In 1907, John Gillespie Bullock and Percy Glen Winnet opened Bullock’s at the corner of 7th & Broadway Streets in downtown Los Angeles. The two had worked at The Broadway and convinced Arthur Letts, Sr, founder of The Broadway to back them in this new retail venture targeting the more up-scale customer. The store grew over the years as it acquired buildings on 7th Street between Hill and Broadway; one of the buildings was a competing department store. In 1923, John Bullock and P. G. Winnet bought out Arthur Lett’s interest.
In 1929, the company opened its first branch store on Wilshire Boulevard. This luxury Art Deco designed store targed the wealthy as they moved to the nearby Hancock Park neighborhood from the downtown’s West Adams district. Later, the Bullock’s Wilshire store became a separate division within Bullocks. For years Bullock’s Wilshire merchandised the store in Palm Springs which only operated in the Fall, Winter, and Spring seasons. The Palm Springs store served the Hollywood community with winter homes in that area.
Bullock’s was known as a chain which targeted the better customer and provided unparalled customer service. The company had approximately 65 buyer/managers in each store until 1970. Up until then, the company believed that having buyers in each store for each department helped provide a localized assortment. However, it was hard for Bullock’s to buy from larger manufacturers as each store could not meet minimum quantity orders. The company did have exclusive relationships with key better vendors which helped it retain the better market position.
The third suburban store was opened in Pasadena (it was designed to be converted into a hotel if it did not succeed as a store). Later the chain continued to expand with stores in Westwood, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Ana, Torrance, Lakewood, San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, Las Vegas, Pheonix, and San Diego.
Bullock’s acquired I.Magnin & Company in 1944 to form Bullocks-Magnin. In 1964, publicly held Bullocks-Magnin was acquired by Federated Department Stores. This was a hostile takeover. P.G. Winnet, the founder, opposed the sale. His son-in-law, Walter Candy who was President, was for the sale and gathered support of the management team. Abe Fortes, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, was the attorney representing Federated. (Note: Bullock’s in Northern California was a separate division of Federated Department Stores.) This acquisition affected both Bullock’s and Federated for many years. First, many of the management team were protected for supporting Mr. Candy and the Federated acquisition so it was agreed that directional and management changes would not be made for five years. That is one of the key reasons Bullock’s did not convert to central merchandising until 1970. P.G. Winnet mostly continued working out of the Bullock’s-I Magnin offices but did visit stores and was known for pinning candy on sales people who he recognized as outstanding. Secondly, Federated was restricted from further growth through acquisition. The Justice Department was concerned that Federated was gaining too much share of the department store sector which at the time was the largest individual segment in the retail industry.
In 1988, Bullock’s was sold to the R.H.Macy Company as Federated was owned by Campeau and needed cash. As Macy’s-Atlanta took over merchandising, Bullock’s lost its better positioning. As I understand it, under Macy’s store gross margin production shrank dramatically. In 1995, Bullock’s name was formally changed to Macy’s. Now, all the Bullock’s sites are known as Macy*s or Bloomingdales since the R.H. Macy Company was acquired by Federated Department Stores.
Bullocks was known for:
- Merchandise assortments which trended towards better.
- Higher quality salespeople who were focused on customer service.
- Strong fashion presentation with upgraded and well-maintained stores.
- Special events.
What happened??? When Federated Department Stores acquired Bullock’s it was a leader in Southern California but was marginally profitable. As management changes were made the company became highly profitable and in a dominant market position because the company secured top merchandising talent, invested in systems, and had the capital from Federated Department Stores to upgrade facilities and to expand into new markets. The downtown store continued to slide as the market demographics changed, the Southern California transportation system collapsed, and as customers shopped more at shopping malls. Bullock’s flourished until Nordstrom’s entered the Southern California market. At that time, Bullock’s began losing some of its fashion edge as markdown programs were reduced with the intent of increasing profitability but in reality allowed fashion to become stale in comparison to Nordstrom’s. Bullock’s remained dominant but should never have allowed Nordstrom’s to gain a foothold in Southern California. (Note: Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s (Federated Department Stores) started with Bullock’s as a trainee. Keep in mind, the Bullock’s motto was….” to build a business which shall know no end”.
Today, the former downtown Bullock’s store building is divided between a St Vincents Jewelry Mart, a parking lot, and small retail stores. The Bullock’s Wilshire store now houses the Southwestern Law School. The Bullock’s Wilshire store is kept in its original Art Deco splendor and serves as a reminder of department store retailing in the grander days.
I started my retail career with Bullock’s. Although I grew up in Modesto, California, about 300 miles north of Los Angeles, I knew Bullock’s especially well. My mother was from Los Angeles. My grandmother used to knit infant clothing for Bullock’s downtown. My godmother, Ms. Paquita Machris, used to take me twice a year to Bullock’s Wilshire to pick out clothing. Her personal sales person, Ms. Dineen, met us at the MotorCourt and took us through the store followed by a lunch in the tea room where I enjoyed my first taste of Babas au Rhum. Years later, I always made sure Ms. Dineen was well taken care of as she had the largest sales book in the entire Bullock’s chain. I joined Bullock’s when I taught Statistics at U.S.C. I then became a part of the Personnel department in the corporate offices. I remained with Bullock’s until 1978 when I was recruited to Mervyn’s, a new publicly held company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
My collection of Bullock’s postards are shown below. If anyone has memories of Bullock’s I hope you will feel free to memorialize your memories in the Comments Section below. I know I have many friends and co-workers who are anxious to do so. You must receive my permission to copy or reprint any of these postcards.
The Tea Room…..
Bullock’s Wilshire – Opened 1929
Bullock’s Santa Ana
This placecard was provided to me by someone whose Great Aunt worked at Bullock’s and kept this placecard. She had Shirley Temple, Ma Kittle, and Bob Hope as customers. I have not verified the signature. Bullock’s, Bullock’s Wilshire, and Bullock’s Palm Spring served many of the Hollywood Stars!