Five-and-dime's Hard Times

December 23, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

McCrory -- the venerable and once hugely profitable variety store stocked with bargain-priced gadgets, baubles and widgets plans to close three stores in the Baltimore-Washington area early next year to trim costs and raise badly needed cash.

Among the stores to be shuttered will be its 25-year-old location at The Mall in Columbia, a retail institution for shoppers at that center.

Other stores being closed by the parent company, the New York-based McCrory Corp., are a McCrory store in Bladensburg and an H.L. Green variety store in Falls Church, Va.

Over the last three years, the company has closed about 200 of its 820 stores across the country in order to pay off debt, including four other variety stores in the Baltimore area.

The five-and-dime-store chain has been suffering since January, 1992, when it filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws after its profits were hammered by competition from such successful, large discounters as Kmart and Wal-Mart.

Retailing experts were not surprised by McCrory executives' decision to close three more area outlets.

"The variety store industry in the United States is a cadaver. It's history," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, Inc, a New York-based national retail consultant.

"Every time there's an obituary in the newspaper, they lose a customer," he said of the variety store industry's elderly base of customers. With large, attractive discounters nearby, "Who on the planet would want to go" to variety stores? asked the consultant.

Well, Patty Boothe, a Columbia resident, for one. She was among a throng of customers who lined up 20 deep at four cash registers at the McCrory store in the Columbia mall yesterday to snare bargains for home, Christmas and memory's sake.

"Five-and-dimes are getting harder and harder to find. It's sad to see this one closing. It was so convenient," Mrs. Boothe said. "I would stop in this store just about every time I came to the mall. Their prices on some things are really a lot cheaper than almost anywhere else."

Mrs. Boothe had come to the shopping center to pick up some last-minute Christmas gifts and wrapping, when she noticed a sign posted in the front of the McCrory store announcing a closing sale -- with 20 percent off.

"When I saw the sign, I figured I better get in there now before the place is cleaned out," she said, leaving with two large bags that held several bolts of yarn for "a long winter project" and rolls of Christmas wrapping paper.

She is among nostalgic customers who may miss McCrory's quaint, if somewhat unpolished, aura. At McCrory, shoppers nTC could count on finding almost anything: an entire aisle of plastic flowers, from neon yellow roses to orange Birds of Paradise; shower curtains decorated with pink flamingos, Christmas wreaths entirely of plastic, a rent receipt book for $1.39 and a ceramic black Santa Claus statue for 99 cents.

The closing of the stores is driven by the debt of McCrory Corp., which in 1992 operated more than 800 variety stores in the United States under the names McCrory, G.C. Murphy, H.L. Green and S.H. Kress, said Mr. Davidowitz. The company must repay 85 percent of a $223 million debt in 1995, according to its bankruptcy filing.

Cal Warren, president of the McCrory Division based in York, Pa., did not respond to requests over the last two days for an interview about the closings.

Despite efforts to keep the company afloat, Mr. Davidowitz predicts more store closings in McCrory's future.

When other variety-store chains, such as Kmart and Wal-Mart, were developing themselves into largely suburban discounters, "McCrory was racing around the country buying up these little variety stores. They missed the transformation," said Mr. Davidowitz.

The McCrory closings may be cause for nostalgia for some long-time customers like Mrs. Boothe.

But it is also a concern for some independent retailers who leased space within the stores, such as Annie Sarkis, who's been operating a jewelry repair and watch shop in the Columbia McCrory.

"It's really sad for me because I have worked hard for the past three years to build up a really good customer base," said Mrs. Sarkis.

"I can't afford the $5,000 monthly rent the mall wants for my own store here, so I'll have to move."

Moving means taking her inventory and repair service to the Laurel shop she and her husband operate on the corner of U.S. 1 and Main Street. As she watched customers rummaging through McCrory's budget furniture, goldfish tanks and shelves of doilies, she sighed: "If they had done this kind of business all the time, they wouldn't be in this situation today."

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