Sunday, January 2, 2022

Recalling a Retail Prince, Caldor's Carl Bennett

There was a time when retailing was populated by merchant princes, executives who imprinted their tastes and personalities on their stores and chains. Geraldine Stutz at Henri Bendel. Ed Finklestein at Macy’s. Marvin Traub at Bloomingdale’s. Stanley Marcus at Neiman Marcus. Even discount stores had personalities. Charles Lazarus at Toys “R” Us. Sam Walton at Walmart. Carl Bennett at Caldor.

I’m waxing nostalgic if not euphoric about retailing—my editorial beat for 32 years at Chain Store Age—because as I was leafing through The New York Times while eating breakfast Sunday morning I spotted Carl Bennett’s picture above a long death notice. He died December 23. He was 101.

I don’t say “long” in a negative way, because Bennett deserved every word ( 

Before the world of discount store retailing shrunk into basically Walmart and Target, Caldor was one of a handful of New England-based companies that defined the concept. They included Zayre, Ames, Kings, Mars, Bradlees and Caldor. Most of them were bargain basement affairs, with little attention given to store atmospherics.

Caldor was different. Bennett demanded clean, well-maintained stores. Unlike other retailers, he placed public restrooms near the entrance. He knew customers appreciated the convenience and would reward Caldor with time and money spent in the merchandise aisles.

Those aisles brimmed with product. In the event a product on sale sold out, a raincheck for the reduced price was provided.

 No matter how hard he and his team tried, Caldor never was able to get its soft lines sales above around 30 percent because its hard lines business of trend-setting housewares, home furnishings and other staples, overseen by general merchandise manager Luke Kirby, ably competed against department stores, so much so that one Wall Street analyst dubbed Caldor “the Bloomingdale’s of discounting.” 

Bennett was an exacting executive. A real-life finger jabber. To emphasize a point he would thump your torso with his middle finger. Woe to the employee who would shield his body with folded arms. 

My favorite Bennett stories involved his intense dedication to excellence, even if it meant publicly shaming an offender. Perhaps, not the most woke management style, but very effective. 

Each week Caldor ran a multi-page advertising insert in local newspapers. Buyers had to forward their weekly selections to the advertising department. 

One week the housewares buyer missed the printing deadline. A blank space was not to be countenanced, so management picked a different item to fill the allotted spot in the insert. 

Bennett had a special run of the insert printed just for headquarters staff. Instead of featuring the replacement item, it carried white space with printed text that the housewares buyer failed to meet his deadline. It didn’t happen again.

Buyers also were responsible for accurately planning sales of featured products. Retailing is not an exact science, but vastly missing one’s forecast was not acceptable to Bennett.

One week Caldor had to issue an extraordinary number of rain checks to disappointed customers. Next payday, as everyone checked their pay envelopes, the miscalculating buyer found a rain check in his envelope instead of a paycheck. 

As he stomped around the office, Bennett confronted him. “If you give my customers rain checks, you get a rain check,” Bennett was reported to have told him. I always visualize Bennett poking his finger into the buyer’s chest as he did so. 

Of course, the real paycheck was provided. But Bennett made his point. 

For those who didn’t read the death notice, Carl Bennett and his wife, Dorothy, named the company Caldor by combining three letters from each of their names. They reversed the order, Dorcal, for their real estate company which owned many of the sites on which Caldor stores were erected.