UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

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Retail Therapy
Why is Wilson's in Greenfield one of the last surviving family-owned department stores in America?
Andrew Varnon

Greenfield’s Main Street has a bend to it, about a block past Federal Street, so drivers headed west past the town common feel as if they’ll drive right into
the four-story white-metal façade adorned with six-foot blue letters: “Wilson’s.”


Wilson’s department store celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and holds the distinction of being one of the last independent, family-owned department stores in the Northeast. Perhaps its location on a bend in the road is part of its secret, but in the era of mega-discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Federated Department Stores, which owns Bloomingdales, Macy’s, etc., conventional wisdom says Wilson’s should have folded a long time ago.


Yet here it is, still anchoring Greenfield’s downtown retail district, its display windows filled with mannequins dressed in winter fashions, as they have been every winter since 1882. First it was the Boston Store; in 1896, Scottish immigrant John Wilson bought it and gave it his name. R. Stanley Reid of North Adams and George L. Willis of Pittsfield purchased the store in 1929; when Willis died in 1941, Reid became sole owner. Wilson’s has been in the Reid family ever since.

Today, Wilson’s is headed up by President Kevin O’Neil, a UMass Amherst alumnus who married into the Reid family. He is piloting a store from a time of bustling downtowns into an age of suburban sprawl. Wilson’s keeps Greenfield from looking like Anywhere, U.S.A. It reminds us of what small-town America used to look like.

On Valentine’s Day in 2007, a CBS television crew made the trip to Greenfield from New York to film a segment on department stores. The producer of the news show Sunday Morning interviewed Jan Whitaker, a Northampton author who had recently published a historical account of American department stores, Service & Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class. Whitaker told CBS about Wilson’s.

It was a horrendously snowy day, Whitaker remembers. As the crew followed her around the store, she told the cameras, “If you go back 10 years, every town this size had one or two stores like it.” Vice-President Tamara Beauregard ’74 was also interviewed. She started working at the store while in high school, and has been working there ever since, for 36 years.

Before heading back to New York, crew members shopped. The producer found a toy that she was unable to find in New York City; the cameraman took home a set of cookware.


When the program aired, the Wilson’s segment was part of a larger upbeat assessment of how department stores in America remain vital despite competition from discount stores. But that conclusion was drawn largely from the success of Macy’s, with nearly 850 locations nationwide.

Whitaker says the writing on the wall for independent department stores began appearing all the way back in the 1920s when single stores in large cities began opening suburban branches and merging into chains and buying groups.


What makes Wilson’s different, says Whitaker, is that it “didn’t get bought up and didn’t proliferate itself.” According to the general trends in the industry, she adds, “This would not have marked it for survival in the 20th century.”


Wilson’s has faced its share of competition, too. Although the nearest mall is in Hadley 23 miles south, Greenfield has had a number of downtown department stores over the years: the family-owned Goodnow’s, as well as JCPenney and Sears stores.

Without much prompting, O’Neil and Beauregard can rattle off a list of casualties in the larger region: Steiger’s and Forbes-Wallace in Springfield, Sage-Allen and G. Fox in Hartford, Filene’s and Jordan Marsh in Boston, as well as McCallum’s in Northampton, all of which closed or were folded into larger chains.


What has kept Wilson’s afloat as so many others like it have fallen away? Whitaker says that the family’s continuing commitment to the store is important, and its location away from mall competition helps. But the bottom line is that the store knows its clientele, and that is at least partly because of O’Neil and Beauregard’s hard work.


The longtime colleagues have complementary personalities. Where Beauregard is formal and prepared (she answers the phone with the greeting, “Mrs. Beauregard”)—O’Neil is warm and self-effacing. O’Neil’s papers are scattered about his office; Beauregard’s space is spartan. Beauregard was born into retailing; her father ran the JCPenney store in town. O’Neil got his degree at UMass Amherst in plant and soil science. He might have maintained golf courses for a living, if he hadn’t married a Reid.


There are two phones in O’Neil’s office, a fancy one with an LED screen and an old beige rotary; they sum up the gestalt of Wilson’s. When asked about the old phone, O’Neil laughs and says, “Oh, that’s the bat phone.” When they put in the new system, they left the old line in; O’Neil’s wife can reach him directly, “and when there’s a power outage, it’s the only phone in the building that works.”


Arguably, what has preserved Wilson’s is its defiance of convention. While other stores merged and opened branch locations, Wilson’s made a conscious choice not to go that route. Instead it stayed committed to Greenfield, investing in off-street parking, something O’Neil cites as an invaluable advantage. By keeping its focus on its home base, it avoided the risks of being overextended.


“We’ve been approached by towns throughout the years, asking us to open new stores,” O’Neil says. “But once you start spreading out, it puts a different spin on how you run your business. We didn’t want to drain the strength of where our roots are.”


Wilson’s biggest sale of the year is its Harvest Sale in October. The store publishes a big circular in The Recorder and sends it directly to all of Wilson’s credit-card holders and in-house mail list subscribers.


On the Saturday of the sale, one parking spot remains out of 80 in the store’s main lot. The store isn’t mobbed, but people are shopping in every section. They are sitting on mattresses, thumbing through clothes racks, filling out slips for special prize drawings.


Shoppers accustomed to mall department stores might find Wilson’s cramped. Its 45,000 square feet of retail space on four floors are arranged in a somewhat irregular pattern since the store’s footprint spreads through three separate buildings that have been adjoined and expanded over the years. Instead of airy escalators, Wilson’s has elevators and staircases with display niches. The floors creak as you walk. The directory signs seem dated. But the place feels real.


Wilson’s prides itself on its service and its longtime employees, many of whom have worked there for decades. Wilson’s issues its own store credit card and offers a personal shopper service. Its 15 registers “are always fully staffed,” Beauregard says. “A customer doesn’t have to go looking for help.”


Unlike the traditional department store, Wilson’s doesn’t offer a full spectrum of goods. Over the years it has narrowed its selection somewhat, becoming more of a specialty department store. For example, it has impressive toy and ladies’ intimate apparel sections but no longer carries maternity clothing. Beauregard and O’Neil are particular about the lines of merchandise they stock, going for brands not often found in department stores, like North Face and Pendleton. At Wilson’s you can also find a number of local products, like Lamson & Goodnow knives and Mole Hollow candles from Shelburne Falls, and Lunt Silver from Greenfield.


O’Neil and Beauregard paint a picture of a Wilson’s that is growing and adapting so it stays current. “We’ve got Crocs,” Beauregard pipes up. On the other hand, they know their limitations. “We can’t be all things to all people,” Beauregard says. Wilson’s is not what you would call ‘ahead of the curve.’ You can’t buy an iPod here, and you won’t find Wilson’s on the Internet yet. Wilson’s bets on customers who like coming into town to shop. “Not everyone wants to go to the mall,” O’Neil says.


Because of its novelty status as among the last ones standing, Wilson’s has become a destination of sorts. Beauregard said she recently met a couple from Danbury, Connecticut. After seeing the CBS Sunday Morning segment, they put Wilson’s on their list of places to visit. They came “because of the uniqueness of the store,” Beauregard says. “People come up from Springfield and combine it with a lunch or dinner at Bill’s,” she adds, referring to Famous Bill’s restaurant on Federal Street.


Greenfield is holding on to its past. It is home to Foster’s Supermarket, an independently owned grocery store. It has two local banks: Greenfield Savings Bank and Greenfield Co-Operative Bank. O’Neil said the banks in particular have been key to downtown’s continuing vitality.


Greenfield’s downtown today, however, is not just a holdout of old stores. Over the past 10 or 15 years, downtown has also accumulated an eclectic mix of other independents, many focused on supporting a sustainable local economy. The brewpub, the People’s Pint, composts all of its food waste; the Solar Store sells alternative energy devices; Green Fields Market is a food co-op; and Bart’s Café features locally made ice cream.


Beauregard says that sometimes outsiders can see better than Greenfield natives how special downtown is. “We have a real jewel, Greenfield does. I think some people don’t appreciate it.” Vibrant, walkable downtowns with locally owned stores, she says, are going by the wayside, yet “they are something we need to preserve and to treasure.”


Beauregard lives about a mile from the store. She goes home for lunch to unwind and let her dog out. “How many people can say they do that?” she asks. “Wilson’s is part of a way of life a small community offers that a large one can’t.”

 

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