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Alexander Turney Stewart – the genius who invented mail order sales

Irishman Alexander Turney Stewart was a retail pioneer who went on to revolutionise shopping in America and across the world, becoming fabulously rich in the process.

He was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, but his father died while he was a baby. His mother re-married and moved to America, leaving the young Stewart to be raised by his grandfather. He learnt the basics in business from working as a grocer in a local shop, but Stewart knew that the daily grind wasn’t for him and packed his bags to join his mother in New York.
Alexander Turney Stewart. Image copyright - Ireland Calling
He began working as a tutor to pay his way, but was saving to open his own shop. Stewart received a message from home that his grandfather had died and returned to attend the funeral. Stewart was pleased to discover that his grandfather had left him his entire estate, worth about $5,000.

Stewart used his inheritance to open his first shop

Stewart used the money to open his own shop in New York, selling Irish fabrics and goods. He quickly attained a regular stream of customers, partly because of his charm and salesmanship, but mainly because of the location of his store. He was far away from rivals selling similar goods, and had such good deals with the manufacturers, he was able to sell his merchandise significantly cheaper than anyone else.

Stewart soon had several shops but his real innovation came when he began taking mail orders and delivering goods by post. He received messages from women, who wanted to buy his fabrics but lived too far away to visit his store.

Stewart sent the goods to them, even paying the postage, with a request for payment to be sent back. The model immediately proved successful and soon Stewart had hired a team of people to handle and process his delivery service. The other major retail companies took note and began to imitate Stewart’s model.

Stewart continued to re-invest his profits and accrued several department stores and factories. He began to produce his own merchandise in order to drive the retail price down further, and employed thousands of people. He built the first Fifth Avenue mansion on 34th Street, as a home for his family.

Here is a quote from Alexander Turney Stewart that can still be used as a guide for retailers today:

“You will deal with ignorant, opinionated and innocent people. You will often have an opportunity to cheat them. If they could, they would cheat you, or force you to sell at less than cost. You must be wise, but not too wise. You must never actually cheat the customer, even if you can. You must make her happy and satisfied, so she will come back.”
Alexander Turney Stewart. Fifth Avenue Mansion on 34th Street. Image copyright - Ireland-Calling

Stewart began building Garden City for his workers

Turney Stewart’s empire continued to go from strength to strength. he began building a village called Garden City at Hempstead Plains, Long Island so that his employees would have somewhere affordable and comfortable to live with their families.

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Unfortunately, Stewart passed away before the project was completed. However, his affection for his employees was demonstrated after his death. Stewart had six members of staff that had worked for him for forty years, the surviving members of his first ever recruitment. He left each of them $250,000 (equivalent of around $5m today) in his will to thank them for their loyal service and hard work.

Stewart died as one of the richest men in New York, with an estimated fortune of around $50m.

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