Thursday, October 29, 2009

Murphy's Mart By The Numbers

At the end of 1973 there were 22 Murphy’s Marts in operation, most of which were in G.C. Murphy’s western Pennsylvania home territory. Even in this core market - the “Heart of Murphyland” as it were, the company’s late entry into discounting had put them at a major competitive disadvantage, especially in relation to Kmart, whose presence in all of Murphy’s key areas now well established. Added to that was the general economic situation of the day, with no foreseeable end to rampant inflation. The combination of the poor mid-70’s economy with an oversupply of loosely managed, poor performing discount chains would soon precipitate an industry shakeout, affecting names mentioned here many times before– Topps/White Front, Turn-Style, and closer to home, longtime variety store competitor W.T. Grant. All in all, Murphy’s found itself in a most challenging environment.

Nevertheless, the company now appeared ready to cast its lot with the Marts, and a major ramp-up of new store openings would soon be underway. Twenty-plus stores had taught the company a major lesson, however – that in many cases, the typical 80 to 100,000 square foot Murphy’s Marts were too large for their respective trade areas. To rectify this, the company came up with a scalable concept to be used for all Murphy’s Marts going forward. Four basic store footprints were developed and described by the company in 1973.

The “900” series signified the “heavyweights of (Murphy’s) store mix”, being the largest Marts at 98,000 square feet. These were free-standing units, paired with a 30,000 square foot top-name supermarket to create a “true one-stop shopping complex”, and were reserved for the company’s most densely populated markets. The larger floor space would “accommodate broader selections and trade-up priced merchandise at competitive discount prices”. Next were the “800” series stores, 88,000 square foot units that would either be either free-standing or would “anchor a mall-type shopping center”, the company’s preferred setting for the “800” stores, “where available”. Then came the “700” stores, similar in all respects to the “800” stores except for their smaller square footage of 66,000. Here again, mall locations were Murphy’s preference. The company was careful to point out that the “700” stores offered “substantially the same selection of merchandise as the larger ‘900’ and ‘800’ series”, only in smaller quantities. It’s clear that Murphy felt that the “700” stores hit the proverbial sweet spot, and would “play a significant role in (their) future expansion plans”, and that “Present experience, though limited, seems to indicate “700” series Marts are more economical than larger Marts yet are still capable of high volume retailing”. More problematic were the 45,000 square foot “600” series Marts, which “were initially conceived as ‘swing stores’, and could be operated as Murphy’s Marts in some locations and as conventional (G.C. Murphy-branded) stores in others”. (Hey, Pennsylvania’s a “swing state”, isn’t it?) The dual branding idea was scrapped and whatever “600” stores were opened did so as Murphy’s Marts, although their similarity in size to the company’s variety stores led in many cases to customer confusion.

With the new store formats set, the company turned its focus to making up for lost time, rolling out new Murphy's Marts at a much faster pace than before. In 1976-77 alone, 56 new Marts were opened, forty of which were former W.T. Grant locations, picked up in the wake of that company's tragic bankruptcy in 1975. Many of these Grants locations were located in the Southern states. The company was unable, however, to leverage the famous G.C. Murphy name - one of their key strategies in building up the Marts in the Eastern and Midwest states - in the new Southern market areas, due to the relative paucity of G.C. Murphy stores in the Southeast and the fact that their Southwestern stores still went under the Morgan & Lindsey name.

Even in their strongest markets, though, the "Murphy's" name recognition factor was a double-edged sword. The book "For the Love of Murphy's" by Jason Togyer mentions customer frustration with the G.C. Murphy variety stores' higher pricing level as compared to the Murphy's Marts, and the fact that they weren't allowed to return or exchange merchandise purchased from one chain at the other's stores. Several retired Murphy's executives are quoted on this issue, ruefully noting that S.S. Kresge did not experience the same problem. Kmart was different enough in name and meteoric enough (how's that for a measurement?) in its success that the Kresge/Kmart association was largely forgotten in the minds of most consumers by the mid-1970's. And it didn't help that Murphy's newspaper ads continued to routinely promote both chains' sales in the same space, a practice that was finally scuttled in 1979.

By the end of the 1970's, G.C. Murphy was losing money. A November 1979 Business Week article was painfully sharp in its analysis of the company's problems, placing a large chunk of the blame on the increased number of Murphy's Marts, which the company was "still trying to assimilate", due to the fact that it "expanded its Mart operations faster than it could control them". The basic contention of the article was that G.C. Murphy had never recognized "that it runs two distinctly different types of retail businesses". That year, major changes were made, including the forced retirement of Murphy's president, who was replaced by Chuck Lytle, a veteran Murphy executive, amiable and extremely well-liked by the troops. The Marts and variety store operations were finally separated into two groups, and advertising would no longer be shared. Interestingly, the Murphy's Mart store footprint would shrink even more, with "the greatest share of the new units (to) be 32,000 sq. ft to 38,000 sq. ft". Eight of the oldest Murphy's Marts, which at an average 90,000 square feet were gigantic by comparison, were shuttered.

Over the next few years there would be a few more closings, both of Murphy’s Marts (some of the weaker performing ex-Grants stores in the South) and of variety stores. The early 1980’s would also see a couple of major retoolings of the Marts, including an attempt to bolster the quality of the apparel offerings (a perennially weak area for the company) and to update the stores’ décor, the early 70’s green , gold and orange having grown stale by that time. In his book, Togyer likens the updated 1984 Murphy’s Mart look to that later adopted by Target, incorporating “expensive-looking displays lit with baby spotlights” as part of interiors “done over in sleek, corporate white with red and blue accents and simple, handsome signs”. These new signs featured a stylized “M” that looked like a neon tube. A November 1983 Chain Store Age article highlighted some new additions to the merchandise mix as well: “Gitano color-fit jeans, Gloria Vanderbilt black denims and Wrangler cords”, all part of an effort to make soft lines “the central focus of the Marts”. Also, it was mandated that the song “Maniac” from the Flashdance movie soundtrack be played on a continuous tape loop in all Murphy’s Mart adult apparel departments.

These efforts (All except for the “Maniac” song loop – I just made that up.) were paying off. According to the same article, G.C. Murphy sales, despite a store lineup of 19 fewer units, were $872 million for 1983, up six percent from the previous year. Profits, however, were up an astounding 56 percent, a feat the magazine credited to the “increased emphasis on the Murphy’s Mart stores”.

At any previous time in the 20th century, this upturn in fortunes might possibly have been seen as the beginning of an exciting new era – at the very least a “mini golden age” for the Murphy organization. But these were the 1980’s, an era in which the old rules of business were rapidly going by the wayside. Murphy was about to become a victim of its own success.

From a business standpoint, the 1980’s were a drama like none that had gone before. “Hostile takeovers” formed the plot, and “corporate raiders” were the villains. The helpless victims were staid, old-line companies with large reserves of cash and little debt, conservatively run and largely owned by “Gram-and-Gramp”-type investors, who faithfully acquired the stock in small amounts and held onto it forever. All too often, there were no heroes in these real-life tales. Under a hostile takeover typical of those that took place in the 80’s, the corporate raider, or “investor”, would target a company and seek to sow discord among its shareholders, charging inefficiency or malfeasance of some sort on the part of the company ‘s board and management. Well-heeled or well-backed, the investor would begin to acquire blocks of the company’s stock, eventually gaining a controlling interest. At that point, sensing the writing on the wall, the remaining shareholders were usually more than willing to sell their shares. All that was left then was for the raider (excuse me, I mean “investor”) to break up the company and sell it off in pieces, usually resulting in a huge profit. It was a scenario that played itself out time and time again through the 80’s. Eventually, government regulations, prosecutions and (just a theory here) a possible latent desire for respect on the part of the raiders caused the trend to wind down. To learn more, you can find any number of books on the subject, or you can just rent the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, which sums the whole sordid thing up remarkably well. (And the hairstyles are awesome.)

To be sure, The G.C. Murphy Company was an old-line, cash rich, low-debt, (very) conservative company, with investor rolls filled with Grandmas and Grandpas. And nowhere were the corporate raiders more brutal than in the retail world. The most (in)famous of these was Herbert Haft, who in the space of a few years went after Safeway, Federated, Stop & Shop, Eckerd, Kroger, Dayton-Hudson and others, leaving very little time for hobbies, I’m sure. None of these takeover attempts succeeded, but in most cases Haft walked away with a pile of cash and left a lot of damage in his wake. Haft’s basic tactic – he’d buy an interest in a company, threaten a hostile takeover, and refuse to back off unless the company bought back his shares at a huge premium, which they invariably did - came to be known as “greenmail”. He apparently considered G.C. Murphy too small to bother with, as there is no record of any advances made toward them.

Others were interested, however. New Jersey-based investor Arthur Goldberg, characterized as “one of Wall Street’s sharks” by Togyer, had acquired 7.5 percent of Murphy’s stock by early 1984. Just prior to that, Murphy proposed a new policy to its shareholders that would have mandated an 80 percent majority of shareholders to approve the dismissal of any member of the board of directors or a merger with another company. Goldberg sought to defeat the proposal, and when he lost, decided to dump his stock. After some hemming and hawing, Murphy management tried to corral a group of investors friendly to the company to buy Goldberg out, almost putting it together, but ultimately falling short. Goldberg sold out to an apparently bigger shark - Irwin Jacobs, a Minneapolis-based investor charmingly known, according to Togyer, as “Irv the Liquidator”. Eventually Jacobs would rack up an astounding 19 percent of Murphy’s common stock, and all of the power that went along with it.

Now having to deal with a new, even tougher adversary, Murphy brass tried to prevail upon Jacobs to sell his shares back to the company. Togyer’s book describes some fairly humorous scenes of facility tours the company hosted for Jacobs, instructing store and distribution center managers beforehand “not to clean up”, the intent being to leave a shoddy impression - convincing Jacobs he’d made a dubious investment and compelling him to sell his stake back to the company, cheap.

Once again, Murphy attempted to put together a coalition to sufficiently finance the repurchase of its stock, and once again, sadly, it failed. On April 13, 1985, the announcement was made that Irwin Jacobs had struck a deal to sell his G.C. Murphy holdings. The buyer? Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Ames Department Stores. After an agonizing summer filled with offers and counteroffers, legal maneuverings, jockeying for position and considerable fear and loathing, the deal was finally done on August 6. The G.C. Murphy Company, a proud 90 year old organization, one of America’s retail pioneers, was gone.

Off the bat, plans were announced to close nearly one-fourth of the G.C. Murphy variety stores. Ames’ main interest in the transaction was to gain control of the Murphy’s Marts and convert them to Ames units, a process that ended up taking nearly two years. Immediately, however, management responsibility for the Marts was shifted to Rocky Hill, while the variety store division continued to report to McKeesport.

As expected in most any merger situation, considerable vitriol flowed from both sides of the Ames-Murphy’s merger, which the Togyer book and several press articles I’ve read expound in fascinating detail. Murphy partisans described the Ames operation as follows: “Honky-tonk operations…a mess…a terrible store with terrible merchandising…We should have been the one to take Ames over”. A Wall Street analyst “who asked not to be named” (gee, I wonder why…) took up the cause for Ames in a September 1987 New York Times article: “My assumption is that there’s something really rotten at the Murphy’s operation. Ames was beautifully managed all those years before it bought Murphy’s”. (While reading this stuff, the Ramones song “We’re a Happy Family” kept running through my head. Not at all fitting, I know, but it’s like trying to stop thinking about a hippopotamus when a friend dares you that you can’t!)

The variety store division, which in 1989 consisted of 131 G.C. Murphy stores and 25 “Bargain World” outlets was never a fit for Ames and in August 1989, Ames sold it to E-II Holdings, a company controlled by legendary financier Meshulam Riklis. E-II (later called McCrory Corp.) had pretty much become the repository for the five-and-ten biz by that time, with a stable that included McCrory (which had been a Riklis property for decades under his previous company, Rapid-American Corporation), J.J. Newberry, H.L. Green, S.H. Kress, T.G. & Y and Britts, among others. Despite this, Riklis was probably most famous for his marriage to Pia Zadora, an aspiring actress/singer. Riklis had famously invested several of his McCrory millions in an effort to make her a star. I met the diminutive Ms. Zadora in my youth at a record signing at Atlanta’s Lenox Square while visiting my cousins there in ’83 or so, and thought she was nice, and even better looking in person than in all of her ridiculously expensive publicity. At that point I deemed her new single, called “The Clapping Song” if I remember right, to be a non-deleterious issue.

The G.C. Murphy story’s ending coincides with that of the 20th century, upon the folding of its two successor companies. In 2002, McCrory Corporation, last of the variety store operators with a paltry 200 stores left of its “empire” (a handful of which operated under the G.C. Murphy banner to the bitter end), closed its doors for good.

Ames, a fascinating story in and of itself, closed down in August of that same year. Having acquired several large retailers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, including several chains outright – King’s, Murphy’s, Zayre, Hills – and prime locations from a slew of other defunct chains, Ames struggled for years prior to its demise. The prevailing opinion is that Ames finally collapsed under the weight of the Zayre acquisition, finding the assimilation of the stores far more costly and difficult than anticipated.

A few of the former Ames units are first-generation Murphy’s Marts, sitting vacant to this day, just waiting for an enterprising soul to show up and open “Big Murph’s Flea Market”. You never know.

Shown above are Murphy publicity photos from 1973-4. Ok, by the numbers: First, a great-looking “900” series Murphy’s Mart/Acme combination, this one being the first Mart to open in Baltimore. Next up are an exterior view and the inside mall entrance of the Butler, Pennsylvania, location, an “800” store. Note the fine examples of 70’s art to the left of the inside entrance (the paintings, not the cornstalk man). Following are similar views of the DuBois, Pennsylvania location (right, a “700” store – you’re getting this!), with the young lady in the foreground in the de rigueur plaid flares. Last is a “600” store, from Westernport, Maryland, which leaves me at a loss for words. (If I think of any, I’ll edit the post. Don’t wait up.) Below is kind of a strange one, from 1975. A photo of a similar looking facade (sans the happy-looking store crew in the foreground) is featured in the Togyer book and is captioned in a way that leads me to believe it’s one of the former W.T. Grant stores, fitted with a Murphy’s Mart logo that’s an odd throwback to an earlier version.
****A special note to everyone – thanks for bearing with me through the longer stretches between posts lately. I’m working towards resuming my former blistering, frenetic posting pace (haha) that you’ve all grown accustomed to, and to responding to your comments on a much more timely basis. They are wonderful, informative and greatly appreciated as always. One thing I’ve learned, to my horror, is that a number of responses I’ve written to emails I’ve received over the last month or so (which I definitely have attempted to respond to promptly) have apparently not gone through. I’ve had this problem with Hotmail before. I will try to look them up and resend them on another email account. If you have written me recently or were expecting communication from me on something or another, and are sitting there thinking “Wow, Dave’s been one poor correspondent. He’s been too, too hard to find. I guess that means we ain’t been on his mind!”, nothing could be further from the truth. Please drop me another quick line and I’ll resend my original response. (Or I’ll at least apologize like heck!) Thanks again.****


  1. The last Murphy Mart pictured looks very much like the ones I remember from Springboro and Lebanon Ohio. The sign is exactly the same. I don't believe they had been Grants as they were paired with Kroger in both locations as anchors.

  2. Real estate played a big role in the 80s acquisition mania, along with the cash and lack of debt. The long-term leases in prime downtown and shopping center locations were attractive, esp. given landlords' desire to have something that might perform better than stagnated variety stores. Department store chains, also growing slowly, usually owned their property which meant that it could be sold and leased-back.

    What halted all of this for awhile was the distatrous leveraged buyout of Revco. The chain had internal problems from having acquired many small to medium sized chains in the South, which gave them a hodgepodge of locations, many of tehm in need of investment (which Revco didn't make). Around this time, management of the chain was being transfrerred to the inept son of the founder Sid Dworkin. The buyout of the chain exposed all of its problems and there was a massive amount of turnover in administration to cut costs, which amde things worse (no continuity, lots of green people). In the end, the whole thing went bankrupt. Most of these things went badly.

    Ames was stuck with crappy operations (Kings) or stores that had run on a very different model (Hill's), or which drew a very different clientele (Zayre). They were doomed. Their HQ, incidently, was a former strip center, originally anchored by a Finast which had had a quick death in the 70s. It kind of foretold their fate. the strip was a little too far from a new freeway and all the business had gone to a better located strip with Caldor and Food Mart.

  3. Also, it was mandated that the song “Maniac” from the Flashdance movie soundtrack be played on a continuous tape loop in all Murphy’s Mart adult apparel departments

    OMG! LOL! I laughed so hard at this. I actually did NOT think you were being facitious until I read the next paragraph.

    The store in the third photo, inside that mall, that's one great looking display case to the right. Cool.

  4. One thing to mention on the demise of the these discounters was the inventory control. Before the days of computers and management information systems, inventory purchasing and management was a guessing game. Order too little, sell outs and upset customers, order too many, markdowns and possibility of pilferage/shoplifting. During the 60's and 70's the costs of implementing computer systems to manage the business was very expensive and reliability of the systems were hit & miss. I recall the old NCR POS terminals were massive! And the back end systems/servers were huge!

  5. Great pictures! Some great shots of vintage mall interiors in there: I'm sure they're a spitting image of how the east wing of the Mountaineer Mall in Morgantown, WV looked in the 1970s and early 1980s. A shame about the chain's inglorious downfall: I wonder if, had Goldberg, Jacobs, and Ames been out of the picture, Murphy's would still have had a chance of surviving today?

    I have to say that the scripted "Murphy's Mart" logotype on the first five photos looks very attractive! By contrast, the original, straight-laced logo looked dated even by 1970 standards...

  6. Dave, once again--thanks for sharing all of this, I felt like I was reliving history!

    FYI, in the final picture here? The man down in front (in the blue plaid jacket) is Peter Rumskey. 5 years after this photo was taken, he was transferred from Texas to Waynesburg, PA (to the new Murphy's Mart that had just opened--Murphys Mart was notorious for transferring managers around the country) and became my boss for the next 7 years! He was a good man, and decided to stay in Waynesburg (he's retired now) after the store closed in 2002. (I quit Murphys Mart to go back to college in 1987, but I STILL talk to him on occasion.)

    PS He had this photo (of his first store) hanging in his office until his very last day. I was surprised to see it here!

  7. I also felt that Murphy's variety stores were a cut above other variety stores, Woolworth's always seemed dowdy in comparison, Kresge an also ran though probably in part due to emphasis on Kmart by the time I was old enough to recall them.

    Perhaps it was due to being near the edge of their marketing geography and the stores were newer than most of their 5 and 10 competition. Rarely did they seem as cluttered as the other chains.

    They definitely blurred the lines between their variety stores and their discount stores, which was unfortunate. Moreso when coupled with their cautious and late approach to the discount store arena. Perhahps Big M would have been a better moniker, still pay homage to Murphy without aping the mart of Kmart and being as awkward as Big Murph. Unlike the other casualties of the discount store/variety store bloodbath of the 70s and 80's, they seemed to manage the categories and merchandise mix as well as Kmart and better than Ames, Zayre or Hills including any 5&10 out there.

    Despite all its years as a competitor to Murphy, McCrory always felt like the small town cousin to Murphy. That they would end up under the same ownership would have been a happier union had the two merged on their own terms.

  8. Murphy’s Mart was definitely a product of its era. There were prototypical 1970s discount stores through and through. Looking back, they're a little old-fashioned now, but these were considered cutting edge at the time.

    The interesting thing about the Murohy's Mart saga compared to Woolco is that the two companies followed parallel yet divergent paths. Both over-expanded and didn't update their stores until it was too late and both were poorly managed by their successful variety store parents.

    The key difference was that Woolco was basically ignored and left to struggle by parent company Woolworth and never allowed to gain traction, and Murphy's Mart was made the main growth vehicle by Murphy but was ruined by too much meddling by their conservative parent company.

  9. I remember the MM shown at the top of the post. It was on Liberty Rd. in Randallstown. Only thing I can remember buying there was an Emerson record player ("record player", not "stereo". It was an automatic portable that was formerly made by GE.) Now it's a Food Lion and I think one of those self-storage places.
    In any event, I liked the regular Murphy's better, particularly their lunch counters.
    Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Actually, I think it's the Pasadena/Glen Burnie location, but Liberty might have looked just like it. The Pasadena store is still there, empty, with the Ames sign still in place. The Anne Arundel County Police use it for disaster drills, from what I understand. It's been gutted and you can see construction lights hanging from the rafters inside. The adjoining Acme went out of business before Murphy's became Ames, sat empty for years, and was redeveloped, with an addition to the end, as a medical park.

  10. Dwayne – I guess, according to what Douglas says above, it may be a Texas store, but I’m pretty sure this look was employed in a number of cities. The info on the Kroger pairing is particularly interesting - Thanks!

    Anonymous – Thanks for that great info. I remember that Revco was in the headlines quite a bit in the early 90’s, but never really clued in on what was going on with them. And Ames really did seem to acquire a hodgepodge of very different operations. As others have said, so many of Zayre’s stores were in markets completely different from Ames’ home turf that they never were able to bridge the gap and understand their new customers. In my opinion it could have been done. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way.

    Didi – I have a facility for saying insane things with a straight face – for a few seconds at least! Works better in person, I guess. The thing with early 80’s songs is that there are so many iconic ones to choose from – I thought about going with “Der Kommissar”, or “Twilight Zone”, or even “One Night in Bangkok” (well, maybe not that one). The supply seems endless, though! That era had quite the soundtrack, to put it mildly – fun times! :)

    And I agree with you on the third photo. That and the first one (the MM/Acme combo) are the gems of this bunch.

    Mr BlueLight – Good to hear from you! You’re absolutely right, it was a guessing game, usually by the store managers. While there is something to said for local decision-making authority, when centralized buying, supported by the new POS systems, came in, those who had it (read:Wal-Mart) crushed those who didn’t.

    Andrew – Glad you like them, and I agree – the interiors are really great looking! I’m afraid that had those particualr raiders and Ames hadn’t shown up, someone else would have. Murphy’s simply didn’t have a good enough defense strategy. Personally I doubt they would have been around today, sad as that is.

    And I really like the 1973 logo as well, the later one seems like an anachronism. Thanks!

    Douglas – You’re very welcome, and thank you! And thanks for helping narrow that store location to Texas. From reading the “For the Love of Murphy’s” book, it sounds like it was a good place to work! The pic also appeared in their 1975report to stockholders.

    Ken – You were fortunate to have shopped all three chains. I was too, although the only one we paid much attention to was the Kresge store at Randhurst Mall, and we vastly preferred Kmart.

    You’re right, Murphy’s should have separated the Marts from their 5 and 10’s from the start – it would have helped them establish a much stronger identity. The only issue I would seen with “Big M” would have been a similarity to Neisner’s “Big N”. And I agree that “Big Murph” wouldn’t have cut it, although it’s kind of funny today.

    Steve – That’s a good analysis of both chains. Murphy was ultraconservative, so I’m not sure how far they could have run with the Marts. Woolworth is another story, in my opinion. If they had been more aggressive with Woolco, who knows what the industry would look like today? They went with the “bird in the hand”, of course, which ultimately flew away.

    Veg-o-matic – Thanks very much, and thanks also for the coordinates on the first store pictured! I remember the GE record players, and of course Emerson is a great old name as well. My guess is that the variety store lunch counters were probably busier on average than those in the much larger discount stores.

  11. I knew from looking at that picture that it was definitely the Westernport store at the former Tri-Towns Plaza. That's just a sad footnote in retail history that I wish I knew more about.

    I had always suspected that the old Ames in Westernport started as a Murphy's, and I was right. Oddly, Murphy's didn't build a Mart in nearby Cumberland, which could have supported one of the 800/900 series stores of the time period. The Downtown Murphy's variety store lasted until the end in 2002, and I believe someone has talked about this on here.

    That shopping center has long been abandoned in Westernport, all retail leaving the small mill community on the Potomac. Even low-cost retailers like Family Dollar and Save-a-Lot bolted across the border for Keyser, WV. All of the retail formerly at Tri-Towns left for Keyser. Ames built a new Keyser store in the late 80's, closed in Westernport. Save-a-Lot moved over there, as did Family Dollar. CVS combined its Westernport store from Revco and Keyser store from Peoples into a new one.

    As for previous posts about whether Murphy Mart would have made it today, that I don't know. In their home base area around Pittsburgh, Target was very late to the game (1999 for the first stores), and the discounters left there at that time didn't have that upscale image. Murphy's may have made it until then in that area at least.

  12. Dave, Just one more note on the Kroger pairing, both Krogers were the mid 70's look with the oval archs and brown brick work. The ones just before the sav on's.

  13. G.C. Murphy didn't really gain much of a hold on the Wisconsin market, which was heavily dominated by both S.S. Kresge and F.W. Woolworths. Naturally, when downtown went to the outskirts strip malls and enclosed shopping centers that were cropping up, the few downtown Murphy locations followed and opened as anchors to replace their smaller downtown stores.

    Two towns right in my backyard, Fond Du Lac and Sheboygan, were two such locations that both started downtown, and eventually gained larger mall-based locations. The stores, each about 40,000 Sq Ft apiece, would almost qualify them to be small-format discount stores.

    Neither location I mentioned above became full-fledged 'Marts'...they were just standard brand GC Murphy Co (as their deep blue exterior and interior signage declared)

    Trouble was, they just couldn't make it here. Sheboygan's store shut in 1981 and was promptly replaced thereafter by Kohl's Department Store, whilst Fond Du Lac's store shut after the 1983 Christmas shopping season (it was quickly subdivided into a Dunhams Sports, Deb's (jr's and plus size apparel) and Regis Salon), shortly before the huge transitions that would take place at the corporate level in the mid 1980s as you've detailed to great length in this entry. They essentially pulled out of the Upper Midwest by then to concentrate on their core Pennsylvanian and markets to the South. The foothold that the likes of K-mart, Prange Way and Shopko weren't helping their case here in this state either.

    My memories of the local Murphy's at my town's Forest Mall are rather fuzzy, because they had pulled out when I was between 4-5 years in age. To me, I couldn't seperate them or Prange Way, and the latter always won out with the mom...they were cheaper than Murphy's was. I don't know what discounters were trying to do back then....go upscale in a down market?

    Very informative capsule history Dave. it sounds like they weren't going to go down without a fight to the bitter end. They outlasted Woolworth's by two years, so that really does say something.

    Love those signs also. Blue (or turquoise) and red really do compliment each other. Probably why other store logos (in particular K-mart) are forever etched into my mind. Surely somewhere my 'mental self' is shopping these old stores. Someone should invent some means to just put ones' self into these images to experience it all again.

    One can dream, and dream big.

  14. I miss Murphy's Mart and Hills to this day! Ames ate them both in my town. I still have some stuff laying around with Murphy's or Hills price tags on them somewhere.

  15. Daniel – Thanks for bringing us up to date on the Westernport store and the retail history of the area! I’m frankly surprised that they converted it to an Ames, as it appears like a fairly small store from the photo! I think you’re right, had they not been taken over by Ames, Murphy’s probably would have hung in there, at least on their home turf of Pittsburgh.

    Dwayne – A Kroger Superstore, no doubt! Wow, I’d sure love to track down a photo of one of those Murphy’s Mart/Kroger pairings. These were some of the better looking MM’s, and I love the Kroger Superstores – the subject of an entire post here, which you’ve probably seen.

    Matt – Sounds like Murphy’s presence in Wisconsin was similar to that in Chicago – they were there, but kept a very low profile even though some G.C. Murphy stores existed there for 40 years or more. I don’t think there were any full-fledged Murphy’s Marts in Wisconsin or any at all in Chicago. There was one in downstate Pekin, Illinois, that closed after only a year or two, having never made an impact with customers (which surprises me – Pekin is not exactly the land of retail choices, and was even less so then, no doubt) and due to being too far away from their supply base. The MM’s did do remarkably well in Indiana, though.

    Thanks for the kind words, and your comment “one can dream, and dream big” is beautifully put. Someday, maybe!

    Nessa – I’ve noticed how when people find old bags or price-tagged items from a defunct store, more and more they’re treated like prized possessions! Reminders of an era that’s disappearing into the past. Thanks!

  16. The third photo looks very much like the mall entrance to the Murphys Mart at the Laurel Mall in Connellsville PA. The jewelry store had the same display that extended out into the walkway.

  17. Anonymous - Probably pure coincidence, but interesting nonetheless. Thanks!

  18. What a trip down memory lane looking at many of the old photos. I grew up in Dover, New Jersey and we had an A&P behind our home down by the railroad tracks off Blackwell Street. We used to walk through the woods down a trail to the railroad tracks and then cross over them and head over to the parking lot of the A&P. I spent many years walking to this grocery store. It wasn't until years later that the neighboring town's A&P became a Pathmark in a new plaza with well over 25 stores and a duplex cinema. This plaza was located in Parsippany and it was the first of it's kind for us. I remember there was a Radio Shack, Karen's Curtains and a pharmacy- but I don't remember the name. When I turned 16 I got a job at this Pathmark- that was a long time ago. Anyway, thanks for the memories.

  19. I grew up and still live in Westernport MD. The 600 store that you have a picture of is just as I remembered it. Everyone here did their shopping there. It even had a little restaurant attached to the store. Sadly the whole plaza where this was located has been torn down. It really makes me sad and I was really happy to see a picture of our old store on here.

  20. Loz – I’m so glad to have found this picture, knowing this part of your story. It’s always sad when places we frequented as a child are torn down. How significant they seem with the passage of time, in ways we never would have imagined when we were kids. Thanks for your comment!

  21. Nice pictures, great article, except the white text on black background has got to go! What a headache trying to read it!

  22. I worked for Murphy's during the 80's heck worked at the store on your top photo the Pasadena store from 90 to 92. I think Ames could have learned more from Murphy's but they thought we were a plague and wanted to wipe is off the face of the earth. Hey that came from a corporate person I wasn't suppose here that. Ames had some cool computerized warehouse stuff but they had no brains they tried to run all the stores form corporate and overstocked most of them.While Murphy's ordered most stuff at store level. not to mention the zayre takeover that was a joke the new CEO was fired by them it was personal not a good idea. but they took on many of Zayre's crooked idea's it cost um in the end

  23. I worked at Murphy's Mart #904 in Dunbar, WV that opened on Black Friday in 1973. I became one of the youngest assistant managers at the time under the leadership/management of Ronald Templeton, who had been with Murphy's for more than twenty years at that time. I returned to college in the fall of 1975 and returned to Murphy's in 1978, leaving again in 1980 to market microcomputers for Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack).

    During the period of store take-overs, I observed with great interest as I was a stockholder of G. C. Murphy stock. From my view point it appeared that the regional chain Heck's, along with Murphy's, and Sears turned to their softlines. All three of these chains had a large male following, due to the tools, automotive, hardware, paint, home improvements, home furnishings, and housewares that they carried in inventory. Not to mention, they sold large amounts of home entertainment products, toys, garden supplies, and sporting goods.

    I saw their downfall as they switched emphasis more to their softlines or as Sears said, " The Softer Side of Sears." These stores began to use more floor space for these products that attract more women. As a result, fewer men shopped in the stores, and the time shopping per visit was less for those who did!

    This is just another reason, as to why sales began to drop. One other reason was the advent of new enclosed shopping areas such as our Charleston Town Center with it's enclosed food court, that began to syphon sales away from freestanding stores or those in strip malls.

    As things look now, K-Mart and Sears may soon be just a memory too!

    Terry Williams
    Dunbar, WV 25064