Stores we loved and lost: Local roots, catchy jingles made them memorable

June 6, 2019

By David Reich-Hale | Newsday, Business

Nobody Beats the Wiz, Crazy Eddie and Waldbaum’s are gone — but the brands are not forgotten.

The retailers, and others including Caldor, Pergament and Swezey’s, remain part of Long Island’s history, even though the businesses, once market leaders, were dethroned. 

The brands are remembered in large part because of their local family startup roots, retail experts said.  

“Loyalty is a key driver to success,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a Port Washington-based market research company. “You care about where you shop. You grew up shopping somewhere because it made you comfortable, and it many cases it was locally run, which also mattered. …  When the name changes, you feel disappointed.”

Many of these chains also hired Long Islanders for top jobs, experts said. 

“The local stores, like Waldbaum’s and King Kullen … hired neighbors to work in stores and, based on each person’s merit, promoted them to high positions,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, who founded the Manhattan-based consulting firm Strategic Resource Group and has studied Long Island retail. “To Long Island shoppers and communities, these were family members. These were friends… So, sure, it was personal.”

Flickinger added that the local supermarkets have historically been quicker to adapt to local tastes, adding, for example, regional products.

King Kullen was the first to put lots of Long Island products, such as beer, chips and produce, in its stores, he said. “It creates a bond.”

Bethpage-based King Kullen agreed in January to be taken over by Quincy, Massachusetts-based Stop & Shop. For King Kullen it will be the end of an 88-year run as an independent supermarket. The deal is slated to close by the end of the second quarter, although Stop & Shop has not said if it would keep the King Kullen name or rebrand its 32 stores and five Wild by Nature locations — all of which are on Long Island.

  Also leading to an unforgettable legacy, experts said, were strong advertising campaigns.

“You remember the jingles, you remember the slogans,” said Thomas W. Shinick, adjunct professor of management and marketing at Adelphi University and Nassau Community College in Garden City. “You remember the stories they tell in their advertising campaigns. There is a reason why some P.C. Richard & Son ads talk about the history they have as a family operation. It’s a great selling point.”

Unlike chains that have folded, P.C. Richard stores are serving customers on Long Island and beyond. The chain, which has 66 stores in the tristate area and Philadelphia, will celebrate its 110th anniversary in October.  

Gregg Richard, president and CEO of Farmingdale-based P.C. Richard & Son, said his company’s story goes beyond the five generations of family operations. 

“We have 2,800 employees, no outside investors and we understand that we need to earn the right to get a customer to walk into our stores,” Richard said. “Sure, people feel a connection to a local family company and recognize our advertisements. But it’s the way we treat our customers — we don’t take them for granted — that really makes the difference.”

The famous P.C. Richard & Son whistle doesn’t hurt.

“Everyone knows that whistle,” said Cohen, at NPD Group. “Everyone.”

By the time it was sold to supermarket conglomerate A&P in 1986, Waldbaum’s was one of the largest grocery store chains in the country, with 140 locations. Its selling points: local and loyalty.

When co-founder Ira Waldbaum died in 2002, his wife, Bernice, remembered that “he had the most loyal employees, and they would kill for him. Even the truck drivers called him Ira.”

Waldbaum’s locations often included photos of Ira’s mother, Julia, whose recipes were in the supermarket circulars. It made her a household name on Long Island.

“Ira and his team would go from store to store and walk with his team, sometimes with a box of cookies,” said Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group. “The employees knew him, and so did the customers.”

When Ira and Bernice retired in 1986, they sold the chain to Montvale, New Jersey-based A&P for $287 million. The chain continued to succeed for years, but once A&P’s results started to go south, so did Waldbaum’s, experts said. A&P first filed for bankruptcy in 2010, emerging as a private company two years later. By 2015 it was dead, with rival supermarkets such as Stop & Shop and Shop Rite fighting for the real estate left behind. At the end, Waldbaum’s had 32 stores left on Long Island, down from just short of 50 in the 1990s.

“The local family can decide to sell it, and then a larger business runs it, sometimes not very well,” said Adelphi marketing professor Thomas W. Shinick. “It’s a story we’ve seen before and still see.”

— David Reich-Hale

With a memorable name and jingle to match, Nobody Beats the Wiz loomed large in the minds of price-sensitive electronics shoppers on Long Island throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

Selling the latest in VCRs, Walkmans and color televisions, the Wiz was the region’s largest electronics retailer, with annual sales of $1.3 billion before the family-owned chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1997, just days before Christmas. At its height the company had 63 locations in the metro area, including eight on Long Island.

The New Jersey-based retailer was founded by the Jamal family in Brooklyn in 1976 as the Wiz. It would later change its name to include the company’s slogan emphasizing its discounts.

“It was known by everybody,” said Joel Evans, professor of marketing at Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business. “They and Crazy Eddie recognized that there was a consumer interest in getting a discount.”

Evans said the Wiz focused on the idea that customers “want to feel like they’re smart, that they’re getting a buy, that they’re ahead of their friends.”

Following its bankruptcy filing, the company acknowledged that its expansion to Long Island and elsewhere contributed to its failure.

Cablevision Systems Corp. purchased the Wiz for about $91 million in 1998. The cable provider used the Wiz stores to sell modems and other hardware before closing the chain in 2003.

While the Wiz no longer has physical locations, competitor P.C. Richard & Son purchased the Wiz’ remaining intellectual property for $1.8 million.

Today, TheWiz.com redirects shoppers to a page on P.C. Richard & Son’s website.

— Victor Ocasio

Before closing in 1999, Caldor was Long Island’s largest discount retail chain and the dominant discounter in parts of the Northeast.

The Norwalk, Connecticut-based department store chain was founded in 1951 by husband and wife Carl and Dorothy Bennett as a small store selling gifts and cameras in Port Chester. The duo combined their first names to form the retail outfit’s name.

By the mid-1960s, the store expanded its product offerings and began adding locations throughout New England.

Milton Cooper, co-founder of Kimco Realty Trust of New Hyde Park, one of the largest publicly traded owners of shopping centers in the country, had Caldor as a tenant and worked with the Bennetts.

“When they were running it, it was called the ‘discount Bloomingdale’s,’” Cooper said. One of the retailer’s greatest assets, he said, was its original leadership. “When you have someone in the business who you can look up to who comes to the stores and has an interest, that’s success. The Bennetts really loved the business.”

Ultimately, it was the company’s sale in 1981 that began to change the face of the successful brand.

Associated Dry Goods Corp. purchased Caldor that year and more than doubled the number of stores before merging with May Department Store Co.

“When it got sold … it really didn’t have a sense of true discounting,” Cooper said.

As competition from national retailers like Kmart and Walmart grew, so did pressure on Caldor, and in 1995 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

At its height, it had 18 stores in Nassau and Suffolk counties, more than any other department store.

— Victor Ocasio

For Long Islanders in the post-World War II era, Pergament was synonymous with home improvement.

Pergament Home Centers stemmed from a paint and wallpaper store opened in 1935 by Russian immigrant Louis Pergament.

Pergament’s son Bob, 90, of Boca Raton, Florida, recalled in a telephone interview that he noticed that women were taking on many home repairs during World War II.

“The women had to learn how to fix the pipes and fix the toilet,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow!’ we have to be inclusive to women.”

The retailer added do-it-yourself items and also was one of the first in the region to offer latex paints, which soon supplanted oil-based paints.

In the ensuing years, the business expanded into a chain of home centers in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. As the chain grew, Bob Pergament sought to come up with an advertising slogan.

“I was thinking: ‘What rhymes with Pergament?’ “

Thus was born the slogan, “Be Confident, Shop Pergament.”

At its peak, the chain had 42 stores and sales of $375 million. In 1989, Bob Pergament and his brother, Murray sold the chain to two investor groups for an estimated $175 million.

By 2001, Pergament, down to 31 stores, was liquidating, falling victim to an economic slowdown and the onslaught of national big box stores like Home Depot.

— Ken Schachter

Friendly sales clerks, free gift wrapping, home delivery and a no-hassle returns policy are among the reasons generations of Long Islanders turned to Swezey’s Department Stores for clothing, shoes, furniture and home furnishings.

“We had salespeople who were with us for 20 and 30 years, and they knew their stuff,” said Bill Knapp, president of the family-owned retailer when it closed in 2003. “The merchandise you could get at any number of places …[but] to get it from your friends and neighbors was kind of a perk.”

Swezey’s opened on Main Street in Patchogue in 1894, where it would remain for nearly 110 years. Branch stores were added in Riverhead in the 1970s, East Setauket in the 1980s, and West Babylon and Glen Cove in the 1990s.

Swezey’s adapted to the Island’s transformation from farmland to housing developments, and to global forces including the Depression and two World Wars. However, the regional chain foundered as Kohl’s and other national chains entered the market.

“Our greatest strengths for the first 95 years of our business turned into enemies at the end,” Knapp said. “It’s very expensive to flood the store with salespeople…The profit margin was going down and down, and then we had a couple of red years.”

Swezey’s closed in fall 2003 after providing severance to its 600 employees and fulfilling obligations to suppliers.

“Whenever I come up to Long Island, people still tell me they miss Swezey’s,” Knapp said from his Sarasota, Florida, home. “If there were only more of them at the time that felt that way then I might still be working.”

— James T. Madore

Joseph Genovese opened his first drugstore in Astoria, Queens in 1924.

By January 1998, Genovese Drug Stores Inc. was being run by the founder’s youngest son, Leonard Genovese, and had 134 drugstores, most of which were on Long Island or in Queens.

But by then, the Melville-based chain was dealing with decreased payments from health insurers for prescriptions.  It announced the elimination of 600 jobs, or 11 percent of it 5,300 positions, and the closings of five stores.

The closings and employees’ separation pay cut the company’s earnings by $12 million to $14 million for the fiscal year, resulting in the publicly traded company’s first loss in its 75-year history.

Genovese said he had no interest in selling the company, which his family held a major stake in.

“If we were interested in doing that we wouldn’t have taken these painful steps,” he told Newsday in January 1998.

At that time, the drug chain said it still planned to open 10 new stores and create 250 jobs in 1998.

But the picture had changed less than a year later.

In November 1998, the company announced that it would be sold to the nation’s fourth-largest drugstore chain, Eckerd Corp., which was a division of J.C. Penney Co., for $492 million in stock and assumed debt.

Eckerd had no plans to close any of the 141 Genovese stores but some might be relocated to stand-alone buildings with drive-thru windows, said Frank A. Newman, then chief executive of Clearwater, Florida-based Eckerd Drugstores.  About 200 people were to lose their jobs at Genovese’s Melville headquarters after the sale was completed, Newsday reported.

The purchase made Eckerd the largest drugstore chain on Long Island and in Queens.

Leonard Genovese reportedly had sought a buyer because he was concerned about long-term issues, such as the need for high-tech computer systems to manage prescriptions during a period when pharmacy profits were shrinking.

In July 2003, the names of the 141 Genovese stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were changed to Eckerd.

In 2004, J.C. Penney split Eckerd between CVS and the Jean Coutu Group, a Canadian company that took over 1,539 Eckerd stores in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, including 360 in New York State, for $4.5 billion.

In 2006, Rite Aid Corp. bought the Eckerd and Brooks drugstore chains from the Jean Coutu Group for $3.4 billion. 

— Tory N. Parrish

By David Reich-Hale david.reich-hale@newsday.com

David Reich-Hale reports on banking, the business of health care and other topics. He joined Newsday in 2014. He has also worked at American Banker and the New Haven Register. He is from Trumbull, Connecticut.