NEW YORK — Bernard B. Zients, a former Gimbels New York president known for innovative merchandising and marketing strategies when the store slugged it out with Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s in the Sixties, died Sunday at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, N.J. He was 92.
Zients had been treated for cancer and died of cardiac arrest. He resided in Hillside, N.J.
“He lived his life the way he played the piano, with gusto,” said Irving Wiggs, a Gimbels general manager and a friend for 36 years.
Among Zients’ innovations was the launch of holiday purchase certificates for credit customers. They were mailed scrip for their Christmas shopping and could defer payments for three months. As a result, “We beat all the metro stores in the area for three years in the late Sixties,” Wiggs said.
In addition, Zients was a pioneer in promoting the products of foreign countries at Gimbels New York and was honored by several European nations for encouraging trade.
Zients joined the now-defunct Gimbels New York in 1955, became a vice president, served as head of the corporate buying office and was promoted to executive head where he worked directly with Bruce Gimbel of the family that controlled the chain. Zients ascended to president in 1968 and retired in October 1971, but continued for years as a consultant.
Zients is also remembered for opposing the Gimbel family’s decision to open a major branch on East 86th Street in Manhattan, which ultimately proved to be a failed attempt at cutting into Bloomingdale’s dominance on Manhattan’s East Side. He said that it would sap the rest of the business and that the money could be used to develop more successful branches elsewhere.
In the early Thirties, Zients borrowed $3,200 to attend Harvard Business School. After graduating, he started his career in retailing as an appliance buyer at Abraham & Straus in 1936. He later became a divisional merchandise manager for Associated Merchandising Corp. and was a vice president and general merchandise manager for the City Stores Mercantile Corp.
He is survived by a daughter, Bonnie Forgash, three grandchildren, a great granddaughter and his companion, Margaret Rowe. He was predeceased by his wife, Blanche, and a son, Jeffrey.
This story first appeared in the April 28, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.