By David Sher
Never did I expect that I would have a soft-spot in my heart for a department store.
I don’t remember much about shopping with my mom when I was a child, but there is one incident that’s etched into my brain.
One day my mom took me downtown to buy a pair of shoes at Parisian. In those days, there were no suburban shopping centers. We all shopped downtown.
Parisian’s shoe department was located on one of the upper floors.
I’m pretty sure the elevators at that time were not automated. Parisian had an elevator operator who called out the number of each floor and then gave a short description of the merchandise.
After the elevator operator announced the floor for children’s shoes, a salesman greeted us at the door and walked us over to some kind of large metal contraption. He told me to place my feet into the bottom of the contraption. An X-ray of my feet displayed across the screen that showed the bones of my feet and an outline of the shoes around them. There was no need for the salesman to feel my toes from outside the shoe. You could see everything, bones and all, in great detail.
It was the coolest thing ever!
However, the next time we went to buy shoes, the machine was gone. I suspect X-raying feet of young children was not a great idea. I guess no one knew much about radiation then.
My family continued to shop at the downtown Parisian until the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when Parisian opened stores in Five Points West, Vestavia Hills, and Eastwood Mall.
When I got married, my wife shopped mostly at the Parisian at Eastwood Mall. She would buy way more than I thought we needed and when I complained, she would respond, “Don’t worry, they’ll take anything back.” I’m not really sure how much merchandise she returned, but I was wise enough not to ask.
The Parisian merchandise return policy was quite simple–Parisian took every purchase back, no questions asked. I even heard, on occasion, they would take back merchandise that was purchased elsewhere.
“You’re Somebody Special” was the message that Parisian communicated to customers.
The goal was to keep the customer happy. Gift-wrapping was free and shipping was free on major gift giving holidays. Customers were offered a dual option charge account: a 6- month interest free credit plan, or a 12- month credit with interest plan, and Parisian had a ‘real’ sale twice-a-year called ‘Bargain Days.’
I had a favorite salesperson at the Parisian Eastwood mall store. His name was Theopolis Jones, but some folks called him Boots. He was an African-American salesperson at a time when there were very few African-American salespeople. My children still remember Sarah Moore, who sold clothes to my wife for them from birth though high school.
Both Theo and Sarah knew their customers by name and remembered everything about them–as did the other sales associates. (Parisian called their employees ‘associates.’)
I once asked Theo how that was possible.
He told me all sales associates had call books with vital information about their customers: dates of birthday, anniversary, family etc.… and a record of their purchases. He said they were required to call customers to recognize their special dates and to tell them about newly arrived merchandise that might interest them. He said they built relationships with their customers.
But equally as important was that Parisian was a locally owned family business. The company was owned and managed by the Hess family (Emil and Donald), and the Abroms family (Hal). Emil Hess (Donald’s dad) was Chairman and was the leader and moral compass.
The philanthropy and civic leadership provided by the Hess and Abroms family is historic and continues today.
Our big retailers today are Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and Target.
But we don’t have the same special relationship with these large retailers as we had with Parisian and its owners.
That’s why I have a soft-spot in my heart for this ‘old’ Birmingham department store.
Editor’s note: Emil Hess passed away in 1996. Donald, his son, and Hal Abroms continue to live in Birmingham. Hal is 95 years old.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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