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A Mom And Pop Store Defies The Odds

Letter From Massachusetts

A Mom-And-Pop Store Defies the Odds

F.W. Woolworth's is gone, and smaller clothing chains like Boston Leader and Stuarts' have also fallen by the wayside. It has not been easy for those slugging it out in the retail world. But the biggest casualties in retail have been the small, family-owned department stores that once dominated Main Street in America. Only a few mom-and-pops still dot the landscape. One of the survivors is Sparks Department Store, located in the blue-collar city of Malden, Mass., population 53,000, 10 miles northwest of Boston.

It's owned by my dad, Albert Sparks, 71. I grew up in that store. As a teenager, when I worked there on Saturdays, I briefly dreamed of managing the store one day. Four years ago, when my father's brother George, his partner for over 50 years, passed away, my father offered my three sisters and me positions at Sparks. But by that time, I was well into my journalism career. Overseeing clothing sales on Malden's main street lost out to writing about the changing fashions of Wall Street.

Old-line department stores like my father's are an "endangered species," says Kurt Barnard of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a forecasting firm based in Upper Montclair, N.J. Given the onslaught of malls and chain stores, "there's less and less room in American business for the family-owned operations, although at one time they were the heartbeat of the nation."

The latest Commerce Dept. figures show that the number of small stores like Sparks declined about 50% from 1987 to 1992. In the 1950s, the heyday of retailing independents, Sparks aligned itself with a New York buying consortium made up of 20 similar-size department stores across the country. Today, Sparks is the only one still in business.

Retailing has changed in the 15 years since I worked in the store. Back then, shoppers rushed to Sparks as soon as the cold weather began to break to buy spring clothes. Nowadays, people don't dress up much for Easter, and it surprises some Sparks customers that the store, which occupies the two-story brick building my grandparents bought 50 years ago, is still around. But I've lived this business, so I understand.

Sparks is all about fashion at low prices, plain and simple. At the front of the store stand wide wooden tables filled with athletic socks, pocketbooks, and slippers. The mix of products in the store hasn't changed in years. While bigger stores might have sophisticated mannequins with up-to-the-minute fashions, at Sparks more basic styles can be found hanging on the walls or on metal racks on the decades-old linoleum floor.

As an independent, Sparks is nimble. "We can move much quicker than larger stores," explains my dad. "When we receive goods, they're on the floor the day they arrive." At bigger stores this can take as long as three weeks. "And we listen to our customers. If someone comes in looking for a particular ladies' slack and we're out of her size, within five minutes we'll be on the phone with the manufacturer reordering those goods." Being that close to customers means that the store occasionally hits some real winners. For instance, two years ago, my father thought of creating a printed T-shirt with a local logo. He ordered 12 dozen, then reordered--again and again. By yearend, he had sold 12,000.WORN DESK. Dad's fiscal conservativism may play the biggest role in the store's survival. Over the years, expenses have had to be cut. While Dad doesn't like to talk about costs, the average retail markup for department stores is 50% or more of the selling price. My father says his markup is considerably less. Sparks still tries to compete against the major national chains by undercutting prices. That explains the lack of fancy display fixtures. "Our best advertising is word of mouth," says Dad. "Our customers aren't looking for a fancy store, they're looking for good deals."

Sitting at his worn desk in a cramped corner office that was last redecorated about 1945, long before I was born, Dad glances at the wall lined with black and white photos showing eight decades of the store's history, some of which show my dad as a young man amidst crowds of shoppers on a busy day: "When times were good [in the 1980s], we left all the profits in the business." Those were the Reagan years, when retailers and others were diversifying into speculative real estate. Two century-old local banks went under as a result of bad real estate loans. Jordan Marsh, a department store chain later bought by Federated Department Stores Inc., once had a store a few doors down from Sparks, but it moved to a nearby mall in 1981.

Dad is better than his competitors at keeping employees, too. Most specialty retailers have an employee turnover of over 90%, according to the National Retail Federation. Sparks, which employs 25, has an extremely low rate of departures--less than 5% a year. Antoinette Rocco, who came to Sparks in 1979, calls the store her second home. When illness or unfortunate incidents strike workers and they have to be away, she says, their jobs are secure no matter how long the absence. So employees like Rocco stay on.

That longevity means employees know shoppers, and "salespeople treat each customer personally," says Rita Tecce, who has worked at Sparks since 1978. Indeed, "I have been coming here since I was a child," says Marguerite Greenwood of Malden. "Now, I shop here for my own children." That kind of customer loyalty makes or breaks a small retailer.

My Russian-born grandparents, David and Rose, opened Sparks as a ladies' dress shop in 1919. My father and his brother George took over in the 1950s. Dad bought ladies' apparel for Sparks; Uncle George was in charge of men's and children's. In the busy back-to-school season, my mother, Myrna, outfitted children in the school-uniform department. My sisters Lorri and Joan manned cash registers. I worked Saturdays in the lingerie department, where longtime employee Marilyn Ryan shared her Cheez-Its and sour balls with me as I sorted panties and bras. I still remember Uncle George sitting in his balcony office, meticulously counting the day's receipts as he kept an eye on the floor below.

But despite close attention to the bottom line, the numbers have slipped over the years. While Dad won't give revenues or earnings--even to me--he admits gross volume is down 15% over the past decade. That's partly because of changes in Malden. "At one point this was a vital downtown with a lot of action. Not anymore," Dad says. That was during a time when retail sales overall were growing at 7% per year.BANK JOB. Malden, in fact, was once a bustling textile city. In 1907, a dozen years before Sparks opened, Malden's first international hit was born, Converse Rubber--the manufacturer of Converse sneakers. That's not to be confused with Malden's first mayor, Elisha Converse, who started Boston Rubber Shoe Co. In 1863, his son Frank Eugene was the first man in the country to be murdered during a bank robbery. The robber was a local citizen, too--the postmaster. But things have been quiet here for a long time. Malden's population is aging. The percentage of those reaching retirement age has almost doubled since 1980.

Dad, too, is thinking about retirement. Does that mean shutting down or selling out? Not on your life. My sister Amy Moran, 34, who also grew up in the store, is being groomed to take over. Another Sparks strategy for surviving, it seems, is that the store's life blood is its bloodline.EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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