Scenario on 34th Street

Recognizing the Value of Making It Easy for Customers Since 1947

January 4, 2007

A holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street” surprisingly includes emphatic support of making it easy for customers to achieve their desired outcomes.


Miracle on 34th Street

Around the holidays, there is always the great debate: what’s the best holiday movie ever? Although I have a great fondness for “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947), “A Christmas Story” (1983), and “Holiday Inn” (1942), (not to mention “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964), my personal favorite has always been “Miracle on 34th Street.” For the uninitiated, the Wikipedia entry for the film states:

Miracle on 34th Street ” is a 1947 film which tells the story of a gentle old man, working as a Santa Claus at Macy's department store in New York City, who contends that he is the real Santa.

Even more, the movie is about generosity of spirit and learning to trust and believe. I smile just thinking about it.

Imagine my delight to discover that American Movie Classics network was running a marathon showing of the movie on December 24th (alternating between the original black and white version, for the purists, and the colorized version). As I wrapped presents, talked to friends, and generally got ready for some holiday cheer, I caught bits and pieces of my old favorite throughout the day.

A Customer’s Dilemma

About the third time the movie showed, I managed to catch some early scenes that stopped me in my tracks. About 10 minutes into the film, a young boy named Peter sits on Macy’s Santa’s lap and rapidly tells him (all in a single breath):

“I want a fire engine just like the big ones, only smaller, and has real hoses that squirt real water. I won’t do it in the house. I’ll only do it in the back yard, I promise.”

His mother, played by the marvelous character actress, Thelma Ritter, whispers to Santa (Edmund Gwynn in his academy award winning role), “Macy’s ain’t got any, nobody’s got any.”

Even so, Santa tells the boy, “Peter, I can tell you’ve been a good boy. You’ll get your fire engine.”

The mother launches into a short tirade, the gist of which is, “What’s the matter with you? …fine thing promising the kid.”

“Oh,” responds Macy’s Santa, “you don’t think I would have said that unless I was sure, do you? You can get those fire engines, at Schoenfeld’s on Lexington Avenue. Only $8.50--a wonderful bargain.”

“Schoenfeld’s? I don’t get it.”

Santa: “I keep track of the toy market very closely, does that surprise you so?”

“Surprise me? Macy’s sending people to other stores? You kidding me?”

“The only important thing is to make the children happy. Whether Macy or somebody else sells the toy doesn’t make any difference. Don’t you feel that way?”

“Huh? Me? Oh yeah sure. Only I didn’t know Macy’s did.”

Traditional Corporate Reaction

The head of the toy department overhears Santa telling another parent:

“Your little girl would like some skates. But of course you must get her the best, because of their little ankles you know... Now we’ve got skates and they’re very good too. But they’re not quite good enough. You go to Gimbels. They’ll have exactly what you want.”

The toy department chief is reeling! Gimbels was Macy’s biggest (and fierce) competitor! As he is about to march over to our beloved Santa and read him the riot act, Thelma Ritter, as Peter’s mom, stops him:

“I want to congratulate you and Macy’s on this wonderful new stunt you’re pulling. Imagine sending people to other stores. I don’t get it. Imagine a big outfit like Macy’s putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial… It’s wonderful. I tell you, I’ve never done much shopping here before, but I’ll tell you one thing. From now on I’m gonna be a regular Macy’s customer!”

Enlightened Corporate Reaction

Of course, Mr. Macy, founder and president of Macy’s chain of department stores, hears about all this. Instead of firing Santa, as you would expect in 1947, or 1997, or even today in some unenlightened organizations, Mr. Macy recognizes the importance of helping customers successfully achieve their scenario goals--in this case, getting the right gifts for their children for the holidays. And he recognizes the potential value to his business of making it easy for customers to get what they want.

I’ll let Mr. Macy’s words speak for themselves:

“In the face of this tremendous response on the part of the public, I can’t be angry… I admit that on the face of it, this plan sounds idiotic and impossible. Imagine, Macy’s Santa Claus sending customers to Gimbels. But you cannot argue with success.

“Look at this, telegrams, messages, telephone calls, the governor’s wife, the mayors wife, over 500 thankful parents expressing undying gratitude to Macy’s. Never in my entire career have I seen such a tremendous and immediate response to a merchandising policy. And I’m positive that if we expand our policy, we’ll expand our results as well.

“Therefore, from now on, not only will our Santa Claus continue in this manner, but I want every sales person in this store to do precisely the same thing. If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants, we’ll send him where he can get it. No high pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. …We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart. The store that places public service ahead of profits. And consequently we’ll make more profits than ever before!”

What more could I say?

We hope your holidays were joyous, and we wish you all a happy, healthy, prosperous, and peaceful new year!

The Original Poster for Miracle on 34th Street
Illustration 1. The movie, available on DVD, also features a 7 year old Natalie Wood. I recommend the film, not only for it’s customer-centricity, but just because it ’s a great movie!

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