Bargains at Waters Place
Big Lots' committed customers
by Sally Mitani
Thirty-some people gathered on August 2 outside of the new Big Lots, which replaced Borders in Waters Place, that strip mall of big-box stores that also houses Best Buy and Kohl's. Compared to the thousands who streamed through Costco, one freeway exit east, on its opening day, they were a mere trickle, but they were equally committed; it was a virtually unadvertised soft opening that they could have learned about only via updates taped to the front door. They milled around in the vestibule waiting for the deadbolt to be flipped, murmuring "I love Big Lots" or "... school supplies ... I'm a teacher." "I'm just here to browse. You never know what will turn up here."
Big Lots is like the dollar store's durable-goods cousin, selling electronics, hardware, housewares, and even furniture and mattresses, all making their last stop on the retail train. But it differs from dollar stores in a couple of other important ways than just price range. Many dollar stores are franchises, but all 1,400 Big Lots are company owned, started by one outsize personality with a vision.
There was nothing Sol Shenk loved as much as to corner the market on anything that had just been universally declared a bad idea. Perhaps his finest hour was the 1982 bankruptcy of the DeLorean Motor Company, when he bought (and successfully resold) 2,500 sports cars.
Shenk started Big Lots' precursor, Odd Lots, in Columbus in 1967. He died years ago, and his son runs the company now, but Sol Shenk's philosophy lives on: buy weird, overproduced, damaged, or outdated stuff, mark it way down, and wait for people to beat a path to your door.
Manager Craig Watson, who has been with the company for sixteen years (he came over from the Jackson store), stresses that a lot of the merchandise is overstock, not abandoned, bankrupted inventories or factory seconds, waving by way of example at the Serta mattresses and DeWalt cordless drills ("a lady carried
out three of those yesterday"). Big-ticket items are really only about half the store: the rest is drugstore-type items, including lots of snack food. "We just had a huge Procter & Gamble buyout--they're selling at 20 to 40 percent below retail," he says, pointing to a wall of Mr. Clean, Oil of Olay, Gillette, Febreze, and Tide.
Bargain hunting can be something of an addiction, according to Watson: "Your Big Lot shopper comes in once a week, and they know when our trucks come in." (And he only reluctantly reveals when that is: "The truck comes in Wednesday, Thursday, somewhere around then, and we get the merchandise on the shelves twenty-four to forty-eight hours later.")
On opening day, cereal and snack food were the big sellers: customer after customer carried out bags stuffed with Cheerios, Doritos, and Arizona Ice Tea. Watson agrees that cereal sales are huge. "How much do you usually pay for cereal? Three, four, five dollars? Here's Cocoa Puffs, Kix, Cheerios--I don't see anything over three dollars." Actually, there was something slightly over $3: the posh, organic brand Kashi Go Lean. While cereal brands are reassuringly mainstream at Big Lots, snack food is delightfully offbeat and original. (One woman was taking a flyer on some Herr's baby-back-rib-flavored potato chips.)
Watson says the stealth opening was to ease the brand-new cashiers into their jobs, but a cashier ringing up the second customer to ever pass through the store--me, actually, 24c notebook, $5 can opener--was dealing with an unexpectedly long line with a great deal of aplomb. She said she had worked at Meijer, up the road. Why the move here? Does it pay more? "Yes." A lot more or pennies? "Pennies," she admitted.
Big Lots, 3140 Lohr Rd. (Waters Place), 222-6261. Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. biglots.com
[Originally published in September, 2012.]