Marshall Field? Harry Gordon Selfridge? John Wanamaker? César Ritz? Anonymous?
The customer is always right.
The customer is never wrong.
Do you know who created this motto?
Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI and fellow researcher Barry Popik appeared in an article about the retailer Marshall Field of Chicago that was published in “The Boston Sunday Herald” and “The Boston Globe” in September 1905. The original text used the spelling “employe” instead of “employee”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2
Every employe, from cash boy up, is taught absolute respect for and compliance with the business principles which Mr. Field practices. Broadly speaking, Mr. Field adheres to the theory that “the customer is always right.” He must be a very untrustworthy trader to whom this concession is not granted.
Based on current knowledge QI would tentatively ascribe the adage to Marshall Field. He was definitely central to its early popularization, but it was not certain whether he coined the expression. He may have heard it from another retailer or even an angry customer, and he decided to adopt it. Searchable electronic databases of periodicals and books continue to grow, and in the future additional illuminating citations may be located.
This entry was constructed by request to present the most up-to-date research results for the journalist Forrest Wickman of Slate in October 2015.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In April 1905 a newspaper in Des Moines, Iowa printed a thematic precursor that presented a very generous attitude toward customers. The policy described was ascribed to Sears, Roebuck & Co., of Chicago, but the formulation used the phrase “right or wrong” instead of “right” which embodied a different tone. Thanks to Barry Popik for locating this precursor: 3
Their business and policy is the most liberal ever known. It is first and foremost, “Take care of the customer—serve the customer.” They promptly refund the money and pay all of the expenses of the transaction if any goods do not please the purchaser. Every one of their thousands of employes are instructed to satisfy the customer regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong. The customer comes first, last and all the time.
As noted previously, in September 1905 newspapers in Boston stated that Marshall Field adhered to a principle of: “The customer is always right.”
In November 1905 an instance of the motto was published in a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper. The merchant was not precisely identified though the description did fit Marshall Field: 4
One of our most successful merchants, a man who is many times a millionaire, recently summed up his business policy in the phrase, “The customer is always right.” The merchant takes every complaint at its face value and tries to satisfy the complainant, believing it better to be imposed upon occasionally than to gain the reputation of being mean or disputatious.
The important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” has an entry on this topic, and it lists the citations found by QI that were presented above. 5
In 1906 an educator named Martha Tarbell published a collection of lesson plans for Sunday -School teachers, and she referred to the motto though she did not identify the merchant: 6
A merchant who is many times a millionaire, recently said that he owed his prosperity to this spirit of conciliation shown by Isaac. His business policy is phrased thus, “the customer is always right”; in other words, he preferred to be imposed upon occasionally, to accept every complaint a customer might make at its face value, and adjust things to suit that customer, rather than contend the question.
In 1908 a book about changing mores and conventions titled “Piccadilly to Pall Mall: Manners, Morals, and Man” was published. The authors discussed the prominent Swiss hotelier César Ritz and asserted that he embraced a maxim that was a French variant of the saying ascribed to Field: 7
One of the principal causes of the success of this Napoleon amongst hotel keepers was a maxim which may be said to have largely influenced his policy in running restaurants and hotels. This maxim was “Le client n’a jamais tort,” no complaint, however frivolous, ill-grounded, or absurd, meeting with anything but civility and attention from his staff.
The key reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” included the above citation for César Ritz and presented the following translation: 8
Le client n’a jamais tort.
The customer is never wrong.
In December 1909 “Good Housekeeping Magazine” published an article about department stores and reported comments made by “a member of a New York firm which caters to the most refined trade among women”. The retailer explained the business rationale for following the adage: 9
We have made a deep study of all this and our policy of regarding the customer as always right, no matter how wrong she may be in any transaction in the store, is the principle that builds up the trade. She is wrong, of course, lots of times. She takes advantage of privileges accorded her; she is inconsiderate of the earnest efforts of sales people; she causes delay and loss through carelessness or ignorance, but it all goes down in the budget of expenses for running the store and is covered, like other expenses, in the price of the goods.
To fully implement the policy ascribed to Field it was sometimes necessary to punish a scapegoat. A comical tale about this scenario appeared in the March 1910 issue of “Printers’ Ink”: 10
Carrying Out Marshall Field’s Precept, “The Customer is Always Right.”
Two young men who are employed in a big department store were dining together. “Well, how many times did you lose your job to-day?” asked one.
“I had an easy time of it to-day,” replied the other. “I was only fired six times.”
A friend seated at the table with them expressed surprise at this remarkable conversation.
“Well, you see it’s this way,” said the one who had first spoken. “Tom happens to be the store’s professional fired man. There isn’t an hour goes by but some disgruntled customer comes in with a complaint about some error and demands that the person who is responsible for the error be reprimanded. That’s where Tom comes in. He is sent for and told that the mistake is due to his carelessness, and that his services are no longer required. Tom goes away, apparently crestfallen, and awaits the next summons.” — N. Y. Sun.
Adhering to such a rigorous principle was probably quite difficult, and in 1911 an amended guideline appeared in the trade journal “Engineering Review”. The following was written for contractors installing and repairing furnaces: 11
He should always assume that the customer is right until investigation demonstrates that the customer’s complaint is unreasonable and he should make good any defective work without quibble or question.
In 1914 a trade journal called “The Gas Record” reported on a comment made at a business meeting that also advocated a conditional version of the adage: 12
One rule in our business should always be that the man who comes in to make a complaint really has a complaint. We should take the attitude that the customer is right until we have proved to ourselves and to him that he is in the wrong.
In 1919 a longer modified version of the slogan was attributed to Marshall Field in the pages of “System: The Magazine of Business”: 13
Field, it is well known, was the first to say, “The customer is always right,” It was Potter Palmer, Field’s predecessor and for a time his partner, who had originated the practice of accepting returns from any customer who was not satisfied, and refunding the purchase price. This made the customer the sole judge whether he should keep the merchandise. Field’s policy went a long step farther and made the customer the sole judge, or practically the sole judge, of all issues between himself and the house.
The exact version of the saying was not just as it was given above. It was, “Assume that the customer is right until it is plain beyond all question that he is not.” But it turned out that when treated this way the customers nearly always did the right thing. So the policy is practically, “The customer is always right.”
Field died in 1906, and the delay between the earliest citation in 1905 and this passage in 1919 was substantial. Thus, the evidence for this ascription was weak. Great thanks to Forrest Wickman who pointed out this variant to QI.
Another intriguing counterpoint to the concise customer exalting adage was presented by an apocryphal quotation attributed to Henry Ford:
If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.
The above statement suggested that customer requests may be misguided, and longer-term goals such as product development should be based on vision and innovation instead of narrowly constrained consumer surveys. A trace of this quotation is presented here.
In conclusion, the earliest citation in 1905 indicates that Marshall Field popularized this slogan, and he may have crafted it. But the chronology was not certain. It was conceivable that César Ritz or another business person was following the adage before 1905, but there was a delay before the slogan appeared in print.
Image Notes: Portrait of César Ritz via Wikimedia Commons. Image of shopping mall from ed_davad at Pixabay. Portrait of Marshall Field from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Forrest Wickman whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and re-activate this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his invaluable research. Also thanks to Stephen Goranson who independently located the 1905 “Sunday Herald” citation.)
- 1905 September 03, The Sunday Herald (Boston Herald), Section: Women’s Section, America’s Biggest Taxpayer Is a Merchant Prince of Chicago: Leads Country’s Big Taxpayers, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1905 September 24, Boston Daily Globe, He Shares the Public Burden: Marshall Field of Chicago Pays $750,000 Taxes a Year, Quote Page 41, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1905 April 27, Homestead, A Little History of the Mail Order Business, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1905 November 11, Corbett’s Herald, Topics of the Times, Quote Page 4, Providence, Rhode Island. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 48, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1906, Tarbell’s Teacher’s Guide to the International Sunday-School Lessons for 1907, by Martha Tarbell, Lesson X: Isaac a Lover of Peace, Start Page 128, Quote Page 133, Published by Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908, Piccadilly to Pall Mall: Manners, Morals, and Man by Ralph Nevill and Charles Edward Wynne Jerningham, Quote Page 94, Published by Duckworth & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Cesar Ritz, Quote Page 638, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1909 December, Good Housekeeping Magazine, When Woman Buys by Annette Austin, Start Page 624, Quote Page 625, Hearst Corporation, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1910 March 16, Printers’ Ink, Carrying Out Marshall Field’s Precept, Page 43, Decker Communications, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) ↩
- 1911 January, Engineering Review, Volume 21, Number 1, The Future of the Retail Furnace Business by Dr. Wm. F. Colbert, Quote Page 100, Engineering Review Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914 June 10, The Gas Record, Volume 5, Number 11, Iowa District Holds Successful Meeting, Start Page 469, Quote Page 470, Column 1, The Gas Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919 November, System: The Magazine of Business, A Business That Endured by Alfred Pittman, Start Page 850, Quote Page 1920 and 1923, Published by A. W. Shaw Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩