ST. PETERSBURG — A lot has changed since Leroy Lampley started his job as a porter 44 years ago when Sears opened a standalone store next to a field of palmettos that would become Tyrone Square mall. But one thing that has not changed is Lampley's commitment to his customers.
That same friendliness and concern that became his trademark when he was carrying heavy purchases for shoppers or retrieving returns from their cars in the 1960s and early '70s is still evident in the interactions he has as a top salesman in the hardware department.
"Last year it was your day off when I came in here and I was very upset," said Carlanne Meaton, who has bought a power tool for her husband's Christmas gift every year for two decades from Lampley.
"Well I'm glad I'm here today," said Lampley, 73, wearing one of the blue shirts he gets custom embroidered with tools on the sleeves and his name on the front.
"He's so knowledgeable and he's been here forever," Meaton explained to a bystander. "A lady over there referred me to another register because he was helping someone else, and I just acted like I didn't understand her because I wanted to go to him. I even made my aunt come all the way from England just to meet him. I told her we had to go to Sears so she could meet Leroy."
Lampley shook the Briton's hand then teased, "and when you go back and have tea with the queen, please give her my blessing."
Pam Miller, operations manager at the Tyrone Sears, sees or hears about Lampley's satisfied customers on a daily basis.
"He is so personal and really takes a genuine interest in each of his customers," she said.
Lampley thinks his strong customer service goes back to those early years when he was a porter.
"If I needed to go the extra mile, I would,'' he said. "That's been my goal — to be the best I could be at whatever I was doing."
And as a jack-of-all-trades, he has done plenty. After being a standout among the handful of porters, Lampley was promoted to purchaser of office supplies in 1972, the year the mall opened. He got to know suppliers across the country and reduced the store's costs on items such as pencils, paper and typewriters.
After a few years, he drove trucks to and from other stores and warehouses in Orlando and Jacksonville. Then he worked at package pickup at Sears' satellite storage location.
"I started working in tools in '80 or '81. I later had an opportunity to become a manager, but I wanted to stay a salesman to take care of customers," he said.
He ended up working at Sears in the first place as the result of a Sunday drive.
"My wife and I were driving around sightseeing and saw a sign that said Sears is now hiring and I filled out an application," Lampley said. He well remembers the mall opening.
"It was the biggest, newest thing in St. Pete," he recalled. The first 100 people in Sears that day got a free towel. Customers were lined up outside the door.
"Back in those days, Sears was king. We still are, but back then we were THE king," he said. Ladies came in their heels to eat at the Sears cafeteria. They bought fur coats in the ladies department. The hardware department had a home improvement section that sent employees out to build anything from decks to bathrooms. There was even a pet store that sold everything from snakes to birds.
"The pets, they didn't come with a lifetime warranty, but if something went wrong customers would bring them back and we'd still replace it. When I was a porter, I'd go out to their car and bring in whatever it was that died," Lampley said, laughing. "We got to the point we said: 'Just tell us what you lost. You don't need to bring it back.' ''
Sears was one of the first retailers to offer its own credit card. For the first two years it was made of stiff paper, then the blue and white plastic model came out.
"I still have my first Sears card at the house. A lot of my customers today tell me Sears was the first store to give them a card," he said. He also has another piece of retail nostalgia at home, a Sears catalog. Lampley remembers when there was a department as big as the current hardware section with operators taking orders for merchandise that was available only from the beloved catalog.
Lampley actually retired a few years back, against his manager's suggestion that he work part-time. But before the paperwork was processed, Lampley changed his mind and asked to work part-time. (Loyalty runs in the family. His wife has put in more than 30 years at Lealman Elementary school.)
As a veteran of about 40 Black Friday sales he has seen a lot of long lines, excited customers and some who were too excited.
"They don't always start out orderly. But we go out (to the waiting line) and talk to them," he said, "and they end up being orderly."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]