Today’s Wall Street Journal has a review, King of the Shopkeepers, of a new biography from Caroline Dakers. A Genius For Money tells of the rags-to-riches life of James Morrison, a Victorian innovator of retailing and banking in England. I can already tell that I am going to order the book as soon as I’m done writing this post:
Morrison was not an inventor-capitalist but a retailing genius, more Sam Walton than Steve Jobs. He catered to England’s growing consumer class by diversifying his wares and, in his ever-growing network of shops, introducing luxurious showrooms. He was a disciple of volume, seeking “high turnover, small profits, and quick returns.” He sent his traveling men not to find buyers, as was typical, but to find the best suppliers. Advantageously purchased in bulk, goods would sell themselves. Morrison’s buyers were specialists, anticipating the practices of later department stores. He kept his finger on the pulse of fashion and on “market making” events. Legendarily, he was never caught short of black crepe when a member of the royal family was ill. “The Duke of York has died most conveniently,” he once quipped while tallying profits.
Entrepreneurs like Morrison and Josiah Wedgwood transformed the everyday lives of so many people, and changed how we view work, consumption, and beauty. They also made markets work more efficiently, Morrison through banking and Wedgwood through infrastructure investment (he was a driving pioneer in the construction of canals in England). In that sense, innovators like Morrison and Wedgwood are equilibrating entrepreneurs in the way that Kirzner describes. The review of Dakers’ book also suggests that it raises themes that Deirdre McCloskey raises in The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity, and that we have discussed here in the past.
I have not talked here much about Wedgwood, but I have had plans to for a long time, so this book may be the catalyst.