Monday, September 22, 2008

The Zayre Family Album, 1971

With 10-plus years of successful growth under their belts, Zayre began to look at opportunities to bring some new retail formats under its corporate umbrella. Pictured above in a set of individual photos is the expanded “Zayre empire” as of late 1971. These additional banners each shared key attributes with the main Zayre operation, in product offering (fashions, fabrics, toys, general merchandise) and/or in geography (sharing Zayre’s primary New England trade area).

The first photo, of course, is of the “mother ship” itself. After an impressive five-year run, Zayre was coming off of a disappointing profit year, despite record revenues for 1970 of just under $600 million. At this time, Zayre had over 150 stores, covering nearly every major market east of the Mississippi River. The competitive onslaught of the behemoth Kmart chain was by now beginning to take its toll on the competition, though Zayre would prosper through it longer than most.

The second photo depicts a Shoppers City, one of four Minnesota stores that Zayre acquired in the winter of 1966/67 from Northern Enterprises Inc., of Duluth. Northern Enterprises’ primary business was (of all things) a bus company – the Duluth-Superior Transit Line, to be specific. A couple of years earlier, Northern had bought the retailer in a diversification move as its transit business flagged. The chain’s founders, Melvin Roth and Seymour Rothstein, were kept on to run Shoppers City, an arrangement that Zayre stayed with after their purchase of the chain. Zayre set the company up as a wholly-owned subsidiary called SC Trading Corp. For the first several years, Zayre operated these four stores under their original name, later co-branding them “Zayre Shoppers City” in the early 1970’s. A unique aspect (for Zayre) of these stores was their “family center” arrangement – general merchandise and a full supermarket under one roof.

The third photo shows what is probably the most familiar Zayre-owned nameplate behind Zayre itself and the still-to-come TJ Maxx. Hit or Miss was a chain of discount specialty stores aimed at the young womens’ apparel market. Hit or Miss was a division of Dedham, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Trading Company, and their first store opened in 1965 in Natick, Zayre’s home base at the time. When Zayre bought Commonwealth in late 1970, there were only 10 Hit or Miss stores. In the ensuing decades, the Hit or Miss chain would become a familiar fixture in shopping centers all over America, reaching a most impressive tally of nearly 600 stores by 1991. There were perennial problems, however, and an unfortunate number of management shakeups and new strategies were tried along the way. Hit or Miss ultimately outlasted Zayre as a retail brand, but not by long - spun off to its management in 1995, the last Hit or Miss stores sadly closed in 2001.

Photos four and five show the Bell Shops and Nugents womens' specialty stores, the Feldberg family’s original retail business. Reaching a peak of nearly 80 units in the 1950’s, the Bell Shops/Nugents operation was trimmed back through attrition as the stores’ leases expired. Settling on some 40-odd locations in the late 60’s, the stores were still struggling until a new strategy was put in place. Up to that point, the stores apparel offering was far too similar to that carried in the Zayre stores. A decision was made to establish a separate buying group charged with upgrading the Bell Shops/Nugents image with a higher grade of merchandise, sold at correspondingly higher prices. This would lead to the opening of some new Bell Shops/Nugents stores right next door to new Zayre units, which did surprisingly well.

The sixth photo shows a Beaconway Fabrics store. Boston-based Beaconway had been the fabric/sewing notions licensee for the Zayre stores, and also operated five stores under their own name in the Massachusetts region. In July 1968, Zayre bought out the Beaconway firm, keeping the individual fabric stores open.

Pictured in the seventh photo is Warwick Shoppers World, a discount chain based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island that Zayre acquired in June 1970. This company was founded by Edward Zwetchkenbaum and had 10 stores at the time of the Zayre buyout, operating under the names Warwick Shoppers World (Warren and Middletown, RI and Worcester and Bellingham, Mass, among others) and Coats Field Shoppers World (Pawtucket, RI and Brockton, Mass). There was also an apparel unit called the New York Lace Store. The stores were advertised as Warwick/Zayre stores. An interesting footnote in Warwick’s history was the tiny chain’s fight against the “Fair Trade Laws” (now-repealed laws that allowed manufacturers to set retail prices) in the late fifties and early sixties. The company made national headlines at the time as they were sued by such big names as General Electric and U.S. Time (Timex), among others, joining the fair trade battle alongside much larger retailers such as E.J. Korvette.

The last photo shows a Spree! store from one of Zayre’s most interesting ventures, a chain of discount toy stores launched in September 1970. The chain reached 13 units by October of the following year, when a 36,000 square foot Spree! store was opened in Enfield, Connecticut. The timing proved to be unfortunate as the Spree! rollout coincided with the meteoric rise of Toys “R” Us and stiff competition from Child World, among others. By 1976, there were only six Spree! units, and those would be gone by year’s end.

But in 1971, things looked different, of course. As the old saying goes, “Nice looking family!”


  1. THIS IS AWESOME,big primitive looking bare bones roof signage extravaganza!!!!!!!!


    I love it, so colorful.

    I never knew Hit or Miss was around much longer than the 1990s.

  2. Spree!

    funniest and cleverest store name EVER!


  3. Those pics of Shoppers City and Warwick Shoppers World are FABULOUS!
    These are the sort of discount places that make me wish I could jump right into those pictures and stay there for hours!

    I wanna go!

  4. Like Mark, I didn't think Hit Or Miss made it into the early 00s. I thought for sure the last of them was gone by the mid-90s. I miss that place, it was a great place to shop for affordable clothing for women. Not the kind of throw-away clothing you see in most "affordable" places like Rainbow & Debs.

  5. Zayre was really the only national rival for Kmart for many years, as Woolco was never as successful as Kmart or Zayre. What amazes me is Zayre's arsenal, it better executed and better managed could have possibly overtaken Kmart. Zayre had a big advantage over other discounters in ethnic and urban appeal, with Kmart a distant second in that area.

    Of course today, BJ's Wholesale and TJMaxx are the only remnants of the Zayre empire. It's no small coincidence that BJ's has the reputation as the most consumer friendly of the membership warehouses.

  6. Mark - I agree! Those huge neon signs looked incredible against a night sky.

    Hit or Miss was down to about 200 stores (from a peak of near 600) by the end of the 90's, so they had pulled out of most of therir markets by that time. And Spree! was a great name (although not very descriptive!).

    David - These are definitely two I would have loved to have seen!

    Didi - Low priced clothing does tend to be "disposable" today, I would agree.

    Ken - it would have been interesting to see how Zayre would have fared in the western half of the country, a territory they barely ventured into.

    I think the urban strategy came a bit later in their history, and was definitely a plus for them. It could have been a winner for Kmart had they played it right.

  7. I am actually very displeased with the cheap, throw-away mentality of today. I would rather buy something at a low or mid-price that actually has a chance of lasting then to buy something for that same price only for it to fall apart or wear out easily. Chains like Petrie and Hit Or Miss specialized in nice looking clothes for a good price but sadly that concept just doesn't fly today. I really do miss it and those stores.

  8. There was a Zayre in McKeesport near where I grew up. I loved their Christmas 24 hour ads. Sometimes kind of dumpy, the red big letter sign did lure you in. I bought alot of housewares from them in the 80's.

  9. The only chain that really got its foot in the ground here was Hit or Miss, having well over a dozen or so stores here in WI, but not really until the 1970s-1980s. I recall seeing them all over the Milwaukee area (most were strip mall-based), though they also had stores in Kenosha, Madison, and Green Bay at various enclosed malls in those areas.

    The way those signs are done up and affixed to the building facade, especially like that of Nugent's (I paid particular attention to the facade itself).....reminds me of a few strip malls I've been to when I was real young.

    Also note the font of Bell Shops's and Nugent's signs. A certain New England-based discounter's logo came to mind when I saw those.

  10. About my original comment, what I meant was I did not know that Hit or Miss existed as a store before the 1990s.

    I thought they were a newcomer in the early and mid 90's. I was so young back then that I didn't really pay attention to how long a store I never heard of before existed.

    Also I did not know they lasted longer than the late 90's, the only store of Hit or Miss I been to was in the Torrington Shop & Stop Plaza and that one only lasted a few years. After they closed I thought they were gone.

  11. I remember the Warwick's store in Middletown, RI. My dad was in the Navy, and he was stationed there in the mid 70's in Newport. I was only in 2-4 grades, but I remember the big Warwicks sign...with the Zayre stuff inside...

    Love the site!

  12. SB - The Pittsburgh area was one of Zayre's key early markets. And I agree with you on the Christmas ads, they were great! I hope to link in a few on an upcoming post.

    Matt - Hit or Miss probably had the widest geographic coverage of any Zayre chain except TJ Maxx. And that logo does look familiar, but I believe Zayre might have had it first! I believe that in '71, Bradlees' logo still looked like the ones pictured on this site. a

    Mark - They were around. It was pretty much a downhill slide for them through the 1990's, with many store closings before the final end.

    Jerry - Sounds like we're about the same age. I would love to seen these stores. Looking back, it's a bit surprising that I didn't, since I spent nearly a month in R.I. at my grandparents' place every summer through the 70's. (I'm from Chicago) The one I do remember firsthand, and really liked, was Mammoth Mart. Thanks very much!

  13. Spree had two locations in the Cleveland, OH area. Around 1972, another toy chain, "Fun City USA" took the two Cleveland Sprees over. Eventually Fun City USA was taken over by Lionel Kiddie City, and remained in business until 1992 or so, when Kiddie City went out of business.

  14. I bought most all of my great beautiful discount clothes at the great very much missed Hit Or Miss stores from my mid teens to about age 30!