On September 30, 1965, Jerry Kirshenbaum, a Minneapolis Tribune staff writer, was filling in for George Grim’s popular “I Like It Here” column. Grim was on “foreign assignment.”
Longtime Dayton’s shoppers will be familiar with the column’s subject: Holly Bell, the store’s unseen and unflappable Answer Lady, and her first months on the job.
In 1965, a phone minus a rotary dial – actually, 38 of them -- were distributed throughout the nine floors of Dayton's flagship Nicollet Avenue store. It was quite the innovation, a low-tech version of “there’s an app for that.”
Here’s the story:
Holly Bell, the shopper’s helper at Dayton’s, is a lot like Santa Claus in that neither pays any income tax.
Therefore, neither is real.
Miss Bell, as friends call her, was invented last Thanksgiving by Mrs. Mary Christensen, Dayton’s special projects coordinator, as a way to traffic the department store’s Christmas shopping rush.
The problem: Shoppers were getting lost in Dayton’s labyrinth of departments.
“We were using painted arrows pointing to departments,” Mrs. Christensen confied. “It got confusing. Dayton’s is ‘L’-shaped, and it’s often hard to negotiate without a map.”
The solution: Special telephones were installed at 38 locations inside the store, each phone lettered, “Holly Bell Will Help You Find It.” The way it worked, the shopper reached for one of the hotlines to Holly and asked where lampshades were hidden.
“On the 6th floor, in the 7th and Nicollet part of the store,” Miss Bell replied, simple as that.
Mrs. Christensen appropriated the name for the new service from a Holly Bell doll she designed and sold by mail order years ago. The service was supposed to be abandoned after Dayton’s Christmas rush was over.
But it worked so well, it was retained. Now, 10 months later, Holly Bell answers between 5,000 and 12,000 queries a week. To handle as many calls, she has to have 24 hands.
All 12 Holly Bells work part time. Most are former Dayton’s employees brought out of retirement for the purpose. “Many of them grew up in the store and feel grateful to be needed again,” said Mrs. Christensen.
From two to five women serve at any one time at phone consoles on the 11th floor. They know the store intimately, and each has at her fingertips detailed department and brand name guidebooks.
Even so, some questions are more difficult to field than others. “How do I find an ironing board cover?” That’s an easy one. “Holly Bell, will you go out with me Saturday night?” That’s not so easy.
Several Holly Bells confided a still tougher question they get asked know and then, namely, “How do I get to Donaldson’s?”
Best answer, Mrs. Christensen agreed, is the old saw, “You can’t get there from here.”
Five years later, Dayton's turned to a more advanced technology to guide its in-store customers. A brief news item in the Minneapolis Tribune, dated Oct. 24, 1969, revealed that shoppers "will get information by automation from an electric push-button directory. Dayton's will be the first U.S. department store to install the electronic unit. The directory, which will be on the store's main floor, has 120 numbered keys corresponding to a cross-reference list of more than 400 departments and merchandise categories. The customer refers to a list and presses the appropriately numbered button. Within seconds, the machine provides a printed card that tells in what department an item can be found."
Holly Bell's considerable fan base didn't need to worry about their favorite shopping ambassador being put out to pasture. "The Holly Bell service, which originated during the 1964 Christmas season, will continue," said the story. Ms. Bell remained a Dayton's fixture for several more decades.