Rowland Hussey Macy

By: Mick Yates

Rowland Hussey Macy was born in 1822 on Nantucket Island, in Massachusetts. His family were Quakers and seafarers, and it was thus not surprising that, at age fifteen, he made his first trip working on a whaling ship, the Emily Morgan. It was also at this time that he had a red star tattooed on his hand – which eventually became the famous Macy’s store logo. However, seafaring was not his destiny – and it was his last such trip.

His entrepreneurial spirit led him in to printing and gold speculation, but he settled on retailing and opened four different dry goods stores in Haverhill Massachusetts over the period 1843 – 1855. It seems all failed, but they gave him very useful experience. During this time, he married Louisa Houghton in 1844, and had two children, Rowland Hussey Macy, Jr. and Florence Macy.

It was only in 1858, with the opening of the R.H. Macy's store at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in New York City that his retailing business really got off the ground. His store had just 11 feet of frontage, and his first first day’s sales were $11.06. At some point Macy’s original dry goods store morphed into a true department store, and became a model for the format. Macy’s combined merchandise breadth (such as furs, china, toys, jewellery, books, stationary, candy, silks and much more), licensees, famous brands and a sophisticated shopping experience. The first store later expanded into 18th Street and Broadway, known as the “Ladies' Mile", the elite shopping district of New York in the 19th century.

Macy was a major innovator in the industry, with revolutionary ideas such as fixed prices - in which items were sold at the same price to every customer (rather than be bargained for) and were advertised as such in newspapers. The store instituted a cash-only policy not only for customers but for himself as well. No Macy's inventory was purchased on credit, and no Macy's credit account was issued until well into the 1950s. This was unusual in a day when most stores routinely sold on credit. In the marketing arena, Macy’s produced more newspaper advertisements than larger competitors like Lord and Taylor, and were quick to introduce new products such as tea bags, the Idaho baked potato and coloured bath towels.  Macy’s were first to introduce an in-store Santa Claus, much to children’s delight, and the store created elaborate, illuminated holiday displays.  And Macy's was also the first major retailer to hold a New York City liquor license. Finally, it seems that Macy was the first big retailer in America to promote a woman, Rowland's cousin Margaret Getchell, to an executive position (in 1866, as General Superintendent).

In 1875, Macy took on two partners, Robert Valentine and Abiel La Forge (Margaret's husband). But he died just two years later (in Paris) in 1877 – and both partners also died within the following two years. Margaret never became a full partner, and Macy's son was not right to run the business, so Charles Webster took it over (the husband of the widow of Robert Valentine). But things did not go as well, so in 1893, R. H. Macy & Co. was acquired by the Straus brothers, who previously were licensees inside the original Macy's store. Under their leadership the business prospered. The flagship store moved, in 1902, to Herald Square, enabling Macy’s to eventually lay claim to having the world’s biggest store. Macy's underwent much expansion during the 1920s and 1930s, and the company went public in 1922.

In 1986 Edward Finkelstein, Chairman & CEO of Macy’s led a leveraged buy-out of the company, and subsequently engaged in a takeover battle for Federated Stores, but lost. Macy’s was then subject to varying trading conditions and iteration of management, and in 1992 filed for bankruptcy. In 1994, after some difficult negotiations, Macy’s became part of Federated Stores. In 2005 Federated bought May Department stores, and converted the 330 stores they owned to the Macy’s brand (including their Marshall Fields stores). Subsequently the group changed its name to Macy’s Inc, and has rebranded almost all their stores across the USA to Macy’s. Whilst this sometimes led to negative local publicity, it has been done with a view to using the strength of the Macy’s brand across the country.

Rowland Macy thus has left a unique leadership and innovation footprint across an entire industry.