Good Stuff Cheap
Ellis, Jerry, New England Journal of Entrepreneurship
Building #19, eponymously named for its original warehouse in Hingham, Massachusetts, is either the largest or the second largest salvage operation in the United States, depending on how you measure the competition. But Jerry Ellis, founder and CEO, does not care which position his company is in, as long as he can run Building #19 with his special mix of bargains, planned chaos, and humor. Always humor.
Building #19 grew out of necessity-the necessity to put food on the table for a growing (and hungry) family. In 1964, an unemployed and bankrupt Jerry Ellis tried something new with an old friend. Using their skills in marketing and bargain hunting, they set up a part-time retail business selling insurance loss furniture. This went well, and the store began to flourish, selling salvage, mail order returns, closeouts, bankruptcy stocks, irregulars, and overstocks. In the intervening 35 years, Building # 19 has grown to 14 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Each store is named with a fraction added to the original store name: Building #19 1/2 in Woburn, Massachusetts, was the second store to open (1970) and Building #19 1/3 is the most recently opened, in Hanover, Massachusetts. Widely known for creative advertising, astoundingly diverse stock, and bargains, bargains, bargains, Building #19 is an intriguing organization with an unusual CEO and an iconoclastic approach to successful business. Ellis and
NEJE contributor Gina Vega talked web sites, commerceboth e- and otherwise--and strategy.
NEJE: You are among the very largest salvage operations in the nation. How did you get here?
Ellis: One customer at a time. We tried to do it right. We took care of our customers as well as our employees. And, we worked hard. When I started this business in 1964, I was a recent bankrupt. I was jobless and I had to establish myself. There was no shortage of retailers, so I knew that I had to develop a personality for the business.
I wanted it to be an honest business and so the store developed from my personality, which is to poke fun at myself to personalize things. People like to do business with people; they don't like to do business with companies.
NEJE. How about doing business via the Internet? Is there a place for Building #19 on the net?
Ellis: Yes, but not a major place. Since everything we buy is a one-shot deal, I want that stuff to be in the stores. When people come in for that item, they also buy a pair of pants or whatever while they happen to be at the store. If we sell on the web site, it's that one item and that's it. My view is probably not very refined, but that's the way I see it. My object in advertising is to get feet into the store and if I do that they'll buy something.
NEJE. What about your web site? The url is snappy: http://www.building19.com. Don't you think that if you get eyes onto the web page, they might also buy something ?
Ellis: Our web site is bland and disgraceful. It is one of those things I haven't gotten around to do and frankly, I guess I'm waiting for some brilliant 19-year-old who's really into this stuff to come pounding on my door and say, "Let me do the web. site." I'll give him or her all the support I can. Some things we do in print are good and, I think, a lot of that could be translated into a web site and probably improved upon. It could be a tremendous amount of fun and, I guess, I could do it myself if I had the time or inclination.
NEJE.- Do you know how?
Ellis: Whatever you do with a pencil and paper you could do on the web site-just translate it. Someday when we have a 12-day snowstorm and I'm housebound and have nothing to do, I'll do it.
NEJE: Building #19 is Jerry Ellis for the shoppers who come to your stores. Everything says Jerry Ellis: The ads say Ellis; the store signs say Ellis; the attitudes say Ellis. The shopper can't separate the two.
Ellis: There's a certain risk when you do that, and I guess there are some drawbacks. …