Furniture, without the frills

C-Mart: The wacky formula that attracts bargain-lovers to the discount clothing store is being extended to salvage seating and cheap sleep.

October 10, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Douglas Carton paid his way through college selling sweaters out of the trunk of his car but gave it up after graduation to become an accountant - a job he hated.

"I kept thinking I need to get a bigger trunk," he said. "I made pretty good money selling sweaters."

Instead, he leased a storefront in downtown Bel Air and opened C-Mart, a discount clothing store that has become one of Harford County's long-standing retail institutions, with a cult-like following in the Baltimore region.

Now Carton is applying the formula that made C-Mart so popular - cheap prices, brand-name blowouts, cluttered stores and hand-scrawled ads - to a furniture store.

The C-Mart Discount Home Store is slated to open tomorrow in an old Kmart building at Joppatowne Plaza, in an economically depressed corner of Harford County. "Furniture had always done well at C-Mart," Carton said. "We just never had the space to keep too much of it."

Just as at the old store, not a lot of money is being spent on the particulars.

Cash register stands cost about $2,000, so C-Mart Vice President Keith Silberg bought $200 worth of wood and built his own. Store signs are written with felt markers on white poster board.

The building is nondescript, the furniture set out on the floor with no fancy displays or shelves.

"I think they have a definite formula that works for them," said Mark Mueller, a principal at commercial real estate brokerage KLNB Inc. in Towson, who specializes in retail investment sales.

"You go in and it's a no-frills appearance, not a sexy decor, and that goes with the image they're trying to portray, that you're getting a bargain."

When Carton opened C-Mart in an old 5-and-10 store in 1975, the crowds came instantly because there were few places at the time to buy such brand names as Calvin Klein on a middle-class budget.

"Discount shopping was a pretty new concept then," said Silberg, who is Carton's nephew. "There were high-end department stores but no place where you could buy nice clothes on a budget."

Carton was raised in a family of jobbers - people who buy large amounts of goods and sell them to dealers. His great-grandparents plied the trade in Russia. His grandparents and parents, who later immigrated to America, bought merchandise wholesale and sold it to storekeepers in Baltimore.

"It's in our blood," said Carton, 55.

Carton came up with the C-Mart name when asked what to put on his business license.

He was six months out of college at the start and lacked money, but he was able to secure a $50,000 loan from the Small Business Administration to open the store.

"If it didn't work, I figured the worst-case scenario would be that I ended up where I started, which was broke," Carton said. "I didn't have anything to risk in those days."

Carton ran the store by himself for five years, before bringing his brother-in-law, Stuart Silberg, in as a partner.

Carton had always thought his family could make more money by cutting out the middleman and selling to the customer.

He was right.

The store remained in the old 5-and-10 for eight years and then, to make room for a new county courthouse, moved to a 70,000-square-foot warehouse that it has called home ever since.

C-Mart buys its merchandise at drastic discounts from insurance company salvage lots across the country - treasure troves after natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods when stores are trying to get rid of damaged goods. Other times, lesser damage creates opportunities to accumulate cut-rate merchandise too.

At the C-Mart furniture store this week, Keith Silberg pointed out a set of oak armoires and dressers he got for a steal in Mesa, Ariz. A small leak in the ceiling of a department store ruined one of the dressers. But when the insurance company came to write the claim, it opened every box in the warehouse to check for damage.

"The owner couldn't sell merchandise out of the box, so he had to take a write-off," Silberg said.

In another deal, Silberg said, a top furniture maker has agreed to sell C-Mart all the pieces it is displaying in a showroom at an annual furniture show in High Point, N.C.

Like at the old store, the bargains at the C-Mart home store will change by the week. Last week it was Swarovski crystal. This week, it's coats by Kenneth Cole, London Fog and DKNY.

Customers are tantalized with weekly e-mails and distinctive hand-scrawled newspaper ads previewing the latest deals.

The ads occurred by accident years ago when Carton submitted them to the local newspaper too late to be typeset. Carton said to run the copy "as is," much to the disgruntlement of the newspaper. The ads became an instant hit.

"They're sporadic," Mueller said about C-Mart. "There's no specific theme. One week they'll promote a shipment from a pet store, then the next week it's tuxedos. It's that hit-or-miss atmosphere that people love."

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