Thursday, October 30, 2008

You're the Topps, Baby!

The sixties were the golden age of many things, depending upon your perspective. Rock and roll music, television, movies, sports, comics, cars, the suburbs, malls, you name it – if it existed during that tumultuous time, there are legions of folks who will claim that decade as the peak of the form, whether they actually lived during that time or not. To me, the sixties were definitely the golden age of the discount store, and the Interstate Stores banners, Topps and White Front, were among the most interesting of the bunch. In the Chicago suburbs, where I grew up, Topps was a fast-growing player in those years.

The first Topps “Discount City” was opened on October 15, 1956, in Hartford, Connecticut. Founded by Frank Beckerman and Selwyn Lemchen, the company’s initial slogan was “Profits in Pennies”. The company grew steadily in its early years, adding stores in West Haven, Middletown and Fairfield, Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts, Albany, New York and in far-flung Chicago, among others, by the beginning of 1960. Soon afterward, the Hartford store was replaced with a larger unit and a new Topps opened in Berlin, Connecticut. By the fall of 1960 there were ten stores in the chain.

The Topps stores averaged 60,000 square feet and proudly claimed “more than 100 departments”, running the gamut from housewares, baby furniture, auto accessories, sporting goods, shoes, records and toys to all manner of clothes for the whole family. That wonderful discount store oasis, the snack bar/cafeteria, was featured in every store.

Topps’ growth and success coalesced with a successful experiment that New York City-based Interstate Department Stores was conducting at the time. A staid, traditional chain of medium-sized department stores whose history dated back to 1916, Interstate had 47 old-line department stores in 1958 when it leased an old textile mill in Copley, Pennsylvania and equipped it with sales counters, shelves and garment racks, opening it for business as a discount store operation - the company’s first. When the Copley store racked up two million dollars in sales against only $12,000 in rent expense that first year, Interstate soon realized which side its bread would be buttered on.

Among Interstate’s top management, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Copley project was Sol W. Cantor. Described in the New York Times as a “lean, intense retailer…well schooled in the traditional department-store business”, Cantor, who would soon be named company president, forcefully led the charge into the discounting arena. In 1959, Interstate bought out White Front Stores, a 30 year old Los Angeles firm with only two stores but an impressive $20 million in annual sales. By 1966, Interstate would open 20 new White Front Stores was looking towards expansion to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

A year later, in September 1960, Topps Department Stores, Inc. was acquired by Interstate Stores at a cost of $ 4 million. Interstate now had footholds in several Eastern states and the Chicago area to go along with their newly acquired Los Angeles territory. Over the next six years, as the Times reported, Interstate would open 35 new Topps stores, increasing the average square footage per store from 60,000 to over 80,000 square feet.

One important change in the Topps stores under Interstate’s ownership was in the merchandise mix. Heavily weighted towards softlines (clothing, linens, etc.), Interstate introduced appliances, automotive supplies, sporting goods and other lines until the softlines/hardlines mix approached 50%. White Front, whose reputation was heavily built on appliance sales (in the early 1960’s, the Interstate organization was General Electric’s largest appliance customer on the west coast, and was Admiral’s largest customer altogether), required an opposite strategy - the new White Front stores featured extensive clothing lines for the first time, although hardlines would continue to dominate there.

Most of the new Topps stores were opened in partnership with supermarkets to maximize their customer drawing power. Several of the Connecticut Topps stores, for example, opened up with Food Mart stores riding shotgun. Food Mart was an independent chain based in Holyoke, Massachusetts and founded in 1949 by Frank Castaldo. In the Chicago area, the Topps stores were paired with National Food Stores. National Tea Company, founded in 1899, had long been a leader in the Chicago grocery market.

Topps continued to expand into new markets and to beef up their existing ones as the sixties progressed. In August 1962, for example, three Topps stores were opened in the Cleveland area in a single day. The same year, 1962, saw Topps grow to eight stores in Chicagoland - Waukegan, Rolling Meadows, Niles, La Grange, Joliet, Chicago Heights, Highland (Indiana) and Addison. My family shopped occasionally at the Rolling Meadows store, which was paired with a National Food Store. The combination was called a “Topps-National Super City”.

By 1968, Interstate had 60 Topps stores, along with 28 White Front units, 32 traditional department stores (these were being slowly phased out by this time) and 8 toy superstores. The previous year, Interstate had bought out the Washington D.C. –based Children’s Supermart chain, the forerunner to Toys "R" Us. Around that time, (now company chairman) Sol Cantor, noting that it had taken Interstate 38 years to reach the half billion annual sales mark, boldly predicted that the next half billion would only take 5 years – in effect, Interstate would be a billion dollar company by 1972.

It wasn’t to be. The early seventies provided a rude awakening for many discount chains, and Interstate’s stores, Topps in particular, suffered some of the worst hits. In 1971, 10 Topps stores were closed, including three Columbus, Ohio units that were sold off to Gray Drug. The combination of rising costs and increased competition continued to take its toll, and by 1972, the company began to post substantial losses. Plans were announced to close an estimated 14 White Front stores that year. A 1972 Los Angeles Times article quoted a stock market analyst who assessed the company’s troubles as saying “improved merchandising at the discount department stores appears necessary for meaningful profits”. Interstate chose instead to close more stores. By 1973, 19 Topps stores and 19 White Front stores were closed. “Profits in pennies” would have looked good at that point.

In early 1974, having posted a $60 million loss the previous year, Interstate pursued an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the variety and discount stores owned by McCrory Corporation. McCrory’s stores were profitable and had a net value of $120 million, which would have offset Interstate’s losses. With the McCrory opportunity gone, Interstate filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, hoping to reorganize. Unable to obtain further credit from their suppliers to continue stocking the stores, the US Government soon forced the company into Chapter 10 receivership. Forty-one 41 Topps stores were closed by that time, and Interstate announced the immediate closing of 11 more Topps stores, with the remaining 9 to be closed “in due course”. Plans were already underway to sell the remaining White Front stores. Company chairman Sol Cantor resigned, and a trustee was appointed to oversee the liquidation process and to ensure the viability of Interstate’s remaining golden asset, Toys “R” Us. Eventually Toys “R” Us founder Charles Lazarus would take charge of the company (which emerged from bankruptcy in Spring 1978 and was renamed Toys “R” Us Corp.), leading it to success far beyond anything Interstate had ever known previously.

We didn’t shop there often, but one memory stands out, dating from around 1973 or so. One evening my dad, brother and I were shopping at the Rolling Meadows Topps store. The store was near empty (not surprising given the state of the company at the time), and in the main aisle stood a bearded, rumpled, outdoors-type dude of about thirty years of age, standing all alone next to a table with a stack of slim hardcover books on it. It was a book signing, at Topps, of all places! It turns out he had written a book of poetry, and just asked the store manager if he could sell his books there (anything to build traffic, I guess). Upon closer examination, the books themselves looked a bit rumpled as well, and the author launched into an explanation about a canoe trip he had recently taken, with a case of his books onboard (he didn’t explain that part). The canoe capsized, soaking the case of books. The guy’s story was so offbeat, my dad actually bought one of his books!

The first five photos, an exterior and four inside shots date from 1967, the remaining two color shots, including “The Scene” (Here come da judge, baby!) are circa 1970. The black-and-white photo above is of a Baltimore Topps store from 1967, very similar in appearance to the store in the first photo. Pictured below are a new Topps store which opened in 1962 at 467 Main St., East Hartford, Connecticut, and a circa-1960 Chicago area Topps coupled with a National Food Store.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Leisurely Day at Alpha Beta, 1966

Here’s a magnificent example of modern day Spanish-style retail architecture – built in 1965! This 1966 photo is shown courtesy of the Orange County Archives, thanks to Chris Jepsen for the tip. This Alpha Beta supermarket opened in March 1965 at the Rossmoor Leisure World Shopping Center in Laguna Hills, coinciding with the opening of the adjacent huge retirement community of the same name. Though the architectural look of this store is heavily employed today, it was exceptional at the time even for Alpha Beta, most of whose new stores had more of a “sixties look” (whatever that means). The store would have easily fit right in with those opened five, ten or more years later. Shopping here would definitely have been my idea of leisure - yours?

Update 10/25/08 - Although gas stations aren't part of the normal fare on this site, I went ahead and added the other Leisure World area photo from the O.C. archives - a Chevron station pic from the same year, 1966, to show how the Spanish-themed architecture carried over through the entire development. This photo has a couple of other interesting aspects - the "mini unisphere" globe in the background which was the logo for Leisure World, and the hand painted "gas war" sign. "Gas wars" were a staple of American life in the years prior to the 1970's energy crisis. Competing stations on opposite corners would cut their price by a penny or two (which was a lot when gas was just 26 cents a gallon!), and the others would scramble to follow suit. Makes me wish the Exxon station down the street would duke it out on my behalf!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Requiem for Randhurst

On September 30, northwest suburban Chicago’s historic Randhurst Mall, a fondly remembered part of my childhood, closed its doors for the last time. Soon the bulldozers will roll, tearing down the famous triangular center core of the mall, leaving only the (still open and operating) anchor stores standing. The mall is scheduled to reopen as Randhurst Village, an open air “lifestyle center”, in Spring 2010.

Although Randhurst’s day in the sun was brief – having opened in 1962, it was completely and permanently overshadowed less than ten years later with the 1971 opening of the gargantuan Woodfield Mall just 9 miles away in nearby Schaumburg, it was very influential early on. Randhurst was groundbreaking in a number of ways that are underappreciated today – in its location strategy, its ownership structure and most of all, its outstanding architectural design.

The idea for Randhurst was originally conceived by Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., a downtown-Chicago based full-line department store with a rich 100-plus year history. With the tremendous growth of the suburbs, Carsons became acutely aware of the growing opportunities there, coupled with the hard fact that a large percentage of these new suburbanites would not be inclined to drive into the Loop to shop. Also in play was the competition factor – there was a definite need to maintain parity with their arch-rival (and State Street neighbor) Marshall Field & Company, who had recently opened their north suburban Old Orchard location and were underway with plans for Oakbrook Center in the western suburbs. Although Carsons had a couple of satellite stores to augment their State Street flagship – the very successful Edens Plaza location, opened in 1956 and another in west suburban Hillside that same year, the vast northwest suburbs, where no major shopping existed, beckoned.

(A decent sized strip mall, Mt. Prospect Plaza, would open in 1961, just down the street from Randhurst at the corner of Rand and Central roads. It contained a Goldblatt’s store, among others, and was also the site of the "Scanda House" restaurant, a fantastic smorgasbord place. Our family celebrated many special occasions there.)

In August 1958, Carsons announced its purchase of an 80-acre plot (an additional 28 acres would be added before construction started) at the intersection of Rand Road and Illinois Route 83 (Elmhurst Road) in the northwest suburb of Mount Prospect, where commissioned studies showed a population of 300,000 within a 25-minute drive and another 100,000 expected by 1965.

By early 1959, two more Chicago retail stalwarts had thrown in their lot on the new project – Wieboldt Stores Inc., and Montgomery Ward & Company. Wieboldt’s, another Chicago department store chain, had been in business for nearly 80 years at the time and had grown to 10 stores, including successful locations in suburban Evanston and River Forest. Of recent note was their very successful Harlem-Irving Plaza store, opened in 1957, which no doubt whetted the company’s appetite for more suburban expansion. Montgomery Ward, founded in Chicago in 1872, had long since become an American institution, but ironically had a negligible store presence in Chicago at the time. In a bizarre move, Montgomery Ward had frozen all store development in the mid-1940’s, and wouldn’t open a new retail unit until 1958! It’s an amazing story that I hope to discuss in more detail here someday. In 1957, Ward bought out The Fair, a small chain of department stores whose flagship was yet another fixture of State Street. In the 50’s, The Fair, which also had an Oak Park location, had added locations at Evergreen Plaza and at Old Orchard. Ward’s Randhurst store would open under The Fair nameplate.

In an unusual business arrangement for the time, the three retailers formed a joint venture, much the way competing railroads used to join together to build a “union station” in a given city. The new entity was named Randhurst Corporation, the name derived from site address at Rand and Elmhurst roads. Harold Spurway, a Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. vice president, was put in charge of the new company. Randhurst Center (later termed Randhurst Mall) would be anchored by Carsons, Wieboldt’s and The Fair, and would house some 80-odd stores and seven restaurants, totaling over 1.2 million square feet. Downtown Chicago shopping was coming to the northwest suburbs!

To design Randhurst, the corporation hired the renowned architectural firm Victor Gruen Associates . The Austrian-born Gruen was based in New York City and had already made an impressive mark in the area of shopping center architecture, having previously designed Detroit’s Northland Mall for the J. L. Hudson Company, which opened in 1954, and the Southdale Shopping Center in the Minneapolis area which opened two years afterward. Gruen had a well-developed sense of the shopping mall as a transformative societal force, eventually writing a couple of books on the subject. Gruen’s ideal was an enclosed space, with optimum traffic patterns between stores.

Because of the three-anchor setup, a triangular plan for the mall became the obvious direction. A 1962 Architectural Forum article, which aptly dubbed Randhurst a “big pinwheel on the prairie”, gives some fascinating insight into Gruen’s design process for the layout – “The intensive use of galleria space evolved directly from the problem of tying together three large stores of about equal size. Gruen at first conceived a simple triangular pattern, but this left too much space in the central court. On the other hand, had the central court area been too greatly reduced, the passages reaching from the core to the large stores would have become too long, narrow and generally unattractive. Also, a straight triangle would not have drawn shoppers so effectively as does the pinwheel”. And so, Randhurst’s design was set – a (very) large pinwheel, with a 160 foot diameter domed galleria in the center.

A multi-level central court featured a sunken “bazaar level” and a mezzanine level in the center of the galleria. The bazaar level featured “Wieboldt’s Hobby Shop”, an annex of sorts to their main store, among others. There was also a second level around the perimeter of the galleria composed of office space, which many years later would be converted to retail space. Sculptures and stylized benches were an integral part of the package, and beneath it all was a basement service level.

An unconventional mall called for an unconventional groundbreaking, which was held in November 1960. Instead of the standard lineup of executives, shovels in hand to turn over a bit of dirt, a 60-year old barn on the property was ceremonially burned down. The $20 million project was underway. On August 16, 1962, Randhurst opened its doors to throngs of excited crowds. In addition to the three anchor stores, there were a number of other notables, including a Jewel Food Store, the outside entrance of which can be seen in photo number three above, and the inside entrance in pictured below. The inside entrance was particularly attractive, with its mosaic tile surround, oval welcome sign and translucent panels featuring the store logo. In 1970, the Jewel store was relocated to a free-standing unit at the edge of the Randhurst property. There was also an S.S. Kresge store, which I remember particularly well.

In short order, the mall would prove to be a smashing success, and many stores were added to the initial lineup in the first couple of years – Baskin, Maurice L. Rothschild and Lane Bryant, to name just a few. A year after the mall opened, in August 1963, Montgomery Ward changed the name of its Randhurst store from The Fair to (of course) Montgomery Ward, capitalizing on the store’s success to promote its main banner. The store’s merchandise offering was expanded by 40 percent and a restaurant was added as well, possibly to counter Carsons' popular Tartan Tray. Within a couple of years the remaining Fair stores would also assume the Wards name. In 1966, the Wieboldt’s store was expanded from 190,000 to 225,000 square feet, making it Randhurst’s largest store. (Wards had 154,000 and Carsons 200,000 square feet).

This was the Randhurst my family discovered when we moved to Mount Prospect in early 1966. It was a magical place to my young eyes – the galleria dimly lit as if to make the storefronts shine even brighter. The Le Petit Café, a particular favorite. The polished cement floors, with seams in the Randhurst triangular logo pattern. The great concave moon-like surface of the dome (composed of sprayed-on concrete) and the funky contour of the support columns. The majestic fountain in front of Montgomery Ward, the color coded lockers inside the main mall entrances (orange, blue and yellow, I believe), the cement benches and the many plants. Most important were the cement animal-shaped sculptures. Whether or not they were meant to be played on, they most certainly were - so much so that they had a patina by the time of my earliest memories in the late 60’s. Truly charming features were the parking lot reminder signs – Apple Lot, Grape Lot, Orange Lot, etc. , with modernist pictures of the corresponding fruit. Randhurst had personality.

Another fixture of my elementary school days was the Randhurst Cinema, a single-screen theatre which opened on a Randhurst outparcel in June 1965, premiering with John Wayne’s “In Harm’s Way”. It was developed and operated by General Cinema Corporation, a Boston area company who was then in the midst of a ferocious expansion drive to build theatres in shopping centers everywhere. Randhurst was the second of many theatres GCC would open in the Chicago area. Interestingly, the first was in Mount Prospect as well (they also owned a drive-in located on Route 66, which they would eventually sell to concentrate on shopping center theatres). Among the earliest movies I saw there were “The Battle of Britain” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (the Peter O’Toole version). Of course, I saw a ton of Disney flicks there as well, including “Napoleon and Samantha” and “Herbie Rides Again”. I checked the most recent AFI Top 100 list, and unfortunately these two didn’t make it. Oh well, maybe next time around.

We continued to shop regularly at Randhurst until 1971, when two things happened. One, we moved a bit further away (we would return to the Mt. Prospect area less than two years later). Secondly, our hearts were stolen by a new mall – Woodfield – and things would never be the same. The largest mall in the world at the time of its opening, Woodfield had it all – Sears, JCPenney, Marshall Field’s, scads of other stores, and for me – Musicland and the Orange Bowl restaurant. It was all over but the shouting. Unfortunately for Randhurst, too many people felt the same way, although a loyal, local core of shoppers continued to hang in there. After Woodfield opened, Randhurst became a once-in-a-while stop, and by 1976 or so we barely darkened the door, despite the addition of some nice stores, including an Americana store, and the great Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Chicago’s bookstore of repute before the advent of Barnes and Noble.

In mid-1981, Randhurst Corporation sold out to Columbia, Maryland-based developer Rouse Company. Among many other projects, Rouse was involved in the early redevelopment of the near-abandoned Navy Pier to the shopping funland it is today. Although their plans for Randhurst were more modest, they still felt the need to update Randhurst’s appearance, and a number of renovation projects were initiated. The dome’s space-age cement fascia was stripped away to reveal bar joists and corrugated decking. The funky contoured columns were given a (boring) cylindrical refacing, and brass lighting sconces were attached. The mall’s lighting level was cranked up, and the main floor was resurfaced in a white and rose striped terrazzo, admittedly a very nice touch. Eventually, the fountain and sculptures were gone, the Gruen-trademark cement benches replaced with off-the-shelf wooden types. Additional stores were crammed everywhere, including the second level, and a food court was placed atop the center galleria mezzanine. It all served to give Randhurst a more generic appearance, in my opinion.

I’ve been to Randhurst twice in the last quarter century. In 1987, I moved away from the Chicago area to Atlanta to begin my career. One Saturday afternoon shortly before I moved, my Dad took me to Randhurst to buy me a briefcase as a going away present. It seemed like a special moment even at the time, and of course I look back on it with fondness. (My dad is still alive and well.) I remember marveling at how much Randhurst had changed since the remodeling. The second time was just about a year ago. I was on a business trip to Chicago that took me to the northwest suburbs, and I had recently read about the upcoming changes to Randhurst. Besides the obvious changes – Wieboldt’s and Wards were long gone, Carsons was now located in the old Wieboldt’s store, the revolving door of other anchors, etc., I was sad to see the mall looking somewhat emptyish, and the stores that were left didn’t seem to be doing that well. As much as I hate to see history torn down, I certainly see the logic behind the lifestyle center conversion, and I wish the new incarnation of Randhurst all the best. I’m grateful for photographs and memories, though.

There are some excellent Randhurst articles to be found on the following websites, which chronicle Randhurst’s more recent history in much more detail. Labelscar has a great article and photos, which are fun to contrast with those I’ve included here. The Mall Hall of Fame has another great article on Randhurst, part of a series on Victor Gruen’s historic malls (the site also showcases other mall pioneers as well). Stores Forever is a site by John Gallo, who seems to have been at all the right places at the right times, and fortunately for us, he brought his camera along. Check out his two recent posts on Randhurst, including great 1982 views of the anchor store facades, which were largely unchanged from their original appearance at the time.

These photos are all circa 1962, Randhurst’s maiden year. The first photo, showing the classic Randhurst sign is a publicity shot from the sign company. The exteriors and galleria shots (in the sixth photo, check out the whale sculpture and the ladies in Randhurst logo hats in the foreground) are by famed architectural photographer Balthazar Korab and appeared in the November 1962 issue of Architectural Forum, the section and plan views are from the same magazine, and the individual store façade shots below are from Chain Store Age. (Corned Beef Center, where ya been?) Last is a grand opening ad with a listing of the initial lineup of stores.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Take Another Look - at Zayre!

(In our case, one last look at Zayre for the time being, with some nice photos from 1981.) Ah, the asterisk. Throughout history, nothing else has etched “Buy! Buy! Buy!” in the mind of the American consumer in quite the same way. Even today, its hypnotic pulling power is employed by a wide range of entities, from gargantuan retailers to well-loved retail fansites. And from the late 70’s through the end of its existence, the asterisk was Zayre’s calling card, with an association that endures even today. For a time, it actually helped.

By the mid-70’s Zayre, a billion-dollar company by that time, was in trouble. Profits were down sharply, stockholders were upset, and Zayre’s image with the buying public was a mess. The country was in the midst of a gloomy recession, which mortally wounded a number of discount retailers. More than a few of Zayre’s problems were self-inflicted, however, as company chairman Sumner Feldberg later admitted, with brutal candor, to the New York Times – “Our stores were not exciting and each did relatively little volume…attempting to stay alive, we squeezed the payroll and this created low operating standards for the stores”.

In a bid to reverse Zayre’s fortunes, the Feldberg family turned the company reins over to an outsider for the first time. In 1978, Maurice Segall, a Canadian-born vice president of the American Express Company and former executive of Steinberg’s, a large Quebec-based grocery/discount chain, was installed as Zayre’s president and CEO. Attracted by the prospect of a turnaround for the Zayre stores, but even more so by the potential of the fledgling T.J. Maxx chain, (a then 12-store Zayre subsidiary launched in 1976)and the 200 Hit or Miss stores, Segall jumped in and set about the task.

One of Segall’s most successful strategies was to strengthen Zayre’s presence in urban markets, which by 1983 contributed nearly 30% of the company’s sales and an astounding 60-plus percent of its profits. Already having a strong established urban base of Zayre-built stores, the company benefited from the flight of other chains from these areas, including one Chicago example cited by the Wall Street Journal, where Zayre took over a May Company-owned Venture store that had just posted a loss on $7 million in sales. After a year of operation as a Zayre, the same store was profitable on nearly double the sales. Smart merchandising played a major part, of course –the company scaled down its home repair and lawn mower departments, owing to the fact that many urban dwellers rent their homes. At the same time, Zayre significantly expanded its apparel offerings in these stores, providing a wide clothing selection for areas where store choices were often limited.

Segall’s master plan for Zayre included some relatively minor tweaking of the company’s geography, coupled with a major revamp of its store mix. Zayre pulled out of the St. Louis and Minneapolis markets altogether. The Warwick Shoppers Worlds, Bell/Nugents, and fabric stores were all disposed of. A major ramp-up of the Hit or Miss and T.J. Maxx store programs was launched, with the T.J. Maxx store count ballooning from 12 to nearly 170 units by 1985.
And of course, there was the “extreme makeover” of the Zayre stores themselves, a forty-million dollar revamp phased in over a four-year period beginning in 1978 (although it had been “previewed” on a couple of stores a year or so earlier). The orange-and-brown rainbow color scheme and the venerable asterisk would become familiar sights in communities (and in TV commercials) throughout all Zayre-dom. It was an outward sign of a new optimism at the now very profitable Zayre. For his efforts, Segall was awarded the chairman’s title as an addition to those he already held in November 1986.

Zayre’s “second golden age” proved to be short-lived, as the virtual bottom fell out in 1988. From a nearly $130 million operating profit the previous year, Zayre posted a disastrous $13.9 million loss. The late 70’s remodels were by now looking old. Zayre had become overly dependent on deep-discounted specials, to the point where customers spurned anything the chain sold at regular price. Most troubling were the apparel lines, where Zayre was losing ground rapidly to Kmart’s Jaclyn Smith line and also to Dayton-Hudson’s growing Target chain and their “Honors” line, an early example of that company’s affordable trendsetting prowess. In a May 1988 article outlining Zayre’s woes, the Wall Street Journal quoted a college student named Marie as she pointed at the Zayre store in Cambridge, Mass. “Look at it,” she said. “If my friends saw me coming out of a place like that, they’d never talk to me again”. Ouch.

By this time, it was clear to most that the real gem of the Zayre organization was the TJX Companies (T.J. Maxx), in which Zayre held an 80% percent stake, having sold a chunk of it to the public in 1987. Talk of a corporate breakup of Zayre began to circulate. It took a hostile takeover attempt by the infamous Haft family to actually bring it about. In August 1988, Herbert Haft announced his family’s intention to buy a major stake in Zayre. In the previous couple of years, the Hafts had made similar runs at Safeway and Stop and Shop, among others, and at the same time they pursued Zayre they had Kroger firmly in their sights as well. In each instance these companies were forced into a defensive position, with Safeway and Stop and Shop being taken private (Safeway later went public again and Stop and Shop would sell out to Royal Ahold) and Kroger forced to restructure. Although the Hafts never ended up controlling these firms, in most instances they walked away with a pile of cash, which was probably their intention in the first place. Zayre’s response was to break up the company. In mid-September, Zayre announced its sale of their discount (Zayre-branded) stores to Ames Department Stores Inc. of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, in a cash and stock transaction.

Ames’ purchase of Zayre made them the third largest discount chain behind Wal-Mart and Kmart, but it placed a tremendous strain on Ames, like “a guppie (sp) swallowing an Atlantic salmon”, to once again quote from the Journal. Ames closed 74 underperforming Zayre stores and (mildly) facelifted the remaining 315. Beyond the name change, which was applied to most but not all Zayre stores to mixed opinion, Ames failed to appeal to Zayre’s small but loyal band of customers in some important ways. They discontinued the Zayre credit card, through which 5.5% of Zayre sales had come, not an insignificant percentage. The tradition of keeping Zayre’s stores open 24 hours a day in the days leading up to Christmas was abandoned. Most importantly, Zayre’s “promotional” approach – special sales, mailed circulars, markdowns and TV ad blitzes was discarded in favor of Ames’ “everyday low price” approach. In April 1990, with the strain of the Zayre acquisition lumped in with the generally poor economy of their core New England market, Ames filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the first of two times they would do so. Two years later, Ames sued the advisers who promoted the Zayre transaction. In 2002, Ames closed their doors for good. The TJX Companies are still going strong.

Just for fun, here are a few Zayre commercials from their “renaissance period” - The “Take Another Look” campaign from 1978, a great 1980-ish Chicago Grand Opening ad featuring the fastest stockers in the world, and a Christmas ad from 1984. And here’s a link to a great post on Eddie’s Rail Fan Page, featuring a great night shot of a 60’s vintage Zayre revamped to the 1978 image, right down to the asterisk door handles! This empty parking lot shot brings back memories of driving home on late winter nights in my early 20's, pondering the great questions of life, like this bit of eighties profundity I read recently (can't remember where) - "Should I stay or rock the casbah?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Joys of Zayreshopping

No joke, “Zayreshopping” was an actual word coined by the company in 1975, the year these photos were taken. In their own words – “Zayreshopping is what we call the phenomenon we see so frequently: entire families shopping together in one of our stores. What makes it possible is that we have gathered together in one convenient location a broad diversity of merchandise assortments, ranging from fashion apparel to quality hardware, and from records and tapes to fabrics and yarn”.

The reality for Zayre (and for many other discount chains whose name didn’t begin with a “K”) was bleak at the time, but a major image revamp for Zayre was in the works and would launch the following year. These photos do a good job of showing the colorful hodgepodge (with a couple of ghostly superimposed models tossed in for good measure) that was Zayre in the early seventies.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go Walmartshopping.