Like many people, I often dream about owning my own business. To be honest, I’ve already done this a few times – when I was a stay-at-home mom, I would frequently get antsy to break away from sippy cups, diaper changing, nap schedules, toddler meltdowns, and the pressures of arranging the perfect “play date.” While I do love being a mom, this restlessness would drive me to expand my creative side, and over the years, I started a custom art business, did home staging and interior design for people selling or “refreshing” their homes, and dabbled in selling real estate. Most of these were primarily for fun, however, and while I made a bit of money in these endeavors, I never really pursued taking any of it to the next level or really considered them as long-term ventures.

Although my past efforts at entrepreneurship have been fairly brief, I always find it interesting to read about the beginnings of successful retailers, especially older businesses that have survived through many decades, different eras and challenges – how the founders started, their tenacity, and tenets for their persistence and endurance.

As I was thinking through this week’s blog post and tying in a recent Parker Avery case study that focuses on package selection activities to support legacy system modernization initiatives, I considered several retailers with whom I am very familiar who recently celebrated their 100th year anniversaries: Bealls, Inc., Stein Mart and Wegmans. Banners throughout their stores, customer appreciation events, advertisements and other marketing tactics made these milestones hard to miss. Each of these retailers has a unique and interesting history, and while I am not going to delve into their entire timelines, during my reading I noticed some key themes that emerged which contributes to their success:

  • Fantastic Employees. These retailers have each mastered their own recipes for attracting and retaining exceptional talent – both on the front lines of store operations, as well as at corporate headquarters. I had the pleasure of working very closely with one of these brands earlier this year, and the obvious camaraderie and overall family atmosphere was amazing – not to mention the long tenure of many associates’ careers with the company, even the many who are not related to the founding family. People genuinely care about the company and their colleagues – and it shows. Yes, every job has good days and bad, but my dad’s saying of “Find something you love to do, and it will seem as if you’re never really working” really resonated throughout this retailer.

    I’ve mentioned this in a past blog post, but one of the many reasons people love shopping at Wegmans is because of the store’s employees. In fact, the official Wegmans philosophy states: “We believe that good people, working toward a common goal, can accomplish anything they set out to do.” Each year, Wegmans is also typically near the top of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For (this year ranking #4 of all companies – not just retailers). In today’s world of exorbitant millennial expectations, high retail employee turnover and extreme competition for good employees, is this easier said than done? Absolutely, but these retailers have in place the right policies, processes, procedures, training and systems to set their employees up for success – and thus the company. And you really have to love the advice from Stein Mart’s former CEO Jay Stein: “People work with you, not for you.” Enough said.

  • Intense Focus on Customers. In my mind, this goes hand-in hand with Fantastic Employees.

    For those of you who have had the pleasure of shopping at a Wegmans you will agree that the company truly lives up to the last part of their philosophy, which states: “Every day you get our best.” [On a side note, another highly popular brand even older than any of these retailers has a very similar slogan, “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.” Admittedly this does not come from a “true” retailer, but the focus is certainly evident.] Walk into any Bealls or Stein Mart, and despite ever-increasing retail operations demands placed on store associates and managers, you will get a smile, good attitude and genuine willingness to help make sure your shopping experience meets or exceeds your expectations. I recently received what seems to be a hand-written note from Jay Stein, which I’m sure is one of a million copies, but it struck me that this executive would express and distribute his gratitude in such a simple, yet effective way. Could it be just a marketing tactic? Possibly, but I’d put my money on Stein Mart’s genuine belief of putting the customer at the forefront and being truly appreciative of their business.

  • Giving Back to the Local Community. It’s not just a catch phrase – this mantra goes beyond customers, extending to suppliers and basic needs of the community outside of shopping. While many retailers adjust pricing based on clustering approaches / geography and localize their assortments, Wegmans takes this approach to the next level, thoroughly understanding the needs of the local economy and managing pricing as needed. Wegmans also provides scholarships for local students and sources a good deal of produce, fish, meats and other items locally for their stores.

    Bealls is very closely involved in many events and philanthropies in the Florida regions they serve, and Stein Mart often incorporates local charities into their grand opening events, contributes to dozens of philanthropic efforts, and produces their annual holiday “Give A Bear” program which supports local children in need. Last December, one of our blog posts, titled “Cheers to Charity” was dedicated to this very topic and the significant impact it has on customer perceptions and loyalty. Plus, it’s simply the right thing to do. 

  • Continuous Improvement. As I read through these articles, I noted that particularly in the early, developmental years, the founders of these companies continuously found new opportunities, tried different retail business models and ways of operating – sometimes failing, but always reassessing and reinventing to ensure they are aligned with the objectives associated with their employees, customers and local communities.

    Stein Mart’s current business model was the result of one of their first stores closing in order to move to a bigger location down the street: when selling out the merchandise in the former location, Jake Stein discovered the off-price model that would soon flourish for the company. Nina’s, a small department store retailer in Wisconsin who also just celebrated 100 years in business, stated, “The one constant is that we’re continually reinventing ourselves.” Throughout all of this continual change, the underlying foundation, support and operational technologies and processes must also be continually assessed and changed in order for the company to remain viable and competitive.

In this era of retail omnichannel, mobile shopping ubiquity and overused buzzwords, it’s sometimes valuable to get away from the hype and peek back into history to understand why age-old brands not only prevail, but persevere and thrive.

Shop on.
– Tricia

If you’re interested, here’s just a bit more on the history of these companies:
Bealls. Family-owned to this day, Bealls began its legacy in April of 1915, when a young 22-year-old R.M. Beall opened a dry goods store called the Dollar Limit in downtown Bradenton, Florida. Bealls is now one of the longest-running family-owned and operated department stores in America. Read more here:
Stein Mart. In 1905 Sam Stein immigrated to New York City from what was formerly Russia (now Poland) with $43 in his pocket. He opened a general store in Greenville, Mississippi in the early 1900s, and the company grew through three generations into a chain of department stores with over $1.3 billion in revenue. Read more here:
Wegmans. Most notably at least here in Virginia, Wegmans – who recently opened their newest location near our home with another coming soon across town – celebrates 100 years of being in business this year. Wegmans humble beginnings were in 1916, when John Wegman introduced the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Company – a little horse-drawn wagon making its way through the streets of Rochester, New York. Read more here: