SPARKS — A business that isn’t online and does better during a recession — is such a thing possible?
It is, according to Ed Ross, manager of the JC’s 5 Star outlet store in Sparks.
A native of Wisconsin, Ross recently marked 40 years with the company that formerly was the liquidation arm of JCPenney and still serves that function with the national retailer — although it split with the retailer last year.
Ross started his career at a JCPenney service desk in Chicago, after earning a business management degree from the University of Wisconsin, and never left.
“That was my first job and it still is my job,” Ross said.
He has worked in sales from the desk, through the catalog and on the floor — working his way up to manager. Along the way, he has witnessed many trends and changes. Ross has ordered merchandise on paper, with punch machines, on computers with DOS and now with sophisticated software and the Internet. He also has seen the act of shopping become more technologically savvy.
“(Customers will) take a picture of something with their telephone when they come in and punch in the numbers and see what it is selling for in other places,” Ross said. “And that helps us.”
The economic doldrums of the past three years have actually benefitted JC’s 5 Star store at the corner of McCarran Boulevard and Glendale Avenue, Ross said. Consumers’ need to find a lower price on clothes and household items has grown, adding to the store’s already loyal following of bargain hunters, Ross said.
The store also has seen competition creep closer in recent years with the opening of a new Walmart store just a few miles to the west on Second Street and the relocation of the Target store in Sparks from Prater Way to Outlets at Legends.
“Our customer base expands a bit when competition comes in,” Ross said.
Ross said the outlet store customer base is a bit different than that of a regular retail store. People who shop outlet stores are truly looking for a bargain from the outset, he said, and will drive a far distance to get it. While the outlet store’s selection is much more limited, Ross said, a true outlet will mark down merchandise 30 to 50 percent. All the colors and sizes won’t be on the shelves, he added, but it will be a good bargain if it fits.
Also, he continued, since JC’s 5 Star’s break-up with JCPenney, the liquidation store’s inventory has become more seasonal, not relying on the returned and overstock merchandise to fill its floor. And while weekly ads highlight the current available stock, regular customers make the journey to get a first-hand look at what is different at the store.
“People really do look for us regardless of what we’re advertising,” Ross said. “We get people from Grass Valley, (Calif.) over the hill all the time, Oregon because they know we’re down here and we’re a legitimate outlet store.”
Glen Gammons, CEO of JC’s 5 Star, also said one of the biggest differences between an outlet consumer and a regular retail consumer is how far they will travel to shop.
“Most retailers pull customers from a 5- to 10-mile radius of their store,” Gammons said in an email. “Our business pulls from up to a 50- to 100-mile circle. Many of our customers come in on a weekly basis, but others only make the trip a few times a year when they pass through town, visit family or on some other special occasion. These ‘tourist’ customers are not the norm in retail.”
Out-of-towners aren’t the only ones who frequent Ross’ store.
“A lot of people from industrial businesses come on their lunch hour to see what changed from the day before,” Ross said.
Something that hasn’t changed for a long time at the Sparks location is Ross, and much of his management team. In addition to being with the company for 40 years — which is 80 percent of the JCPenney outlet’s existence — Ross said many of his department heads and supervisors have worked with him for 15 to 25 years.
When the outlet stores closure announcement was made early in 2011, a deal was being worked out with SBCapital Group in Ohio to buy all 15 JCPenney Outlet Stores. This deal allowed all 15 stores to stay in business, while most of the management group migrated from the JCPenney Outlet to JC’s 5 Star Outlet, as well as offering the vast majority of the Outlet’s 1,600 store associates an opportunity to keep their jobs.
“They’ve always been really good to me,” Ross said of the company. “I’ve had offers; from time to time you get headhunters from Mervyn’s or Target or places like that call but, you know, the people I’ve worked with and the way I’ve been treated I’ve never really looked beyond my own front door.”
Another long-term employee agreed.
“In retail in general, Ed Ross’s longevity is not the norm, but it is more likely than you might expect in our chain,” Gammons said. “I have been with JCPenney Outlet and now JC’s 5 Star for 40 years, and we have many associates in both management and hourly positions with decades of service. With that sort of longevity a store becomes like a family.”