Monday, November 5, 2007

E.J. Korvette - The Dawn of Discounting


























In the history of American retailing, The E.J. Korvette Story is a fairly brief chapter. This brevity does not do justice to the tremendous, arguably unparalleled influence the company and its visionary founder, Eugene Ferkauf, wielded during its halcyon years – the mid-fifties through the early nineteen-sixties.

E. J. Korvette, Inc. was founded by Brooklyn-born Eugene Ferkauf in May 1948 with a single, cramped second floor store in Manhattan, where the main product sold was luggage. The store’s name (contrary to the popular legend which said it stood for “Eight Jewish Korean War Veterans”) was derived from Ferkauf’s first initial along with that of Joe Zwillenberg, a childhood friend, who would join Ferkauf in his new business. “Corvette” was the name of a class of Canadian Naval ship. The name was modified in deference to Canadian Naval regulations of the era which apparently forbade commercialization of military nomenclature (this was several years before General Motors’ Corvette).

Small appliances (sold at very low markup) were soon added to Korvette’s product mix, and after only two years sales passed the $2 million mark. By 1957, nine years after its founding, sales were at $71 million, and only five years later were over $237 million. By the end of the 50's, Korvette had begun to place a huge emphasis on clothing and and other soft goods, which helped fuel the company's rise.
Korvette played a major role in the downfall of “fair trade” laws – where goods manufacturers were allowed to set retail prices (today’s laws only allow them to “suggest” prices). To a large extent, these laws protected traditional department stores, who sold at typical 40% markup versus the discounters who often sold at margins of 20% or less. On hundreds of occasions, Korvette was sued by manufacturers for undercutting their mandated prices. Korvette’s response in nearly every case was to switch to a different manufacturer of the same product. The court cases also resulted in a ton of free publicity for Korvette, burnishing their image as an advocate for the poor, hapless, overcharged consumer.

Korvette also led the charge toward building in suburban locations, often arriving ahead of their department store competitors, including Macy’s and Gimbels. By the early 60’s, the company was building huge 200,000-plus square feet “Korvette Cities”, consisting of a “promotional department store” (they avoided the term “discount store” like the plague) with an adjoining Korvette supermarket, furniture/carpet center and tire store.

The department photos (and exterior artist’s rendering) shown above date from 1962, as the company continued to ascend at a furious pace. That year, Korvette opened 6 stores for a total of 21 in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia markets. A push into the Chicago area would come the following year, with St. Louis the year after that. Most of the stores opened in ‘62 were suburban locations, with one very notable exception – the company’s new flagship store on New York City’s legendary Fifth Avenue, which opened in June. Discount retailing, still a fairly new phenomenon at the time, had from the start been rebuffed and ridiculed by critics as a passing fad. Korvette’s success was a vital factor in showing those critics (along with everyone else) that discount stores were here to stay. Undeniable proof that Korvette’s influence had expanded far beyond its geographic boundaries came in the July 6, 1962 issue of Time Magazine, which featured a glowing cover story on Eugene Ferkauf and his brainchild.

47 comments:

  1. I love the logo in the first picture even if it isn't real. I also love the idea behind "The Shoe Salon." So elegant and classy looking. That picture and the picture for the Two Guys Shoe Department make me wonder why is it that nowadays no one has a nice place to try on and sell shoes? Everyone's idea of a shoe department looks like a Payless knockoff.

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  2. The painting is a very accurate portrayal of the logo, which I agree looks great. They later dropped the "E.J." and added an "S" at the end to just say "Korvettes" on the storefronts in a fairly plain lettered logo. The script was much more interesting.

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  3. Script is almost ALWAYS much more interesting. LOL!

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  4. my mom worked at hills supermarket in woodbridge ,nj E.J. was seperated by the outdoor home improvement section that looks identical to the one in the picture! is that woodbridge,nj? i got my aurora ho slot cars there,my 5 sp. iverson muscle bike and the 1st monkees album there etc..great memories and those pretzels yum

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  5. In the 1962 group of photos, I reconize the Home Improvement Center picture as being the Audubon NJ location in the Black Horse Pike Shopping Center-I reconize the multi-colored posts along the front porch that ran the legnth of the plaza which was an open air mall and included a Woolworth and JC Penny. Has been demolished and was redeveloped into a Wal-Mart.
    Great Pictures!!!

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  6. JohnF - Thanks for the tip on the location and the background on the other stores!

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  7. i live in south africa and worked in one of the 5th ave korvette stores in 1970 for nothing-just the experience and was sad that it closed

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  8. Bernard, thanks and welcome! I'd love to have seen that 5th Avenue Korvettes.

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  9. estelleferkauf@aol.comNovember 22, 2008 at 2:10 PM

    Eugene and I enjoyed reading your article. For once all the facts were accurate. That is a rarity!

    Just for the record-Eugene celebrated his 88th birthday last week and we are enjoying life in New York City. His greatest love is for his family followed by movies, music and ice-cream.

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  10. estelleferkauf@aol.comNovember 22, 2008 at 2:10 PM

    Eugene and I enjoyed reading your article. For once all the facts were accurate. That is a rarity!

    Just for the record-Eugene celebrated his 88th birthday last week and we are enjoying life in New York City. His greatest love is for his family followed by movies, music and ice-cream.

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  11. My husband and I were just looking through a drawer of old items and found the E. J. Korvette, Inc., badge he had when he was in Security at the store in Bethesda/Rockville Maryland in the mid 60's. I wanted to find out if Korvettes still existed and found this site. We used to go to that store when were married in 1965 until we left in 1971.
    Congratulations to the Ferkauf's on their accomplishments, and a belated Happy Birthday to you sir!!! Hope you and your wife have many more years together!

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  12. Wow! E.J. Korvettes! What a story ... I even have a book entitled 'The Rise and Fall of E.J. Korvettes'. AND, ... I even worked at the EJK store in Rockville, Maryland from 74 thru 79. Shoes, sporting goods, stereos and TVs (XAM baby!). What ever happened to Marty Agins, Sal Catellano, Burke Sommers, Paul Moduleski, Reggie, Ted, and other guys like Steve Abundi, Paul Moreno, Shelby Kaplan, Chet Bigelow, Dave Daggett, Charlie Miller, Nan Mullen, Mark Rubin, Sandy Ambert, Kym Densel, Joe Leotta, Al Nishi, Kim Biser, Jack Ilgenfritz, Sherry Wilkenson, Loretta Gruber, Rick Stein, Dave Dupree, Lane McConoughey, Tom Ricucci, Tim Bieber, Sal Triolo, Denise Munson, JoAnne Wachsman, Anita Ambert, Ralph Gordon, Shawn Gordon, Dale Riley, Jimmie Vansopark, Laura Adkins, MAtt Vieman, and that crazy dude in the blue security uniform ... Mike somebody.

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    1. Marty Agins is deceased. Burke Summers lives in Vienna, VA I believe. Reggie was/is store mgr with Burlington Coat in Baltimore area Mark Rubin is in FL, his sister Allison is in N.
      Would like to know who you are, your memory of names is great I was there '76-'80 having replaced Bobby T. when he went regional.
      .

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    2. Hi Ron, It's Tom R. I still live in the area.I also see some of the gang,Chet Bigelow, Charlie Miller and a few others.I found Allison R. on facebook a month ago. Chet,myself and a few others are trying to put na reunion together. It was great to see you post. Hope all is well.

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  13. Anonymous - Hope that some of you fellow former Rockville co-workers see this!

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  14. The painting looks just like the Korvettes I rememember growing up in Paramus, NJ........Miss those DOLLAR-RAMAS!!!!

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  15. Anonymous - Thanks - and those Dollar-Ramas sound like a blast! Paramus was a retail wonderland in the golden age.

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  16. I was an Asst.Buyer for the 52 store chain in the 70's. Handled the Men's Knit Shirts/Sweaters & Swimwear with the great Julie Siegel. We had a hell of a great time until the bills started not getting paid.

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  17. I worked at the Paramus,NJ store as the loading dock security guard in 1977.I worked my way up to store detective and eventually Security Mgr.We were one of the first stores to employ articulated security cameras that could revolve 360 degrees and zoom in and out.I remember seeing alot of crazy things that I can still recall to this day." Hit and runs" as we would call them,when a car would pull up alongside the curb in the front of the building and two or three individuals would grab the most expensive items that were near the doors,usually sweaters,jackets and whatever was easy to sell on the street.I remember chasing many a shoplifter over the pedestrian foot bridge that linked Korvettes (over rte.4) to the Bergen Mall.I eventually was transferred to the Divisional Tactical Squad and worked in all the New York area stores from Herald Square,NY,Nanuet,NY,Pelham,NY and as far south as Woodbridge and New Brunswick,NJ (where I was a Security Mgr. for awhile) until it's closure in the 80's.I had a great time and made many friends at the Paramus location and look back with fond memories.It was a shame to see it go and "sucked" dry of it's assets by that French Corporation...but I guess that's business!

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    1. I worked in the record department there at around the same time...my boss was Irwin and there was a cashier named Sue. Some of my co-workers were John Cooper & Pete Girolamo. I remember being pulled out of the department by the undercover security guy (maybe you?) to track a thief over the Bergen Mall Bridge. You caught him and it turned out the kid went to high school with me. He begged for mercy but no way!

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    2. I worked in the paramus, woodbridge and west orange
      store as well as others. Does anyone remember the
      store managers or floor managers of these stores?
      Would like to know more.
      CHET A

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    3. Do you remember any of the managers?
      Was John P working there? He was hard lines manager
      Asst. Store manager. Who was store manager?
      Chet A

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  18. I worked at the Nanuet NY store in Small appliances, sporting goods and radios. I subsequently worked in Staten Island and temporary assignments opening other stores. My favorite memories are of the people: TC Howell in Receiving, Charlie Jones in Toys, Jerry Chastain in Toys, Ed Gilliard in Maint. Joan Doherty in womens,Tony Amenther in Small Appliances, Head Cashier, Anne Chianese, Marv in sporting goods, and Danny Caggianese in radios. The floor managers where "old Guy's" who looking back were not anything special. Mostly friends of friends. Guys like Julian "Sonny" Smith, ______Herman, and Sid Mittelman. We had great customers, some famous, most not. people like Jack Klugman, Barbra Strreisand, and othersFrank W Allen
    fwallen99@yahoo.com

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  19. Frank – Thanks for your comment! I love hearing from people who actually worked in these great stores in their heyday. Sounds like you have some fond memories of working there – it must have been an exciting place to be, especially during the growth years. Very interesting, the celebrities you mention – Streisand and Klugman – definitely people at the top of their craft, and deservedly still famous today! It’s fun to picture them shopping at Korvettes!

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  20. I worked in the Korvettes in Massapequa, New York. Their Record Department was by far the best. They had every kind of music you wanted.. They put Sam Goody's to shame. The security was top-notch. They were serious with shop lifters. Absolute top shelf! I have alot of wonderful memories of wonderful people I worked with a lifetime ago.

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  21. I had just started college when I got my first 'real' part-time job as holiday help working the photography department in the newer Main Street/Flushing, NY store which had its own parking garage underneath the store! I was a shutter bug myself and working in that department was the best ever! I was making $2.10 an hour and loving it. I was near tears when I lost my job on Christmas Eve-as all seasonal help did-but I was hoping they would keep me on.
    Undaunted, I applied the following June, when the school year ended, in their Douglaston, LI store was was thrilled to get rehired-at $2.35/hr-in the photography department! Thus began my stay of four and a half years (all through college) most of which were in photography, but since I knew how to operate a register(!) I was 'lent out' to other areas like Toys & Sporting Goods, Luggage & Books, Candy & Tobacco. The late 70's were a great time in photography as the 35mm camera saw the consumer start of the SLR, and Polaroid and Kodak introduced their 'One Step' type instant cameras. During this time local "Blue Laws" were recinded and the store could now open on Sundays-and the employees working those days would get time and a half. Korvettes had a great Record Department, and I would cash my weekly check at their register after buying a record album for $3.99. As a discounter, we would sell amazing quantities of film, batteries and flash cubes during the holidays. I remember ringing up over 300 transactions during a four hour Christmas Eve shift-this was before the days of scanning UPC codes-where each item had to be rung up manually with a unique eight digit SKU and department code. Great memories with photo manager Roy Kelly, and fellow associates Tom Hatch, Cliff Wollmer, and Chuck Haber. I met Neil Kelly there, who was a great friend for many years. Around 1979, a French firm bought the chain from owners Arlen Realty & Development-but at the time Korvettes was well into its decline. Within a couple years the chain was sold to liquidators. Korvettes lasted through one last holiday season, and we all unceremoniously worked our last day on Christmas Eve 1980. I recently found a Polaroid of me, taken behind the photography counter-with my 70's haircut and moustache-wearing my Korvettes badge! Those were great years and I enjoyed them immensely.

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  22. My dad was Director of Security for all of the Stores from Chicago to New York...Loved going to work with him... Had a blast..Remember the Korvette Cash we got around the holidays... My dad was there for over 20 years and was still there during the liquidation of the stores in 1980. He actually was disabled the last days of this. He was closing a hole in the ceiling where theives stole the Generators off the roofs and he fell 38 feet and broke his back...Dad is still going at 75 and works for the Govt. now....

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  23. Korvettes in Paramus NJ was my 1st job. 1976-1980 when they closed. My dad got me the job. He worked for Korvettes for 20+ years. He was a Store manager then a Regional manager. There are so many great memories. One was when Frank Sinatra was filming his movie in the store. "Contract on Cherry Street". I remember all the older women were going crazy. I was only 18. One of these women got a pair of his glasses from him after he broke them. She was thrilled. My dad had also come to the store to go to the regional offices. They were on the 2nd floor. He walked into his office and who was sitting at his desk with his feet up? Yep, it was Frank Sinatra. My dad didn't know what to say.
    I miss that store. It was real retail then.
    I grew up in that store when my mom would take us there to shop and say hi to my dad. Then to work there. I truly miss all those great people who I worked with.

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  24. Kim – Wow, what a great story! I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and the idea of meeting him at Korvettes, given my interest in the history of that chain, boggles the mind! ;)

    “Contract on Cherry Street” was Frank’s only made-for-TV movie, and as such is very hard to find, but this gives me an extra incentive to try to track it down.

    With both you and your dad having worked there, I can imagine your family has a ton of good Korvette memories and stories. Thanks so much for sharing that one with us!

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  25. If that was Kim G.who left the comment...hi Kim!! I remember the same instance of Mr.Sinatra shooting a partial scene from contract on cherry street in the regional offices at the Paramus,NJ Korvettes.I worked as A store detective there from '77 to around '80-81 when it closed.I was back and forth as a regional security mgr. and an asst.mgr.at the paramus store.I remember the security detail and people were pulled in from the surrounding stores to cover the paramus korvettes.I personally didn't get to see mr. sinatra as they were only around for a few hours and I was stationed elsewhere in the store.I do remember the excitement though.Very electric.

    Stefan

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  26. I,worked at Korvettes from
    1970-1980.I worked in the Rockville
    store. I, was manager of Habo,Mens
    and shoe dept from 1973-1979.I also was the Manager of the Womens
    depts.It was the best years of my
    life.Alot of great friends were made during those years.To Anonymous who wrote last year and
    named all those wonderful friends
    God Bless you.Lets get together
    soon.Korvettes was a GREAT company
    to work for.To Charlie,Dave,Chet,
    Kim,Nan,Marty,Dave,Shawn,Denise,
    others who worked there,i miss you
    all.Take care!

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  27. I can remember as a kid shopping at the Korvettes here in Chicago (Oak Lawn location 87th & Cicero) I couldn't wait to go up the escalator to rummage the toy department to the left as my parents would surely let me purchase a diecast Matchbox vehicle or a model. THOSE WERE THE DAYS!!! The store looked exactly like the rendering in the first photo and the original building still exists. Now converted into a HOBO home improvement store... MCM

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  28. What about Murray Feldman in the Rockville store... and Sid Mittleman? Remember?

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  29. I don't remember Murray Feldman but i do remember Sid Mittleman. He left the Rockville Store in 1973 and transfer to Hampton Roads Va.

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  30. I never worked at any of the stores but I used to walk to the store at 87th & Cicero in Oak Lawn, IL. I bought my first records, both 45's and LP's at this store. Actually, I probably bought every LP between 1965 and 1979 at Korvette's. My first credit card was from Korvette's in 1975 because I couldn't get one from Sears. I bought a new 19" color TV for myself and my new wife for our new apartment. Now that I think about it, I'll bet I did all of my shopping at Korvette's until it closed in 1980.

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  31. I worked in the Rockville store in the late 60's in the toy dept., with Bob Selby and Sal Catalino and then after high school worked in N.Bergan NJ where the former Brylcreme guy decorated the windows,remember-a little dab'l do ya'? I returned to Rockville for a brief return. Mostly a high school transitional job.

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  32. Tom, Jay and others - You guys are making me wish I'd worked at Korvettes! Fun stuff! Thanks for sharing your memories here.

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  33. Dave, thankyou for making this site available and allowing us to relive those wonderful years at Korvette's. I believe you would have enjoyed working for a company where the employees were so dedicated and loyal to the employer.

    After posting yesterday, I found Sandy Ymbert through yahoo people search and called her today. She was the switchboard operator in the Rockville store and still sees or knows of many of the former employees. We spoke for quite a while and I thought how incredible it was that after more than thirty one years, people are still in touch with each other.

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  34. Odd... EJ (Eugene) told me in person that the last name of the store was named for the car, which he really thought was cool.

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  35. The stock rooms were so big we had a large basketball court in the stock room where we used to sneak off and have half hour basketball games while on duty

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  36. a couple of their stores had a grocery department which later became hills korvette. the store brands was food club,topcare,hills,hills korvette,and pantry pride which also took over in the mid 70s.

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  37. I VIVIDLY remember two things about the Port Chester NY store.

    1st being the Pool Patio department looking just like the photo above except Port Chester had way more pools being a kid of 8 or 9 We made many a trips by our selfs from neighboring Rye NY to the Korvettes Plaza ( Now Kohls Plaza) as well as Korvettes in Scarsdale and in Yonkers, but neither as I can remember had the patio. I remember always playing with th water and actually one time " actually falling in " and getting My Mom and Grandmother so mad that Me and My brother actualling sitting in the Bradford Room resturant at the W T Grant 3 doors down driiping Korvettes pool water all over the floor while they had lunch ! LOL

    2nd Being fasanated by the Christmas shop during the holidays. Port Chester had no less than 25 FULLY DECORATED trees lined up against the walls that were always covered with glitter wrapping paper and the 4 by 4 over head florencant light fixtures covered with cellophane graphics that looked like boxes of decorations so the whole department was Christmassy. I also remember the HUGH snowflakes that twinkled whte c 9 lights all over the front of the building

    This is where My love of Christmas started and launched My career as a professional holiday decorator. While working in retail a few Years back at Target ( 75 stores total ) (( when Corp people knew You by name )) in the begining Target took many of Korvettes ideas and practices. I was suprised to hear that.

    Ahhh how I wish some one had the photos from that store..........

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  38. I worked at Korvette's in 1970 for 3 years in the Douglaston linen dept. for Midge Cymes. I remember this guy who worked there and used to put bundles of triple curtains next to the dumpster in the back (there was a hole in the fence), at $150 a pop, and came back late at night to get them, then used to return them with his driver's license at other Korvette's and got checks at home totaling thousands of dollars in the course of a year. This more than made up for his minimum wage paycheck that the store paid him in wages. That was a nice little extra income!!!!!!!!!!!!! In conclusion, there was this employee, Clarise, who ratted him out for something else totally unrelated and got him fired by some new personnel manager called Larry Levine but, in the end, he got his money's worth, and then some.

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    1. Interesting stuff, thanks! And as far as the "curtain guy" goes, in the long run it never pays. :)

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  39. What was the Fifth Avenue, NYC address??

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  40. In 1974 I,worked in the Rockville Maryland store. We went to New York to play Bay Parkway for the Softball Championship. We lost to them 12-6. Did anyone out there play for Bay Parkway? It was a great time.I worked for the company 10 years. I,was the Manager of Habo, Mens, shoes and luggage depts. It was 10 best years of my life

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  41. Remember the Korvette's store in Arlington Heights Illinois on Route 12. Just south on Rand Rd. was a Turn Style store. Across the Street was Jack in the Box on Rand & Palatine Rd.

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