E. J. Korvette
|Former type||Discount department store|
|Headquarters||New York City, United States|
|Area served||eastern United States|
E. J. Korvette, also known as Korvettes, was an American chain of discount department stores, founded in 1948 in New York City. It is notable as one of the first department stores to challenge the suggested retail price provisions of anti-discounting statutes. Founded by World War II veteran Eugene Ferkauf and his friend, Joe Zwillenberg, E.J. Korvette did much to define the idea of a discount department store. It displaced earlier five and dime retailers and preceded later discount stores, like Wal-Mart, and warehouse clubs such as Costco.
The company failed to properly manage its business success which led to decline and its 1980 bankruptcy and closure.
E. J. Korvette's founder, Eugene Ferkauf, began his discounting career in a 400-square-foot (37 m2) loft in mid-Manhattan, New York City. Inventory consisted of well-known brands of luggage, household appliances and some jewelry. Discounts were one-third off regular prices. Sales were over $2,500 per square foot. Ferkauf retired in 1968.
E.J. Korvette's used several retailing innovations to propel its rapid growth. It used discounting, even though most discounting was known to be outlawed at the time. Korvette's instituted a membership program, a technique from consumers' cooperatives that had never been applied to a department store before. It also expanded into suburban locations at a time when most department stores were in central business districts.
Discounting and membership program
Korvette's low-price, low-service model was in some ways similar to that of earlier five and dime retailers such as Woolworth's, McCrory's, and S.S. Kresge. But Korvette's was innovative in avoiding the anti-discounting provisions of the Robinson-Patman Act, and undercutting the suggested retail price on such expensive items as appliances and luxury pens.
Korvette used "membership cards" (which it distributed in front of its stores and to surrounding offices) to style itself as a retail cooperative. In so doing, Korvette's was able to accept deep discounts from suppliers—something that competing department stores, such as Macy's and Gimbels, could not do. In fact, Macy's and others filed numerous "fair trade" lawsuits against Korvette's to stop it from undercutting their prices. None succeeded. Arguably, the lawsuits helped Korvette's by calling attention to prices so low that competitors thought them illegal.
Founder Eugene Ferkauf attributed his idea for membership cards and deep discounts to luggage wholesaler Charles Wolf. But where Charles Wolf made limited or even surreptitious use of these devices, Korvette's popularized them by instructing employees to distribute membership cards to any person entering any Korvette's.
Strip malls and the suburbs
While the first E. J. Korvette store was located between Third and Lexington Avenues on 45th street in Manhattan, its rapid growth in the 1950s was helped by its many stores in strip malls along arterial roads leading out of urban centers. This made E. J. Korvette ideally situated to meet the demands of the suburbs, which grew in the United States during the that era.
The first of the modern-type stores was opened in 1954, a 90,000-square-foot (8,400 m2) store in Carle Place, Long Island, which for the first time carried apparel. In 1956, Korvette's had six stores, including stores in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By 1958, it had twelve stores. At its peak, it had 58 stores.
Korvette's expanded into the Chicago area in the 1960s. It successfully disputed the state and local Sunday closing ordinances and laws. Once those barriers were broken, many other retailers opened on Sunday.
Decline and closure
Korvette's decline and closure are variously attributed to inconsistent management, failure to focus on merchandise it knew (such as appliances), and ultimately attempting to compete directly with the department stores in areas such as fashion (when it had neither the expertise nor the right store atmosphere).
Of note was E. J. Korvette's venture into the home entertainment business. The retailer established a rather out of context series of high-end audio salons within selected stores. Korvettes went so far as to market its own "XAM" brand of stereo receivers, amplifiers (some manufactured by Roland Electronics of Japan), television sets, and speakers.
In late 1965, Korvette's formed its own Home Furnishings Division and ceased subcontracting furniture and carpet sales. A complex warehousing and distribution network was established. A central distribution warehouse was established in Danville, Virginia. This location received furniture, purchased by its buyers located in East Paterson, New Jersey, and in turn reshipped individual customer orders based on promised delivery dates. The sold merchandise was then shipped to delivery warehouses in East Paterson and Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Jessup, Maryland for final prep and delivery. This well-managed furniture distribution group was active until it closed at the end of 1977.
By 1966, Korvette's had begun to decline and chose to merge with Spartan Industries, a soft goods retailer. Eugene Ferkauf was eased out of the company leadership, and Spartan managers attempted to revive the company.
From 1971 to 1979, Korvette's was owned by Arlen Realty, a land development company that used Korvette's 50 stores as a source of cash flow. During this period, New York area Korvette's stores advertised heavily on local television, using popular game show host Bill Cullen as a spokesman.
In 1979, Korvette's was purchased by the Agache-Willot Group of France, which initially closed Korvette's least profitable stores and began selling off merchandise, fixtures, equipment, and real estate. In 1980, they declared bankruptcy and on December 24, 1980, they closed all of their remaining 15 stores.
According to Korvette's founder, Eugene Ferkauf, who died on June 5, 2012, the name "E. J. Korvette" was coined as a combination of the initials of its founders (Eugene and Joe) and a re-spelling of the naval term corvette, a nimble sailing warship and later World War II sub-destroyer. Ferkauf's claim and the name pre-dating the Korean War by three years contradict an urban legend it was an acronym for "Eight (or Eleven) Jewish Korean War Veterans".
Korvette name in Canada
In the absence of the U.S. Korvette chain in Canada, a discount store chain was launched in Quebec in 1958 using the name "Korvette Stores Limited" without any affiliation to the American company. The chain still exists today and operates 67 discount stores.
- Buy and Hold: Discount Retailers, accessed October 31, 2006
- Harvard Business School: When Giants Stumble, October 12, 1999
- Discount Merchandiser, July 1988
- "General Merchandise Retailing in America", The American National Business Hall of Fame, 1985
- Herald Sq. Korvettes Store to be a Mall New York Times, July 15, 1982, by Isadore Barmash
- Claim: The discount chain E.J. Korvette took its name from a shortening of "eight Jewish Korean War veterans", the founding partners. Status: False.
- "History of Korvette Discount Stores".