Edward A. Filene, Department Store Visionary

Edward Albert Filene (1860-1937) entered retailing through his father's dry goods and clothing store in Boston. After his father's death, he became president of the company, William Filene's & Sons, specializing in women's fashions. A noted business theorist and visionary, he innovated in a number of directions, for example, by pursuing enlightened employee relations and applying principles of scientific management to business. (INTRO NOTE Taylorism)

Filene experimented with market segmentation, the implementation in the market of buying opportunities at many different income levels, by opening Filene's Basement in 1902. There, in the lower level of his mainstream store, were sold marked-down goods appealing both to shoppers of modest income and to anyone looking for bargains. (INTRO NOTE Retailing) By 1912, Filene's was the largest specialty store in the world, occupying a full city block in downtown Boston.

In the early 1920s, the store's Clothing Information Bureau began a campaign to educate consumers about color. With the help of a color chart that the store developed, clothing experts at Filene's demonstrated to the customer the colors she should and should not wear. Interest in the "color readings" became so keen that in early 1924, the company published the "Colorscope" for general use. The chart was hailed as a great advance in the education of the general buying public with regard to color and its application to clothing purchases.

Filene's innovations in employee management included paid employee vacations, a minimum wage for women workers, and the establishment of the Filene Employees Credit Union, which influenced the development of the credit union movement throughout the country. In 1919 Filene established the Cooperative League of Boston, which in the following year became known as the Twentieth Century Fund, a research group that studied social trends in the United States.

In the speech "The Present Status and Future Prospects of Chains of Department Stores" (1927), Filene argued that the growth of chain stores was irreversible, the inevitable byproduct of the age's movement toward mass production and mass consumption. In the face of many who thought that the chains were still a topic of debate, that is, a debatable proposition, Filene countered that the only thing to do was to adopt their efficient methods or be driven out of business by them.

And in the full-length, semi-autobiographical The Way Out: A Forecast of Coming Changes in American Business and Industry (1924), not included in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection, Filene devoted chapters to Mass Production, Mass Distribution, the War on Waste, and "Fordizing America," concluding with astute observations on the difficulties potentially posed for an enlightened businessman by his own temperament.

In the Bernays Typescript on Edward Filene, the famous public relations counsel Edward L. Bernays speaks his mind about the Boston business visionary.


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