Staying in the business of making friends

This article was published in the October 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Boscov’s, one of the last family-owned department store chains in the United States, celebrated its centennial in 2011 with Albert Boscov — son of founder Solomon Boscov — at the helm.

Five years into its second century, Boscov's is still going strong. From its first location in Reading, Pa., to nearly 50 stores today, the company now does more than $1 billion in sales with stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Delaware, Ohio and Connecticut. In many cities, Boscov’s is an economic engine, providing not only jobs but also civic pride and vitality.

Beyond branded apparel and seasonal home goods, Boscov’s offers many services other department stores have long abandoned: a candy section featuring homemade fudge, travel service, optical shops, catering and, in some areas, appliance repair and hair salons.

After spending his life with the privately held department store, the now 87-year-old Boscov sold the company and retired for a few years. But he returned in 2009 to keep the company from liquidation, and he's still there.

Albert Boscov
Chairman and CEOBoscov’s
Reading, Pa.

Albert Boscov, Chairman and CEO, Boscov’s, Reading, Pa.

You literally grew up in the retail business, living above the store your father ran. What do you recall of that operation?
It was a neighborhood store across from the Reading Railroad, not anywhere near downtown Reading. It was small — about 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. We were serving the men who worked on the railroad and the women who bought their housedresses.

That was the beginning of Boscov’s — we served neighbors, and my dad was always a good guy. He was open during the Depression when no one had any money. He extended credit and every single customer paid him back. That’s just one of the ways he earned respect and made friends. Ever since then, Boscov’s has been involved in the communities where we do business.

Would you bring us up to speed on Boscov’s business today?
I sold the business about 10 years ago and retired to travel with my wife and kids. [The new owners] seemed to be running the business much the same way, but they expanded by 10 stores and I think they probably didn’t have the resources or cash to open 10 stores all at once … . I was able to buy the business back out of bankruptcy in 2009 — we had nearly 8,000 people, many of whom I knew personally — and I hated to see the company be liquidated.

Today, we have a nice success story. We’re making good profit and we are opening stores at the rate of one a year. Right now we’re working on opening in Utica, N.Y., and last year we opened in Meriden, Conn. We are on the Internet, but not so dominant that it makes a big difference to our store business. We do close to $50 million in online sales and the stores are close to $1.2 billion. We’re trying to grow [online sales], but the nice thing about the Internet is we have sales coming from areas where we have no stores.

Our store business is growing at a faster rate than our Internet sales, which is unique.

Our store business is growing at a faster rate than our Internet sales, which is unique. It also means we’re not taking a lot of sales away from our existing stores. In many of the markets we serve, we are the dominant department store and in many cases we are new to that market, so we are gaining share from the existing retailers including the country’s largest retailer. If you’re watching results, you’ll see that right now we’re up and many retailers are down.

What’s behind Boscov’s continued success? Is it what you sell or how you sell it, customer amenities or how the stores look?
Our co-workers are there to help customers. They don’t need to run to management for approval to make the customer happy — they can say “yes.” They will walk with the customer to another department to help find an item, not just point in the general area where to find it. They can call another store to look for another size and ship it to the customer at no additional charge. … They can take anything back without management approval — we take anything back without exception, because we don’t feel it’s is worth making an “enemy” of the store since we’re in the business of making friends. It’s a part of doing business.

All of those things make for a wonderful atmosphere … and the customer seems to relate to it. We have kept overhead under control, so we can be aggressive in pricing. We explain to customers that we don’t play games with prices in all our advertising. We don’t coupon, so we’re not artificially raising prices to cover the cost of coupon discounts.

Retailing is not a high-profit business and if you can do 3 to 4 percent, you’re doing well. So you really can’t give [an additional] 20 percent off or $10 back without raising prices. We look to give our customers real value by bringing the [selling] price in at what it should be and that’s generally the same as if we offered coupons.

That’s what it amounts to — honest pricing representing a true value and not a percentage off — and the customer appreciates it.

What’s next? Wasn’t there talk of a second retirement?
Personally, I’m still very involved in the day-to-day operations, but my nephew Jim Boscov is now in the company since I’ve been back. Hopefully he’ll be able to take over totally, but at this point I feel good and can still work all the time, even though my wife wishes I wouldn’t. Little by little, I will try to back out, but I don’t know exactly when that will be.