Harry and Mary Zimmerman founded in 1960 what became within a generation the nation’s largest catalog showroom, Service Merchandise. Both grew up in Memphis, and, after graduating from Central High School, they married. Shortly after the birth of Raymond, their first of three children, Harry, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, moved his young family to Pulaski. Middle Tennessee would be their base for over fifty years.
From his beginnings with a Ben Franklin five- and ten-cent store, Zimmerman acquired other dime stores in Tennessee rural towns and with two cousins formed a partnership, Shainberg and Zimmerman Co., that expanded eventually to ten stores. During Harry’s World War II navy tour in the South Pacific, Mary ran the business. Over the decade following his return from the service, the couple moved the family to Nashville, dissolved the partnership with Harry’s cousins, shifted into the wholesale business by selling goods directly to dime stores, began a new venture called Service Wholesale Co., and brought Raymond into the company.
Harry had also by then heard of the catalog showroom concept that originated with Sidney Lewis in Richmond, Virginia, in 1957. In this arrangement, a catalog, issued annually, advertises items that are displayed at the site of a warehouse. The customer fills in a form, and the order is processed and delivered from the warehouse by a conveyor belt to the showroom as the buyer completes the purchase. Sales clerks of traditional department stores are not needed in this setting. In 1960 the Zimmermans decided to leave the wholesale business and create their own showroom. They organized and opened the Service Merchandise Company showroom on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
The Zimmermans expanded to three stores in 1969; two years later they had five locations in Tennessee, with sales of $16.7 million. Throughout the 1970s the company grew rapidly, as did Best Products of Richmond and Modern Merchandising of Minneapolis. Catalog showrooms seemed to do best when sited in freestanding buildings near a shopping center in communities of at least 125,000. The “Big Three” companies chose not to compete in the same regions, and they cut expenses by printing their catalogs together. Raymond continued the Zimmerman philosophy of making a little money on a lot of sales after his parents retired in 1981. By the time of their deaths in July (Harry) and November (Mary) 1986, Service Merchandise was a business of $2.2 billion with three hundred stores across the country.
Harry Zimmerman received the B’nai B’rith National Jewelry Industry Man of the Year Award in 1974. He served on various boards due both to his business acumen and to the family belief in helping those less fortunate. At the time of his death, Zimmerman served the national Muscular Dystrophy Association as vice-president.