A Forgotten Extinction Event in American Retail
Back during the pandemic restrictions and closures of 2020, my wife and I drove out to a restaurant supply store near Capitol Heights, Maryland in Prince George’s County. (They sell the best lime juice, and we were making a lot of drinks that year.) But on the way, we passed a store called Roses Discount Store. The storefront looked just like that of an old Kmart—the sort of place that was disappearing in droves around the turn of the millennium. I had never heard of Roses, and I love retail history, so I knew it would only be a matter of time before I’d come back to check it out.
Like many, perhaps most, discount department stores, Roses (formerly styled with a possessive apostrophe between the e and s) can trace its history back to the early twentieth century. It originated as a five-and-dime/variety store, as did many other discount department stores. (Some, like Target, started out at the opposite end of the commercial spectrum, as discount versions of “real” department stores. Dayton’s was the upscale parent company in Target’s specific case—convergent evolution, if you will.)
All of which is to say, if you have any recollection of Ames, Woolworth, Caldor, Bradlees, Zayre, or the nearly extinct Kmart itself, you already know what Roses is like. But it’s notable because, with the (barely lingering) exception of Kmart, all those other stores, and dozens of others like them, are defunct. The period roughly from 1990 to 2005 was an absolute bloodbath for the discount department store world, as Walmart and Target aggressively expanded.
This makes Roses a living fossil: It’s one of the last remaining mid-sized regional discount department store chains in the United States. I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to visit and see a little bit of preserved retail history for myself, almost like coming across a Taco Bell still arrayed in the pastels, pleather, and formica of the brand’s ’90s decor.
Roses’ inventory and pricing are both impressive and distinct from that of Walmart or Target. Some of the merchandise resembles what you’d find in a liquidation/closeout store—Ollie’s, Big Lots, National Wholesale Liquidators, and the rest—even though those stores belong to a very different retail lineage.
I got a sense that Roses employs some strategy and deliberation when it comes to what they buy and stock; they don’t compete solely on price, as Walmart does, or on a combination of price and style, as Target does. It’s not just bins of the same junk you’d find at every other discount store. Roses has a different stream of inventory that comes from different channels.
What am I talking about? Here are some examples: Cheap electric space heaters with a tiny “refurbished” sticker on the box (probably a batch of returns or some such). Thick, soft area rugs made of undetermined carpet remnants that have been professionally trimmed and finished. (Every single area rug I’ve seen in every other store is a thin imitation of real carpet.) Target-brand dish towels (with the labels cut in half) for a buck. Big packages of cotton rags for pennies a piece (from a manufacturer called St. Mary’s, which has more presence on eBay than anywhere else online).
A certain idiosyncratic quality to the offerings, a few genuine deals, a sense that some of this stuff is a bit older-fashioned than the offerings of the bigger chains—it all makes me wonder if this is what we lost. Is this what box stores were like before Walmart changed the game from regional to national, from a balance of quality and value to pure price, from real and quirky variety to the false variety of hundreds of categories of products but with just one or two options for each?
Also notable about Roses is what’s missing: chiefly, a garden center and an electronics department—there are no televisions, video games, laptops, cameras, or phones—although the chain’s website offers a handful of listings for deals on both outdoor products and consumer electronics. Another thing that’s missing is groceries. Roses actually tested a supercenter concept, but then did what a lot of earlier discount chains ended up doing—turning the supermarket half into a separate but co-located supermarket. (However, the pilot project never became a chain-wide arrangement.) So Roses is not a one-stop-shop for everything. Instead, it remains an archetype of the old-fashioned discount department store format.
Roses is ultimately interesting because of the lost perspective it offers on the idea of a “deal.” What I mean is: While we have no shortage of stores where cheap products are available, we have few that offer goods that could reasonably be sold for much higher prices in a different context—that specialize, in a word, in deals.
To tease this idea out a bit: Walmart is like McDonald’s in that it values consistency and competitive pricing above all else. Almost every product in a Walmart feels like it’s been assessed for every possible cost-cutting measure. There are no curiosities. There are no unusual finds. There are no deals. There’s mostly just low-quality stuff, but the prices are low enough that all that stuff becomes, in spite of its apparent worthlessness, what economists and marketers would call a “good value proposition.” But the products you find in a store like Roses don’t feel like they’ve been subjected to this ruthless process. What’s more, they don’t feel like worthless stuff.
In some ways, Walmart is constrained and limited by its business model and ubiquity. There are over 4,000 Walmart stores in America, and they all need to stock more or less the same things. That limits them to suppliers who can 1) offer rock-bottom prices, and 2) supply amounts sufficient to fill shelves and displays in thousands of stores.
Roses has fewer than 200 locations; many of Walmart’s old competitors were similarly sized. That scale provides some amount of logistical flexibility. There aren’t enough cast-off Target towels for Walmart to sell them (not that Walmart would offer its shoppers Target-brand products). There aren’t enough carpet remnants (to say nothing of a consistent supply of them) for Walmart to regularly stock area rugs made out of them.
The rugs, in fact, are an excellent example of what’s going on with a place like Roses. Even many carpet stores don’t offer these patchwork rugs because finishing the edges of carpet remnants to make them usable in this format is a labor-intensive process. (I know—I’m in the market for just such a rug, and I’ve visited a few local carpet stores.) But somewhere, there’s a facility that specializes in finishing carpet remnants to make them into area rugs, and its moderate output is scaled just right for them to buy their remnants from the carpet stores, sell the resulting area rugs to a small regional discount department store, and make enough in the process to keep their lights on.
These smaller chains were also scaled appropriately for more remote areas—places where the biggest retailers weren’t interested in going. The economics of a Walmart demand that stores be located at considerable distances from each other in order to avoid cannibalizing each other’s sales. Smaller stores like Roses do not face these constraints. Ames, one of Walmart’s larger erstwhile competitors, was famous for blanketing cities and villages throughout rural and small-town New England with its mid-sized stores. The closest replacement the retail world has come up with to serve this remote niche is a combination of Amazon and various dollar stores. It just isn’t the same.
In his posthumously published memoir, Becoming Trader Joe, Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe notes one of the advantages of keeping his stores relatively small: It allowed the chain to take advantage of all sorts of deals that didn’t fit the scale of the big supermarkets. (One example he gives is jumbo eggs, which are a minority of all eggs produced but take up a considerable share of the egg display in Trader Joe’s stores—and are frequently priced the same as large eggs.) Suppliers didn’t have to be massive. Products didn’t have to be available year-round. In a lot of ways, Trader Joe’s wasn’t “designed,” per se; it arose from prioritizing “product knowledge” that supermarkets either didn’t have or were incapable of fitting into the day-to-day logistics of their operation. So the scale of Trader Joe’s locations meant the chain could work with that product strategy in ways the supermarkets couldn’t. (Walmart, of course, is the big supermarket in this analogy.)
And so, as Walmart swallowed up the discount retail segment and grew its scale to gargantuan proportions with huge stores and national reach, the chain didn’t just push out other, similar stores—big, impersonal places to shop, each like any other. Instead, Walmart caused us to lose a whole category of mid-sized, mid-scaled stores that had played a crucial role in the retail ecosystem—a role that has never fully been replaced. The demise of this retail category left many areas without a proper one-stop store, closed off opportunities for smaller suppliers, and further homogenized America’s buying habits. If the history of retail is evolutionary, then the hollowing out of retail was an extinction event.
Nobody really mourns this or even thinks about it; when ruminating on this general theme, we usually think about the hollowed-out Main Streets and shuttered mom-and-pop establishments. But the regional discount department store chain that operated 50 or 100 or 200 stores, at 40,000-70,000 square feet each, in two or three or four states, in rural or small-town settings—when we lost those, we lost something important, too.