01 April 2011

How the "Cohen Brothers" Changed Retail in the South

Yesterday, while doing some cleaning, I came across some things I had read and wanted to throw up on the blog. So, here is one of them: coming from Stephen J. Whitfield's "The Missing Piece: Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South" in the Fall 2009 AJS Perspectives, wherein he discusses something rather fascinating - Jewish retailers "modernizing" the American South. Whitfield writes that "Jacob Cohen may have been the first merchant in the South to put price tags on merchandise" in Jacksonville, Florida, which "even if the claim was inflated or apocryphal, Cohen Brothers helped to scuttle the barter system that had been customary before the twentieth century."
Whitfield continues that both the
company and its imitators thus activated transactions of trust between the customers and the sales force, and helped to reduce the power of the unscrupulous, there’s-one-born-every-minute hucksters. Eventually, instead of haggling and bargaining, came the assurance and the probity of “satisfaction guaranteed,” based on fixed prices and the right of customers to return what they had purchased and to get their money back.
Eventually, other stores tried to keep up and compete, causing other stores to follow in their footsteps. Thus, change occurred on a larger level for retail stores in the South:
The department stores and the specialty stores encouraged a consumerist ethos that would eventually bury the agrarian tradition that had so decisively shaped the mind of the South. The balance sheets on which the merchant princes depended can be understood as the death warrants of the old order. Such tradesmen helped their neighbors cultivate a taste for the products of the modern world, and thus altered the atmosphere of towns.

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