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Small-Town Charmer: Boscov’s Bucks Trend Of Regional Meltdown

WYOMISSING, Pa. — For Boscov’s, thinking out of the box means putting more into it. Like homemade fudge at $4 a pound, $14 neck...

WYOMISSING, Pa. — For Boscov’s, thinking out of the box means putting more into it.

Like homemade fudge at $4 a pound, $14 neck massagers, $20 insulated Thermos pump pots, or $7,000 Hitachi plasma TVs — indulgences that shoppers in the blue-collar Rust Belt don’t necessarily require, and in some cases yield low margins. They’re more apt to go for the H.I. Hummel figurines, or Hawaiian shirts.

"What’s more fun than looking at all this stuff you don’t need?" exclaimed Albert Boscov, the 73-year-old co-owner, chairman and chief executive of Boscov’s Inc., parent of the privately held Boscov’s chain.

He’s the son of Solomon Boscov, who founded the company in 1911 by selling goods off a horse-drawn wagon. Like his father, Albert has a passionate selling style. "We still have garden supplies, sporting goods, luggage, furniture and we make our own fudge," he said. "But we still sell these chocolate kisses, the same as Wal-Mart. Do we make money on it? Absolutely not, but we have it so the customer doesn’t have to go there.

"We’ve stayed a department store. Other department stores got out of anything that was difficult to make money."

Boscov’s is an anomaly — a family-owned, regional department store chain that is thriving at a time when only a few of its ilk are still standing. Moreover, with the exception of Sears, it is one of the few old-fashioned, full-line department stores, selling everything from apparel to white goods, CDs to sporting goods. Boscov’s has sales of $1.1 billion from 38 stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Maryland, stretching from Atlantic City, N.J., west to Pittsburgh and Albany, N.Y., and south to Salisbury, Md. It also has a few other holdings in real estate, restaurants and catering.

Like other regional chains, Boscov’s, based in Reading, Pa., is under assault from the mass merchants Wal-Mart and Target to rival department stores Kohl’s, J.C. Penney Co., Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Macy’s. Pennsylvania is also the kingdom of outlets. The fierce competition makes it imperative to differentiate, although regionals such as Belk’s, Dillard’s, Elder-Beerman and Gottschalks, are just hanging on.
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