Boscov’s to open Erie-area store in era of retail downsizing
By Jim Martin -Erie Times-News
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Shoppers who buy a $5 ticket to benefit one of 125 area charities can get an early look Thursday.
The Youngstown-based Cafaro Co., owners of the Millcreek Mall, knew there were only so many potential tenants for a space as large as the one once occupied by Sears.
When Sears announced plans to close one year and two weeks ago, mall owners were prepared to start dividing that big space into smaller ones, said Joe Bell, a spokesman for Cafaro.
But it never came to that.
Within weeks, the Reading-based Boscov’s chain, a family-owned department store chain with 44 locations, announced it had signed a lease with the mall.
Not only did Boscov’s want to fill one of the mall’s original anchor spaces, but it also planned to enlarge it by more than 26,000 square feet.
The new store, which officially opens Saturday, remains a relatively small player, a fraction of the size of the industry giants.
But in an era of Amazon and shuttered malls — at a time when Sears, Macy’s and Kmart have collectively closed hundreds of locations — Boscov’s continues to add stores — most of them giants like the 180,000-square-foot Erie location — at a cautious pace of one a year.
CEO Jim Boscov, who has been in Erie this week as final preparations are being made to open the doors, is happy to acknowledge that the company is bucking a pervasive trend.
“We are running against the current,” he said. “When all the others are closing, we are growing.”
He won’t suggest the reasons are a mystery to him, but the “secret sauce,” as he calls it, isn’t any one thing, either.
Some of the keys, he said, are low prices and an unusually wide selection of products.
What sets that selection of products apart is that it often crosses different price points and serves a variety of different customers.
He also seems to suggest that Boscov’s, with its counters featuring fresh-roasted nuts and another selling homemade fudge, isn’t afraid to be old-fashioned.
“We have things like free gift wrapping,” he said. “If your son or daughter buy a $1.50 gift for Father’s Day, that gift is wrapped for free.”
He extols the virtues of honest sales and deep discounts and the forgotten joys of shopping not online but in person. But more than anything else, Boscov seems to suggest the secret of his company’s success might be tied to patient, hands-on ownership. He said he would have to leave Erie early to go home to work on the next week’s advertising circular.
“Shareholders demand profits and are in it for the short term,” he said. “Family members are in it for the long term. We are a family-owned business for 103 years. We are all-in.”
The company’s track record isn’t perfect.
In 2008, in the midst of the credit crisis and Great Recession, Boscov’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company, which was not then led by Jim Boscov, had added 10 stores at once.
“It was a little too aggressive,” Boscov said, adding that it might have worked if the timing had been different.
Albert Boscov, son of founder Solmon Boscov, emerged from retirement to buy the company out of bankruptcy.
“I was happy to go back to the basics,” Jim Boscov said. “Since then we have been adding one store at a time.”
He’s been happy with what he’s seen over the past few days in Erie, both in the community and inside the store, which will be staffed by about 300 people.
“I think this is the best crew we have ever hired,” he said. “I like the Erie market a lot. I think a lot of it’s reflective of our customers. I think there are a lot of things happening here.”
Former Sears customers will know where to find the Boscov’s, but not much about the store will seem familiar.
“Nothing is the same,” Boscov said. “Not one floor tile, not one ceiling tile is the same. We took it down to the steel. We wanted it to look like a Boscov’s.”
Bell, whose company leases space to another Boscov’s at one of its Ohio mall locations, said he expects the new location to be well received.
“I really do believe it brings new energy,” he said. “It really hearkens back to a traditional department store and people tend to love it.”
Jim Martin can be reached at 870-1668 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNMartin.
A first look at Boscov’s
Thursday: Early access will be provided for shoppers who buy a $5 ticket to benefit one of 125 area charities.
Friday: Preview Day
Saturday: Formal ribbon-cutting will be held at 9 a.m. Donations will be made to local charities. Singer Debby Boone is scheduled to perform at 2 and 7 p.m.