the curbstone, solicited the passers-by to stop and have a shine. Each boy had one “ call,” or method of solicitation, which he repeated at regular intervals. The two solicitations were entirely different, but each was composed of four words. They never varied them. Yet one of these boys, by the peculiar wording of his solicitation, secured twice as much business as the other, so far as one could judge, and I watched them for a long time.
The cry of the first boy was, “ Shine your boots here.” It announced the simple fact that he was prepared to shine their boots. The cry of the second boy was, “ Get your Sunday shine! ” It was then Saturday afternoon, and the hour was four o’clock. This second boy employed imagination. He related one attraction to another; he joined facts together; his four simple words told all that the first boy said, and a great deal more. It conveyed the information, not simply that he was there to shine shoes, but that to-morrow was Sunday; that from present, appearances it was likely to be a pleasant day; that he, as a bootblack, realized they would need an extra good shine; and, somehow, the sentence had in it a gentle reminder that the person on whose ears it fell had heretofore overlooked the fact that the next day was the Sabbath, and that any selfrespecting Christian would wish his shoes shined before he repaired to the sanctuary. Perhaps it was merely good luck that this boy secured twice the business of the other, but I have seen too many of such experiences to think of them as accidental.
Take another case, not in my own experience, but which happened to Heinemann, the European publisher. He once noticed two peddlers standing side by side, selling toy dolls. One of them had a queer, fat-faced doll, which he was pushing into the faces of the passers-by, giving it the name of a well-known woman reformer, then prominently before the public. His dolls were selling rapidly, while the man beside him, who had a really more attractive doll, was doing comparatively little business. A thought occurred to Heinemann, and he tried an experiment. Calling the second peddler to one side, “ My friend,” he said, “ do you want to know how to sell twice as many of these dolls as you are selling now ? Hold them up in pairs, two together in each hand, and cry them as ‘ The Heavenly Twins.'” The toy-vender somewhat grudgingly followed his advice. It was at a time when Sarah Grand’s famous novel was at the height of its popularity, and the title of the book was on every one’s tongue. Perhaps it was merely another case of good luck, but the Heavenly Twins dolls were an instantaneous success, and within one hour the vender of the woman-reformer dolls gave up the fight, acknowledged himself beaten, and moved five blocks down the street to escape the ruinous competition. Here, again, is the relating of one thing to another, though in this case it was the relating of a popular name to an absolutely foreign subject. Of course the relation was wholly illogical, but it “got there ” just the same.
The imaginative man sends his thought through all the instincts, passions, and prejudices of men; he knows their desires, and their regrets; he knows every human weakness and its sure decoy. Let me illustrate now that use of the imagination in business which is cleverly built on the frailties of mankind. It may be instanced in as many ways as there are human weaknesses. Under this head comes the subscription book, offered to you in a delicately-worded circular, explaining that an edition of two hundred copies only is to be printed, and the plates then destroyed, thereby ensuring the rarity of the book. If we stop and think a moment, we recognize that here is a direct appeal to vanity and selfishness. Yet how it works! Men are gratified even to be included in the list of recipients of such an invitation. And yet, really, the invitation is tantamount to an insult, for it assumes your overmastering vanity and selfishness, by making its strongest appeal in this direction.
Another weakness in human nature is the inability to throw away an element of value, even though it cannot be utilized. Many years ago a firm of large retailers of Oriental rugs in this country, the representative of leading houses in Smyrna and Constantinople, found itself overloaded with goods. The situation was critical, unless a certain part of their stock could be turned over at once. The firm had but one proposition to make: namely, a great sacrifice sale of its smaller sizes of rugs, with a reduction in price of from fifty to sixty per cent, to ensure the movement of at least a thousand rugs, at retail, within one week. An average price on small Oriental rugs — take them as they come — would be $30 to $35. This called for an average loss of profit on each rug of from $15 to $20. But just here imagination was applied, and another course was recommended and adopted, which was based upon the inability of the average person voluntarily to throw away an element of value. This was twenty years ago, and the plan has since lost much through familiarity; but in those days it was a novelty, and it worked most effectively.
Briefly, it purposed —not to sell rugs, oh, dear, no! — but to determine the relative advertising merits of the different newspapers of the city in which this house was located. A test was to be made for six days. Of course, the firm was willing to pay something for such information, and so in each paper there was printed a facsimile of a one-dollar bill, made out in the name of the firm, and good during the next six days, to the extent of one dollar, on the purchase of any Oriental rug at their establishment. The imitation one-dollar note was somewhat crude, but in size and general appearance it suggested a dollar bill, and results showed that it was difficult for many persons to regard it in any other light. At least, they found it as hard to let it go unused, as if it had been indeed a genuine dollar. To all intents and purposes it was a onedollar bill, provided it was spent at a certain store during a certain limit of time, and for a certain article. It seems incredible now, for the experiment was not tried in a large city, yet within three days the volume of rugs sold amounted to the largest total yearly discount limit; in other words, the greatest discount given to any retail house, if the volume of its sales in one year could be made to equal this total.
The anticipation of one thousand rugs was far exceeded in the performance, and the week ended with sales of sixteen hundred rugs. On these there had been a total discount of sixteen hundred dollars, with but little more than the customary daily amount of advertising, and a complete saving of the large sacrifice which had at first seemed to the firm to be inevitable. The experiment was a bold one, for, had it failed, the film must have suffered ten days’ delay at a time of pressing necessity. I had faith in the plan, however, because it was founded on a principle in human nature, — the inability to throw away an element of value.
Mark this fact! It was not the price. It never is. It was the reason for the price. If, instead of giving the buyer one dollar toward his purchase money, they had taken twelve dollars off the rug, there might have been sold, perhaps, two hundred of those rugs — scarcely more! But by making one-twelfth as good an offer in a more imaginative form, they sold — not two hundred rugs, but sixteen hundred. That is imagination in business!
When the late Phillips Brooks held a series of religious services on Sunday evenings in Faneuil Hall, some doubt was expressed as to the size of the audience, since it was plainly announced that these services were for the “ waifs ” and “ strays ” of the city, and not for churchgoers. The club of young men who had the matter in hand left to me the question of deciding what course would insure the largest possible attendance. I went the first night, and found the hall well filled. The second night the attendance had dwindled perceptibly, and the third Sunday night there was scarcely more than half an audience. I called the committee together, and told them that the audience had grown so small that we must hereafter have admission wholly by ticket. I still remember their consternation at this proposal. Their argument was a very natural one: if you cannot get people to come now, when there is no barrier whatever to their coming, how do you expect to get them to come when you refuse to admit them unless they have a ticket? But we carried the plan through, and thereafter no one was admitted who did not have a ticket. From that night the hall was full at every service. The ticket resembled in appearance a season ticket to the most expensive course of lectures or entertainments. As might have been expected, the people who got these tickets found it quite impossible to sacrifice an element of value, however slight that value was. They were entitled to attend divine service that night at Faneuil Hall, while Tom, Dick, and Harry, their neighbors, were not. And this slight advantage many of them could not relinquish.
Mr. Moody, the evangelist, found it necessary to employ this same method when he held services in the great tabernacle on Tremont Street many years ago. His attendance, large at first, soon fell off materially; but Mr. Moody, to correct this, announced that attendance would be by ticket only; within a week the great tabernacle was crowded at every service, and this continued up to the last meeting.
Perhaps we might leave the domain of business for one moment, and remind ourselves of the working of this law in the privacy of our own homes, when one’s wife says, “ My dear, there are only a few more of these strawberries left; they can’t keep till to-morrow; I wish you’d eat them up to-night so they won’t spoil! ” There is the element of value again, which so rarely can be thrown away gracefully.
But returning to business, let me relate another experience along the same line. It happened back in the eighties, but human nature has not changed in the intervening twenty years. A leading organ manufactory found that by actual count they had, in the preceding fifty years, manufactured and sold a larger number of organs than any other maker in the world. In other words, they held the world’s record of sales, the number being 200,000. The problem was to determine how best to utilize the advantage contained in this fact. I suggested that they offer a prize for the best popular conception of the number 200,000; that they publish this offer widely throughout the country, which, in itself, would call attention in an interesting way to the fact that they had manufactured 200,000 organs. They were then to take the fifty best conceptions of this large total, making an engraving to illustrate each one, and publish the whole in an attractive pamphlet, of which they should issue an edition large enough to make the cost of the book not to exceed one cent. It could be mailed for another cent, so that they could supply them to the public at a cost of two cents; or, in other words, any one enclosing a two-cent stamp in a letter would receive the book by mail; and if a large number of these books could be distributed, it would be substantially free advertising, for it would be advertising which involved no expenditure beyond the sending away of the books. It was found that an edition of 100,000 copies would have to be printed to bring the cost to this low limit, and the firm questioned whether so many as this could be disposed of by a simple offer that the book would be sent on receipt of a two-cent stamp. But their doubts yielded to my arguments, and they issued the book.
Four months later, in discussing another matter, they referred to the failure of their efforts to dispose of the book, and their chagrin at finding so large an edition on their hands, which they could not use. It appeared, on further conversation, that to dispose of them they had advertised them once in the Youtti’s Companion, a paper which at that time had a circulation of over 400,000 copies. They showed me the advertisement. It measured about six inches, single column, and, in good plain type, announced that a book entitled “How Large is 200,000 ? ” had been prepared, with over fifty illustrations, finely printed, making an attractive volume of forty-eight pages, which would be sent free on receipt of a twocent stamp. In all the time which had elapsed since that advertisement had appeared, they had received 788 replies, and, consequently, an edition of 99,212 books was still upon their hands. The man who was responsible for this operation felt his humiliation, but nevertheless he believed that he could get rid of those books, by an advertisement in the same paper, inserted once only, and in a smaller space — virtually a mere repetition of the previous offer.
Accordingly, the following advertisement appeared. At the top were the words, PRIZE REBUS. Under this heading there was a simple rebus, one of the oldfashioned kind so dear to the “ regular subscriber,” although this particular puzzle was so easy of solution that any person of ordinary intelligence could not fail to work it out in a reasonable time. Under the rebus was the offer, which was to the effect that the books had been prepared, that a certain edition had been printed, that no more would be thereafter printed, and that the books would not be distributed thereafter upon request, but would be given as prizes to any one who could solve the rebus there given. Of course the rebus, being exceedingly simple, would be readily solved; it then entitled its interpreter to a book, and we find ourselves at once back on the old ground of a person entitled to an advantage, and called upon to choose whether he will avail himself of that advantage by a very slight expenditure, or sacrifice the advantage with no expenditure. The advertisement was inserted once, and nothing further was heard from the Organ Company for a time. Then came a letter saying, “ Where is this thing going to end? We have sent out 23,000 books on that one advertisement up to last Saturday night. We have now a force of five women employed in opening letters and mailing books. Had we not better prepare another edition? ”
So it went on for ten weeks more, finally breaking all known records for the number of replies from any single advertisement.
Now, what was the defect in the first offer ? It employed no imagination. It did not reckon with human nature. Or rather, it went directly contrary to a law of human nature. There is a belief, deepseated in the human mind, that the thing which you can get for nothing is worth nothing. The public very properly accepted this book at its publisher’s own appraisal; he offered it for nothing, therefore it was worth nothing. It would be possible to go further, and tell how the advantage was followed up in this case, and organs were sold to the people who had solved the prize rebus, but that is what Kipling calls “ another story,” and does not properly belong under this particular weakness of human nature.
I want to give just one more illustration under this head. A leading publisher conceived the idea of preparing a series of pictures of the great scenes of the Civil War. There were many pictures in the series, and they were finely executed from originals by famous artists. No pains or expense was spared, and, sure of success, a very large edition was printed. They were offered to the public at five dollars each. It was never intended to reduce this price, except to quote a slightly lower rate for the complete series. But the pictures were a dead failure. Some time after they were placed on the market the account on the books of the firm stood charged with an expenditure of over $50,000, against which there were receipts amounting to $700, representing the sales of the first six months. Net loss up to that date, $49,300. It was evident that this was a bad investment. The question was whether it would not be wise, in view of the signal failure of the enterprise, to reduce the pictures to a price of one dollar, which would represent less than the actual manufacturing cost, it is true, but which would go far, if the entire edition of fifty thousand could be sold, to reimburse the company for the very large sum which had been put into these pictures, and which, at present, there seemed to be no way of taking out. The plan was not to spend any money in advertising, but to announce to the trade, and to storekeepers generally, that these five-dollar pictures were now reduced to one dollar.
If the plan had been carried out along the lines then proposed, the result must have been an absolute failure. It is doubtful if a thousand more pictures would have been sold. Instead, the following plan was suggested, and its efficacy may be left to the judgment of any student of human nature. A circular was to be prepared and mailed to every member of the Grand Army of the Republic, which at that time numbered over 361,000 men. Enclosed with that circular was to be a receipt for $4 on account, to apply on the purchase of one of the war pictures. It was to be made out in the name of the member and signed by the publishers. The circular was to state that the regular price of the picture was $5, but that a comrade of any Grand Army Post could secure the picture for the nominal price of $1. The picture would be delivered to him upon payment of $1, with the accompanying receipt for $4, which must be attested by the Secretary of his Post.
It was easy to imagine how this plan would work. By virtue of his membership in the Grand Army, the recipient was entitled to secure a $5 picture for $1. The offer would not be made to any one else. He, by virtue of his membership in this National Order, had only to pay $1 to secure an equivalent of $5. Let us admit at once that thousands of these men did not care to pay $1 even for a $5 picture, But how many of them, do you suppose, would tear up the signed receipt for $4 ? Instead, they would keep it in their pocket, look at it every few days, mention it to some of their friends, and end by making the generous offer to one of these friends that if he would like to avail himself of the chance, he could do it in his name. In other words, John Brown, as a G. A. R. man, is entitled to the picture, but John Brown does not care to buy it. His friend, John Smith, who is not in the G. A. R., however, will be very glad to take advantage of such an opportunity, and so Brown buys the picture for Smith in his (Brown’s) name, paying for it with his $4 receipt and Smith’s $1 in money. Inasmuch as the sales of these pictures would be naturally among members of the Grand Army, the offer amounted to a virtual reduction of the price from $5 to $1; yet how much more attractive was this form of making the reduction, which preserved the pictures from the shock of a precipitate and sensational discount.
We have now taken two weaknesses in human nature, namely, selfishness and acquisitiveness, and shown the baser use of the imagination in business, which rears its fabric on such weaknesses — using the word “ baser ” not to imply a moral defect, but merely to designate such usages as relatively less pleasing than other instances which might be cited. If time afforded, it would be easily possible to select other weaknesses of mankind, and instance how the imagination is employed in such cases; then, to take the reverse of these cases, that is, the traits not in themselves weak or base, but of which advantage is taken; such, for example, as the love of the material or concrete, the reasoning by analogy, the impression of value by quantity, the impression of quality by multiplication of argument, and similar instances.
It must be remembered always that it is not the price of an article which is important, but the reason for the price. This is one of the backbone truths of merchandising, and when once a seller gets a firm hold of this fact, and is able to apply it in its highest efficiency, he can almost devastate the trade. I have seen on more than one occasion the delight with which a retail advertiser first clearly grasps this idea. We can detect something of it in one of the illustrations just used; but now what is the reason which underlies this law ? Is it not this: that the argument for the price is the imaginative part of the transaction; the price itself is absolutely unimaginative. Admit that the reason for the price is an important thing in the transaction, and that a high price with a good reason will sell more goods than a low price with a poor reason, and it is only reaffirming, in another form, the potentiality of the imagination in business.
The bankrupt stock, the fire sale, the manufacturer’s remnants, the annual clearance, the removal sale, the dissolution-of-partnership sale — what are these, and many more, but arguments for the price? And note this one point: that without the argument the price is powerless. Reduce your fur-lined overcoats from $100 to $60, and your liberal discount attracts little attention. Why? Because there is no reasonable explanation for the reduction. Why should you present overcoats to the public ? But announce that, owing to an expiration of your lease, and the imperative command that you vacate your present store within two weeks, you will reduce the price of your fur-lined overcoats from $100 to $80, and you may sell easily all you have to offer. Instinctively, the public sees the whole picture, — the proprietor’s anxiety, the inevitable removal, the vanishing days, the final sacrifice, and the store full of eager buyers quick to seize such an opportunity. This is only half the reduction previously considered; but one is business without imagination, and the other is business with it.
Approach the whole question from another standpoint. Perhaps there is no better index of the value of imagination in business than the immense importance which attaches to the selection of a name for any article. To describe an article in an imaginative vein is to sell it at once to many persons; merely to give it a good name is to sell it to a few. So important is this matter held to be by those who have successfully grasped the value of imagination in business, that it has been used for no less an object than the stifling of competition. Let us assume that tomorrow you decide to embark in the business of manufacturing a toilet soap, to compete with some of the well-known makers. It is important that it should have a significant or attractive name. That is a first consideration. But, right at the outset, you discover that it is almost impossible to secure any satisfactory name for a new soap. Its color, transparency, and clearness suggest the title of “amber soap.” Yes, surely “amber soap” does have an attractive sound. But you cannot use the word “amber,” for you find that this is one of a list of twenty-four possible names for a toilet soap, preempted by registration as a protectionary measure, years ago, by one of the leading American soap-makers. They have covered over one hundred names in the past quarter of a century, willingly paying the registration charges of twenty-five dollars for every title. Of course, they do not intend to use them; they register them to fight off competition, believing (and here is the important point!) that no clever business man (and it is such competition which alone they fear) — that no clever business man would embark in the enterprise of manufacturing a new soap, when from the start he was prevented from employing the powerful weapon of imagination in giving it a suitable name. If an establishment like this, directed by some of the ablest heads in the business world, believes that it can discourage competition by simply depriving the would-be competitor of the appeal to the imagination in the naming of his soap, how great a value must we attach to imagination in business!
More striking instances of this endeavor to intercept competition may be found by a perusal of the trade-names and trademarks registered in Great Britain. Ten years ago there were only 27,000 tradenames registered in the United States as against 182,000 registered in England. The English, from whom we have borrowed the idea of protection by registration, take most of our American names that have any originality or value, if the owner for any reason has left them unregistered at the expiration of the six months during which the trade-name is protected for filing in Great Britain. English manufacturers have gone to the extent of protecting themselves, not merely in their own line of goods, but in all lines of manufacture, thereby preventing their trade-name from becoming commonplace by its repeated use. Thus the word “Sunlight” has been registered by its owners, not merely as the name of a soap, but for practically every article of household use to which the name could be applied.
By a peculiarity of the English Copyright laws, it is not permitted to cover every article with one name. The various articles of domestic use are arranged in groups, and one article in each group must be left unprotected, to conform to the law. In this case at hand, no little ingenuity has been used in selecting as the subject of each omission an article to which the name “ Sunlight ” could scarcely apply; as, for example, Sunlight Andirons; I think this was one of the articles in one of the groups left unprotected. The English charge is £10 for each registration, exclusive of all fees, and some manufacturers have expended close to $50,000 in this form of protection. When we see shrewd manufacturers investing such sums on their belief that you ruin a man’s chances when you curtail his ability to employ imagination, is it not another proof of the value of imagination in business ?
I shall try now, before concluding this article, to illustrate the use of imagination in business by three business problems. I select them partly because of their remoteness from the present in point of time (there being little harm in my speaking of the occurrences at this late date), and partly because they typify widely different cases.
The first is a retail problem, the circumstance of a carpet house. The general question was whether the volume of business could be enlarged. This firm was advertising extensively in the papers, and such advertising is the fool’s first resort, and the wise man’s last one. It is the proper remedy in about one in four cases of the kind here considered. It could hardly be used advantageously in a carpet business, for the reason that carpets are not tempting merchandise. In other words, one is not prompted by any advertisement to rush out and buy carpets. One buys them when one needs them. The buying of carpets is done in a cold-blooded way.
Once a year, rarely oftener, a family decides that it wants a new carpet. This is usually at the strenuous period known as “ spring cleaning.” But there is a more important time than this, and that is when the family is removing from one house to another. Probably from twenty to thirty per cent of all buying of carpets is induced by a change of residence. Estimated roughly, there is one day in the year when each householder may buy carpets; accordingly, on three hundred and sixty-four days of the year the advertising of specific carpets for that man is wasted. For every man it would be wasted three hundred and sixty-four out of three hundred and sixty-five days, and such a proportion of waste will not permit of profitable advertising. The important thing, then, was to get at people when they were about to move, and it seemed at the start that the key to the situation was the realestate agent. In this direction work was begun.
The plan was to secure from realestate agents, for some slight consideration, a complete record of all changes and removals from house to house in that city and its suburbs. The work had proceeded only a short distance, however, before it became evident that this was a wrong analysis of the case. The realestate agent was not the correct clew; it was the furniture-mover! Many persons might effect a change of residence, especially in the upper class (and these changes were most valuable), without the transaction passing through the hands of any real-estate agent. But no one could remove from one residence to another, whether it was from a great establishment on Washington Square to another on Fifth Avenue, or whether a lodger with one trunk moved from a room on Bleeker Street to a room on Houston Street, without employing the furniture-mover.
Accordingly new plans were laid, a competent man was engaged to carry them out, and work proceeded on the following lines. A club was formed of all the furniture-movers in that city and its suburbs. Of course, there were isolated cases here and there of men who would not “ club,” but within ten days an organization was perfected, comprising fortyone of the leading furniture-movers, employing seventy-six wagons. A formal agreement was entered into and signed with each furniture-mover. The consideration for which they performed their service was comparatively slight. It has long been a custom with business houses to pay for the painting of a delivery wagon on the condition that it shall bear their advertisement; the name of the owner then appears in small letters, and the wagon ostensibly is a delivery wagon of the house whose name it bears. It is generally supposed that an advertisement thus painted on a wagon moving about through the streets of a city for a year, is well worth the cost of the painter’s bill.
This old idea that furniture-movers like to escape the painting of their wagons was made to do duty here, and the repainting became a part of the compensation given to them under the agreement. Their wagons were all painted with the name of this carpet house; a further consideration was that the house should keep them repaired at its own expense. They were to be repainted as often as required, say once in two years, and all repairs were to be paid for unless they were occasioned by gross carelessness. Contracts were made with seven or eight leading carriage-painters in the city in which this occurred, and exceptionally low rates secured by reason of the large quantity of work. Similar contracts were also made with wheelwrights for repairs.
To describe the consideration given by the furniture-mover to the carpet house, let me tell what would have happened had you, at any time desiring to move from one part of that city to another, called upon one of these furnituremovers, with a view to securing his services. The conversation might have been substantially on these lines: —
Customer. I am about to move from 32d Street to 57th Street. I don’t know exactly how many loads there will be, but it is an ordinary houseful of furniture. I should like to know your charge for the job.
Furniture-Mover. Where are you now located ?
(Customer gives his residence.)
And what is the new location ?
(Customer gives the address. Both replies are at once entered on a slip.)
When do you propose to move ?
(The date is given.)
Just how many loads would there be ? How many rooms are there in the house ?
Customer. Do you employ reliable and satisfactory men ?
Furniture-Mover. Yes, sir. Here is my business card, and you will see upon the back of it what John Smith & Co., the well-known carpet house, say about me.
At this he hands the customer a business card, supplied to him without charge by the carpet house, and on the back of this business card there is a letter from John Smith & Co., stating that they understand that this man is a reliable furniture-mover, who employs suitable help. The attitude with which the furniture-mover proudly regards the endorsement of John Smith & Co. is, in itself, an evidence that in the furnituremoving business, at least, Smith & Co. is readily conceded to be the leading carpet house of the city. In the meantime, the customer sees along the curb a number of neat-looking, attractive wagons, on each of which is the advertisement of John Smith & Co.
By direct agreement with the Smith carpet house, the furniture-mover is obliged to fill out within one hour, and forward to them by mail, a printed blank as follows: —
Name of party about to move:—; present address of party:—; new location to which he is to move :—; date when he expects to move:—; number of loads he will carry:—; etc., etc.
From forty-five to ninety of these blanks were received daily at the carpet house. When the system was started, it was the custom to send a representative, with samples, to call immediately upon the parties about to move. For a very short time one representative did all this work, but within three months it required six representatives, of whom four went in “sampler” carts built for this especial work, mounted on two wheels, and in appearance not unlike an Adams Express money-wagon. The carts were finely fitted up, and contained a complete line of samples, not only of carpetings, but of upholsteries, draperies, shades, etc. The memoranda received at the carpet house went immediately to the manager of the retail department; by him they were separated according to their locality; the presumably large customers were handed to the more expert representatives, while some poor devil who was moving with a trunk from one room to another received no call, but, instead, a circular or special letter, according to his importance, in which the house offered its services in connection with any refurnishing which he might have to do, and suggested that one of their representatives call with samples on his daily round, for which, of course, there would be no charge. Meanwhile all newspaper advertising was stopped.
The business grew to such size that at the end of a year the carpet house had bought and was operating its own repair and paint shop. The plan worked out substantially as first conceived, with one exception. It was found necessary to employ two men whose sole business it was to go daily among the furniture-movers and keep them sharply up to their end of the agreement, ensuring immediate reports on all names, and complete memoranda. This experiment showed one solution of how to enlarge a retail carpet business. It was literally a gold mine, and the business of the house was greatly increased.
So the retailer meets his difficulties and applies imagination in their solution. But the wholesaler has his problems too, and we shall find that the same panacea has lost none of its virtues as we examine a plan for the extension of a business in lithographic novelties. This house was one of the three firms who had supplied the great market of the world with its Christmas cards. The Christmas-card industry had waned, but they had taken it at its flood, and nicely calculated the moment of the ebb. The instant that the upper class of society abandoned the sending of Christmas cards, this firm was keen enough to realize that the custom was destined to have a short life, and from that day drew in its manufacturing, carried a short stock, and was well equipped to take advantage of any new turn. (The firm afterwards made a study of the question whether the custom of sending Christmas cards could be reëstablished, deciding finally that as the custom had gone out through the upper class of society, it could only reënter through that class, and no way of reëstablishing it in that direction seemed to suggest itself. Many ways were open to revive the custom in other classes of society, but this firm wisely concluded that it would be impossible to work the revival upwards. The popularity of the bicycle is the only exception I know to this general rule, and it has been one of the curious anomalies in trade movements in recent years.)
The establishment in question then turned its attention to the manufacture of art novelties, booklets, hangers, etc. For these there was a fairly large demand, and the question was how to double that trade. It was a difficult problem, for the goods were marketed entirely by little stationery and periodical stores — about the smallest calibre of storekeeper that can be imagined. It was out of the question to sell to the consumer direct, as that would instantly antagonize the retailers then handling the goods. It seemed almost impossible to infuse any enterprise and life into these little two-by-four storekeepers, in whose hands lay absolutely the future prosperity of the business. However, upon a closer study of the conditions, the point, which attracted attention was the wide divergence in the volume of business done by different stores. Two, located in Cleveland, Ohio, and in Providence, Rhode Island, in the same relative location, and appealing to the same class, were doing a totally different business. The two constituencies were substantially alike; but one store was doing a business of $300, and the other of $3000.
This indicated broadly that but few of these little storekeepers understood how to push their business, and it at once suggested the course which should be taken: first, to acquaint the trade, immediately and confidentially, with this state of affairs; and secondly, for this house to offer, as a committee of the whole, to investigate the various methods by which the business could be developed, reporting estimates and figures, with attested results as to each method. In other words, if a man in Philadelphia had employed successfully the method of making five, ten, fifteen, and twenty-five cent counters, the house proposed to investigate the whole system and its results, and report its findings to all who joined the movement. If another man in another city had established $1, $2, $3, and $5 packets, and made a great success, the workings of that system would be explained, telling just what to avoid and what to do. In a similar way, to investigate the sending of canvassers, with books of samples, to interview customers in person; the advertising in magazines; and all the different ways by which one and another man in different parts of the country had made any success.
It was supposed that possibly three hundred dealers might join this movement. The first circular was sent out, and within six weeks 2900 small storekeepers and their clerks had united with the lithographing firm in the undertaking. The movement was continued successfully for several years. It grew out of its original limitations, and the monthly reports began finally to discuss methods of salesmanship, taking individual articles and illustrating different methods of presentment.
Here we see a different application of imagination, a sort of outward application to lubricate the stiffening joints of business. Let me now, as a last illustration, take an instance where the medicine was compounded to be taken internally. It was the question of a humble employee. We will say his name was Mills, and he was one of the army of workers in the service of a wholesale clothing house. He came to me with his serious problem: he had been employed by this house for three years; he had received one small raise of salary at the end of the first year, and now, after two years of waiting, he was side-tracked, as he thought, hopelessly stalled on the road to business success, one of the innumerable teeth in the mighty gear, of no special value, and with no prospects whatever for the future. He wanted to marry (on $6 a week!), and this had added to his discontent with his surroundings. He came to ask me whether he had not better give up his situation, and trust to luck to find something better. I urged at once against such a course, and told him to look for something better while still holding his present situation. He said he had tried that for some time, but found himself restless. I said to him, “ Mills, the important thing for you in this matter, is to ascertain whether you are paid all that you are worth; and, that settled, whether you can make yourself worth any more. But first of all let us see if you can make yourself worth any more, whether you are paid it or not. If you can, you had better stick, and look for your raise at the first fair opportunity.” He agreed with me in my hypothesis, but said he did not quite understand how that could be found out. I said, “ I cannot find it out to-day, but if you will put yourself in my hands absolutely for three months, I will guarantee that we shall both have an answer to that question.” He agreed, and I went ahead. Here were my instructions to him :
“ For the first thirty days I want you to put your mind on one thing only; drop all outside nonsense, and focus your entire attention, thought, and energy upon this question: By what method which you can devise, can your house sell $100,000 worth more of goods every year than they are now selling? (Mills gasped!) Or $10,000 worth more ? Or $1000 worth more ? Or $100 worth more ? When you have discovered your plan work it all out on paper, put down the figures in black and white, verify every item of expense, and take the complete showing, at a favorable moment, to the man on whom you must’depend for your raise of salary. However good the idea may be, when you present it to him view it tentatively; tell him as modestly as you can that you believe that the prosperity of the house should be as truly your concern as his; that both your fortunes are in the same boat; say frankly that you hope it may not seem presumptuous that you should seem to suggest reforms or changes, but that you are really interested in the success of the business, and it is this interest which must be blamed for any seeming intrusion on your part. Put it to him modestly; if he decides that the idea is not good, say you are sorry for having wasted his time, and get out as quickly as you can. Then go to work on another idea. When you carry this to him, if he negatives it also, make your excuses and ask him if there is any objection to your still studying and trying to plan out some method by which the business can be extended.”
In a general way, with a good deal more of explanation, I think I made him understand how he was to present, his idea, so that in no case would he be in danger of losing his position or the good will of the firm, by seeming to have their interests very closely at heart. Thirty days passed, and Mills came to me. His report was brief. With all his thinking, he had found no method by which the business of the firm could be extended even one hundred dollars a year. I then put him to work upon his second month’s labor, which was this: “ See whether you can discover any method by which, while losing no present advantage or trade, the firm can transact its present volume of business with greater economy, so that, by your improved methods of conducting the business, there shall be effected a saving of $50,000 a year; or $5000 a year; or $500 a year; or $50 a year!” I thought he drew a rather long breath as he left me to go to work for thirty days on this proposition; but he, more or less manfully, went through the second stage of his labors, and at the end of another thirty days he came back to me with his report. He had been able to discover no new method whereby the firm could economize on its present system. He had, however, discovered one thing, namely, that he would not need to go ahead for another thirty days with our experiment, for he had about made up his mind that he would continue where he was.
I said to him, “ So Mills, you don’t care for any more of my advice ? Well, this time I am going to give it to you, without your wanting it. My boy, just realize for one moment where you stand. With the enormous volume of clothing business which is being done, and with the undoubled expansion which can be effected, you are not able, though you have worked three years in this house, to increase the volume of this business one hundred dollars a year; with the elaborate and necessarily wasteful methods in which that great business is transacted, you are not near enough to it to be able to point out a better system in any department whereby the small sum of fifty dollars a year may be saved. Now, Mills, let me give you a last word of advice, and it is valuable advice. My boy, lie low! Attract just as little attention to yourself as you can. Don’t let the proprietors or manager remember that you have been three years in their employ, if you can help it. You are an absolutely unproductive man. If they knew how little capable you are of development and progress, they would change you off to-morrow for some young man of greater promise. Lie low, my boy. Keep out of prominence as much as you can, and go down on your knees to-night and thank God that you have got a situation where you are paid all that you are worth. I don’t mean that you are a bit inferior to thousands of other young men who are in the stores and wholesale houses in this city; but you, like them, are simply sitting upon the head of the one brainy man who sits in the counting-room. He has to solve all these problems. You and fifty others in your establishment are just sitting on top of his head, like so many dead weights. If the business prospers you expect a raise of salary, when it is his head-work that has gained every inch of the progress. He has to carry you all.”
The young man went off, sadder and wiser than he came. For the five years thereafter in which I was able to follow his course, he held the same place and at the same salary. Now, in a last word, what was the object of this experiment? Of course, I did n’t expect that this boy was going to revolutionize the clothing trade. It was simply to find out whether he had in him any imagination which he could employ in his business. I was willling to stake my prediction of his fate on the result of that one question, and I think the years have shown that I was right.
If space permitted, it would be worth while to enumerate the great variety of problems which arise in business. To every one of these problems, imagination, if you will employ it, will open the door. If you want some day to relieve the tedium of a railroad journey by employing your imagination upon a test problem, let me give you one. It was the first client I ever had. Two young men in Indiana conceived the idea that there would be a fortune for them if they could secure a whale, load him on a large special car, and carry him over the United States, giving exhibitions in every town and city through which they passed, where their car could be side-tracked for one day, while the great fresh-water public saw the whale at twenty-five cents a head.
They investigated the idea thoroughly, found it practical, and put into the venture every last cent that both of them had saved. They had two elaborate cars constructed in the Pullman shops. They were built on the Pennsylvania Railroad pattern ; one was a car of extra length, with special appliances for switching, curves, etc., and was to hold the whale. The sides of the car let down, and served as an inclined platform upon which people could walk up and view the “ monster of the deep.” The other car was a hotel car, and contained bedrooms and living-rooms, accommodations for their families, business office, ticket-office, safe, etc. They were really fine cars, costing many thousands of dollars. They even went so far as to have all their printing prepared, giving a thrilling account of the capture of the whale, and every detail, discreetly omitting the mention of its exact size. Thousands and tens of thousands of posters, flyers, and circulars were printed, and then the two cars started from the Pullman works in the west, bound for Boston. They arrived in the Boston & Albany yards, where they were sidetracked while the two men went down to Nantucket to arrange for the purchase of the whale.
There is a recognized industry on the Atlantic coast in whales. The year before these young men arrived in Boston over forty whales had been caught and brought in to Nantucket. Any one capturing a whale, dead or alive, was enabled to dispose of it to an enterprising buyer in Nantucket, who stood always ready to purchase. These young men found, however, upon arriving at Nantucket, that no whale had been captured since they refused the last one, which had been landed in July,—ten weeks too early for their purposes. Usually the catch extends well into November, and they had counted upon the cold weather to help them in the first stages of their undertaking. But that year only fourteen whales had been caught, and although they waited in Nantucket until the season closed, no more whales appeared.
Without a cent of money, with their families on their hands, and with total assets amounting to two elaborate cars, the problem is to carry these young men through one year, making them earn enough to provide for all their necessities of life, including car-storage, and equip them in the fall of the following year with a large whale. That problem was solved; those two young men were kept alive, and their families supported, and one year later I saw the tail of a sixtyfive foot whale vanishing over the railroad tracks westward, where it eventually gladdened the hearts of thousands of wild and woolly Westerners at twentyfive cents a peep. I will not weary you now with an account of how it was done, but I recommend it as a pleasant little exercise for the imagination.
And now, shall we not all agree that there is a faculty which can accomplish in business such remedial and constructive work as we have been considering ? It is not enterprise, nor thrift, nor industry, nor sagacity, nor courage. Nor can all these qualities combined supply the place left vacant by the lack of imagination. They each have their value, and by any of these roads a man may win to success. But the faculty of which I now conceive MAKES HIM CAPABLE OF UNDERTAKING ANY BUSINESS! He may be a successful bootblack, or the able president of a bank, or the astute manager of a circus. He may fail, for the imagination which enables him to comprehend human nature in the aggregate does not necessarily enable him to understand it in the individual. He may know human nature, but not individual nature. Hence he may be a judge of methods, but not of men.
And now is any apology needed for these illustrations? To some readers, perhaps, they may seem sharp and shrewd, with a little flavor of the pavement. But business is intellectual warfare, a battle of wits, — in which one does not repulse solid shot with blank cartridges. It is not a theory, but a condition, which confronts the business man. He takes his medicine as he finds it compounded. It does n’t taste as he would like to have it, but no one asked him what he liked. He is n’t picnicking. He’s at war. He smiles through the bitter drink, and orders it up for the whole company when his turn comes!