The Story of Daniel Low
Starting with a little corner jewelry store he built a business known from Salem to the most remote islands of the sea
By Robert R. Updegrafe
Formerly Advertising Manager for Daniel Low & Co.
The business of Daniel Low & Co., jewelers and silversmiths, located at Salem, Massachusetts, is one of the most remarkable examples in American business history of how a business can be developed through the mails and expanded with the aid of advertising. The story of that development and expansion is as interesting as a fiction story, for it was quite by accident that Daniel Low became a world merchant.
It was back in the year 1867, before either the electric light or the telephone were known, and in the days when hoop skirts were the fashion, that Daniel Low opened a little jewelry store on the corner of Essex and Central streets, Salem. Essex Street was then and is to-day the main business street of the city. At that time Mr. Low had no dreams of a world-wide business. His business grew and he had to move to a larger store, but he was still a local jeweler, reasonably successful and prosperous, and enjoying the confidence of his fellow townsmen. To be sure, he drew business from outside of the city of Salem, for people from all parts of Essex County were wont to come to Salem to shop in those early days as they do to-day, and Daniel Low won his full share of their patronage in silverware and jewelry and diamonds and watches. In fact, I am told by folks who remember back to those early days that Daniel Low's was considered the jewelry store of that section. People came to think of Daniel Low's as a matter of course when they wished to buy gifts or articles for personal or household use. The young man brought his blushing sweetheart to be fitted with her engagement ring. Later he came for the gold band which was to symbolize so much to both of them. And their friends came to buy their wedding gifts for the young folks. In short, Daniel Low became an important part of the life of the community. But in spite of that he was merely a local jeweler, with no thought of going beyond his own geographical neighborhood for patronage. I go into this in such detail because I want to show that Mr. Low found himself, at the end of a few years, very comfortably fixed, with no special need for worrying about more business. He might have gone on for years as merely a successful retail merchant, increasing his business a little from year to year, but with never a thought of the giant business that was waiting to be developed. His was the sort of success that is calculated to lull a man to sleep. But Daniel Low, and his son, Seth Fred Low, whom he took into business with him when the latter finished his schooling, were ever on the alert for new ideas, and it is to their natural alertness that the development of this remarkable business owes its beginning.
In the year 1887 Mr. Low went abroad. Just at that time souvenir spoons were being introduced in various European cities. Their novelty and popularity gave Mr. Low a bright idea. Why not make a Witch Spoon as a souvenir of Salem and the witchcraft delusion? The more he thought of this Witch Spoon the more it appealed to him. Upon his return home he talked the idea over with his son and the latter worked out a Witch design, the first souvenir spoon to be made in America, as far as it has been possible to ascertain, suggestive of a particular place. This in itself is proof of Mr. Low's imagination and aggressiveness. He saw an opportunity and he grasped it; he put his idea to work. A thousand spoons were made up and the new Witch Spoon became popular at once. Tourists and vacationists visiting the store (it has always done a big business with the residents of the exclusive North Shore summer colony) bought the Spoons to take or send to their friends. They were mailed to all parts of the country, and even to foreign countries. But even yet Mr. Low had no thought of developing a national or international business. In fact, the Witch Spoon was regarded pretty much as a novelty and the whole souvenir spoon-collecting idea as a fad that would pass. But in order to make the most of it while it lasted, Mr. Low and his son designed other Witch Spoons and Witch souvenir articles in silver for people to add to their collections. Then, one day, an advertising man –I believe the advertising manager of Century Magazine–happened into the store, driven in by a rainstorm. As he stood inside the door, waiting for the storm to pass over, he and Daniel Low fell to talking and he asked Mr. Low why he didn't advertise the Witch Spoon in the magazines. Mr. Low was rather interested, but didn’t take the idea very seriously. However, such was his caller's enthusiasm that he halfway promised him that he would stop in and talk the matter over further the next time he came to New York. A few weeks later Mr. Low and his son were in New York, and they did call on the gentleman and discuss the idea, with the result that they decided to “gamble” on a three quarter-page advertisement in Century, costing $87.50. As they left the magazine office Mr. Low turned to his son and remarked, “Well, there's $87.50. thrown away!".
But he was wrong, as he learned soon after the magazine was out, for orders for the Witch Spoon began to pour in to the little Salem jewelery store, which had by now out grown its birthplace and moved to larger quarters on Salem's most prominent corner. The factory making the spoons was pressed to the limit to turn out spoons fast enough to fill Daniel Low's orders.
Before that ad stopped "pulling" it had sold nearly fifteen hundred Witch Spoons at either a dollar or a dollar-and-a-half apiece! If such returns from a mail-order advertisement were possible today so many mail-order businesses would spring up and clamor for space that our magazines would have to be published in volumes as thick as an unabridged dictionary !
After several months it occurred to Mr. Low that it would be a good idea to get up a little leaflet showing the various styles of Witch Spoons (only the first design was illustrated in the advertisement) and send it to the people who had ordered from the magazine advertisement. This was done. That little leaflet of but a few pages was really the first Daniel Low catalogue, and marked the real beginning of Daniel Low's mail-order business. So successful was the leaflet that it was decided to issue a more comprehensive folder the next year to show, in addition to the various Witch Spoons–which still retained a large measure of their popularity– some articles of jewelry and some other pieces of silver. The halftone process had not been invented at that time, so wood-cut illustrations were used. The second catalogue was so successful that Daniel Low decided to get out a catalogue every fall, just before the Christmas season. Advertisements were run in several magazines, featuring the Witch Spoons and other novelties and offering to send the catalogue free of charge upon request. Thus, from the very first, magazine advertising was used to attract patrons, not only by offering merchandise for sale direct from the page, but by volunteering to send an illustrated catalogue to any interested person who would ask for it. It should be noted here that at the very outset Mr. Low made three very wise decisions: First, he would prepay the postage or express on every order, and he would not sell articles which were so heavy that he could not do this and make a profit on the sale. Second, he would absolutely guarantee satisfaction and would, if requested, refund the purchaser's
money promptly and without question or bickering.
Third, he would sell only such merchandise as he knew was honestly made and excellent value for the price.
To these three fundamentals, and to the fact that he advertised aggressively but with notable honesty and restraint, the wonderful success of the business may be attributed. Though, come to think of it, there is one other very important element–the ceaseless search for the new and novel in merchandise. Through the Daniel Low Year Book many articles have been introduced from abroad, others have been revived, and many little-known articles have been popularized. This phase of the business will be touched on at greater length later in this article. It might be permissible to anticipate right here, though, and state that many a manufacturer with a new or novel piece of merchandise to market considers it pretty well along the road to success if he can get it featured in the Daniel Low catalogue. To continue, the Daniel Low catalogue, or “Year Book” as it was called later, grew from year to year, with new lines added from time to time, until it reached its present size of from 200 to 230 pages. Size of the catalogue is 6 3/4 X 9 1/2. Little space is wasted on margins, for every tiny fraction of an inch has been proved to be valuable in such a catalogue.
Starting with a few cuts of Witch Spoons in the first leaflet, the catalogue has grown until the present Year Book illustrates more than ten thousand individual items, including diamonds, watches, gold, silver and platinum jewelry, table and toilet silver in both sterling and plate, leather goods, desk furnishings, smoking sets, cutlery, glassware, clocks, umbrellas, fountain pens, hand baggage, stationery, and an infinite variety of odd and novel things so popular for gift purposes. To this day no merchandise is shown that is too heavy to be sold on a basis of prepaying the postage or express.
And always the idea of very careful buying to make possible very reasonable prices has been a guiding principle of the business.
As the business developed it became evident that a once-a-year catalogue was not entirely adequate to cover the business of the entire year, so for a number of years a wedding supplement of from 16 to 32 pages has been issued each spring, featuring wedding silver, wedding engraving, graduation gifts, and the new things in jewelry and the novelty lines. While it is doubtful if this spring supplement actually pays for itself in direct sales, it undoubtedly pays in a broad way by keeping the Daniel Low family of customers reminded of the firm's existence and readiness to serve them on any occasion. And it is a fact worthy of note that sales from the Year Book are stimulated as soon as the spring supplement has been in the mails long enough to reach customers. The mail-order end of the Daniel Low business has gradually developed until it is now larger than the retail business. To-day the tail wags the dog! But the retail store has developed, too, and occupies a large store on Salem's most prominent corner. It offers an excellent merchandising laboratory to determine what will be worth showing in the catalogue, and at the same time it provides an outlet for overstocks of catalogue merchandise.
Mention has been made of the policy of introducing new things to the public in the Daniel Low Year Book and of the revival of interesting old things. While it is not practicable to give a list of the things that owe their vogue to this Year Book, one or two instances will suffice to illustrate the working out of this Daniel Low merchandising alertness.
Perhaps one of the best examples is the introduction of Parisian Ivory into this country. Seth F. Low was traveling in France some years ago and he heard of a little factory outside of Paris that was making toilet ware, such as brushes, combs, soap dishes, etc., in an attractive new material resembling ivory. He went out to this factory and at once saw the sales possibilities of this new toilet ware and placed a big order for catalogue stock for the next fall. This catalogue showing marked the introduction of Parisian Ivory toilet ware to America, and it was months before even the most progressive stores or other merchandising organizations had any Parisian Ivory to offer their customers. By the time Parisian Ivory became common and its manufacture in this country was under way the Daniel Low business had." enjoyed two or three seasons of very large and profitable sales, and at the same time had added to its reputation for offering the new and novel in merchandise while still new and novel.
Another example, this time a revival, was the case of the old-fashioned sewing-bird, a device used by our grandmothers, consisting of a little bird surmounting a clamp, both made of metal and silver plated, which clamps firmly on the edge of a table. One end of a piece of sewing is gripped firmly in the bird's mouth, which is kept closed by a very stiff spring, making it possible to draw the piece of sewing tight with the left hand, leaving the right free for basting or sewing. Mr. Low happened to think of this old bird one day and at once took steps to have a quantity made up and featured in the Year Book. Thousands of these little sewing birds have been sold as a result. It is just such little out-of-the-ordinary articles that people are always looking for, especially at Christmas time, for gifts. And the introduction of so many of them through the Daniel Low catalogues has given the business an enviable reputation for shopping helpfulness.
It would surprise the average advertising man, I believe, to go through a day's mail at Daniel Low's. I have done it many times, and I must admit that it is always a surprise to me to see the character of customers that a high-grade mail-order business can draw.
For instance, I recall one year a Christmas order from the daughter of the then President of the United States who was away at school. And the next year came a large order from the wife of the Secretary of State, who has long been a regular Daniel Low customer. And several orders are received every year from the families of United States Senators and Representatives, who had learned to deal with Daniel Low back home before they ever had Congressional ambitions.
Orders from governors of States and mayors of cities are not at all uncommon, nor are orders from men and women of considerable prominence in many other walks of life. Many of the orders and much of the correspondence is on fine diestamped stationery. Of course, there are orders written in lead pencil on the cheapest kind of cheap paper (the kind we kids used to buy in tablets about two inches thick for five cents) by people who can scarcely scrawl their names. But such orders are rather the exception than the rule at Daniel Low's.
Study of the Daniel Low business develops many interesting things concerning human nature and buying.
For one thing, the Daniel Low Year Book demonstrates pretty clearly that no matter what you do, you can't get the public as a whole to shop for Christmas–even by mail where the orders have to be sent a great distance to be filled — before Thanksgiving Day.
Seemingly people can't be made to realize that Christmas is coming until Thanksgiving comes along and they begin to get the holiday spirit. On Thanksgiving Day families gather and they talk things over and ask each other what they want for Christmas, and if they have catalogues handy they look through them and begin to plan their shopping. For this reason it is always aimed to get the Daniel Low Year Book in every home on the list by Thanksgiving Day. And for this reason also, it is a very serious matter to mail-order houses dealing in gift merchandise that Thanksgiving comes so late in November, for it crowds the buying period into too few weeks. In fact, the one big drawback to such a business as Daniel Low's is the fact that an unbelievably large percentage of its total year's business has to be crowded into about four or five 'weeks at Christmas. And there is really nothing effective that can be done about it, either, for gifts are gifts and they are bought only at gift times. Which leads to another interesting fact that a study of this business develops, as does probably every other similar mail-order business, regarding the public and its buying habits: All sorts of special booklets, such as booklets of birthday gifts, Easter remembrances, graduation gifts, anniversary gifts, and the like, have been issued from time to time, but they are always more or less of a disappointment judged strictly from a sales standpoint, for they almost invariably prove that, with the exception of Christmas, and to some extent weddings, people will not anticipate gift occasions long enough ahead to order from a mail-order house unless they live in some place so remote from any shopping facilities that they have to buy everything by mail.
Theoretically special booklets and catalogues should work out profitably, but practically they seldom do, for people wait until the last minute before birthdays and anniversaries and graduations and then rush to the nearest store and hastily buy their gift. Which is all right for the nearest store but doesn't help to pay the printer's bill for a special catalogue of birthday or anniversary or graduation gifts.
Still another interesting sidelight on the public as a buying aggregation is the fact that some of the best orders come from large cities. Daniel Low often used to remark that mail-order buyers are just naturally born mail-order buyers, and this statement seems to be proved by the number of really substantial orders received by the company from people in cities where there are splendid jewelry establishments. I have seen an order for a diamond ring from Forty-second Street, New York City, in the Daniel Low mail. Seemingly some folks can't help buying by mail, while others can’t be induced to under any circumstances.
Many people wonder how Daniel Low managed to build up such a high-grade clientele for a mail-order business.
Well, there are two ways and several reasons. Several of the reasons have been given already, and more will follow.
As for the two ways, the first is by making his Salem store so attractive that it is talked about and visited by nearly everybody who visits or vacations along the North Shore, for which Salem is a natural shopping centre. People are fascinated with the store and its values and unusual variety of gift merchandise and they discover that through the Daniel Low Year Book they can shop very conveniently in that store whenever they want to, wherever they are.
But most of the big Daniel Low mailing list has been developed by advertising in the better magazines. Every fall a considerable advertising campaign is run in the national magazines featuring the catalogue, which is sent free, and generally offering for sale various articles of merchandise which give a little idea of the character of the business and the novelties and values to be found in the Year Book.
The space has varied from year to year, from five inches single column to full pages, and even on one or two occasions a double spread, in magazines of large circulation. Generally, the women's publications are favored, though at times advertisements have been addressed to both men and women, and occasionally copy has been run in so-called “men’s mediums” addressed strictly to men.
In all of their advertising and in their catalogues and booklets, Daniel Low and his son, Seth F. Low, have been careful at all times to describe the merchandise honestly and truthfully. Where some men might be tempted to make extravagant claims, arguing that they were justified in doing so because they would return the customer's money if he or she were not perfectly satisfied, the Lows, both father and son, have always felt that the only honest thing to do is to describe their merchandise truthfully and picture it honestly (yes, pictures can lie!) in all of their advertising and direct mail literature. This moderation of claim, and the resulting fact that patrons of Daniel Low & Co. are so often very agreeably surprised to find an article even better than they imagined it, are two more of the reasons why the Daniel Low mailing list is made up of such substantial people, who year after year continue to send their orders to this Massachusetts city.
The fact that so large a part of the whole year's business has to be done in a few weeks furnishes a very difficult labor problem, for from a normal force of something like 120 during the year, the working force has to be jumped within less than a month during November to from 500 to 600 workers, and then automatically–and suddenly– reduced again directly after Christmas.
To make this possible without throwing the business all out of kilter and having the utmost confusion, just at the time when confusion would absolutely wreck the business, has taken a great deal of study and experiment.
In the first place the system of filling the orders had to be made as simple as it possibly could be made, and the order forms had to be made practically foolproof. And then the whole business had to be so organized that, with the permanent working force as a nucleus to direct, the system could be expanded quickly as the peak approached and contracted just as quickly, and without a jar, on the 26th of December. For it can be readily understood that without such an elastic system, permitting of a small pay-roll ten months out of the year, there would be little or no profit left at the end of the year. This carefully planned system should be mentioned as one of the important factors in the success of the Daniel Low business. And indeed, so important is an elastic and fool-proof system to the success of any seasonal mail-order business that the best brains of the business should be devoted to watching and constantly simplifying the system of filling and handling the orders and stock and answering the correspondence.
Another part of the internal system that has been worked out with painstaking care and much burning of midnight oil is the stock record system which shows at a glance just how much stock is on hand of any given article at any hour of the day, any day in the year. Such a system is absolutely necessary in connection with such a business to enable the department heads to order intelligently and keep the stock from running out just when the business is at its height, and when it is often too late to reorder in time to get the merchandise in time to fill Christmas orders.
A system of visible index cards is used for this purpose. All stock is entered on these cards as ordered and marked as received when the goods come in. As the stock is taken out to fill orders it is checked off these cards, so that at a glance it is possible at any time to see four things that are of vital importance:
Amount of stock ordered, with dates of orders; amount of stock received, with dates; amount of stock sold; amount of stock on hand.
In addition, these record cards show the name of the firm from which each article is purchased, the cost price and the selling price.
During the busy season they are gone over by the department heads every day, and sometimes twice a day, and orders are written up for articles that threaten to run out.
So proficient are some of the department heads from long experience that they can often tell from the number of orders received during the first week or two after the catalogues are out in people's hands just about what the season's business will be on many items. They are thus often able to anticipate the demand in placing their reorders so as not to run short or not to finish the season with a large overstock.
From that day in 1867 when Daniel Low opened his first little store on the corner of Essex and Central streets, until the present, the Daniel Low business has grown steadily, and it has always been and is now strictly a family business. Seth F. Low, who designed the first Witch Spoon at his father's suggestion, is now the active president of the company, Daniel Low having died in 1911.
Source: Printers' Ink Monthly - 1919