News Column

Battling the Big Guys

June 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Scott Williams

Natan Wekselbaum
Natan Wekselbaum

Natan Wekselbaum refers to it as "sameness." It's the sameness you experience when you step into a mall and you could just as easily be in Miami as Seattle because the stores are all the same all across America.

New York City has managed to resist the sameness phenomenon longer than most American cities. But now there, too, you can find chain stores across the city.

In Mr. Wekselbaum's retailing niche, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Home Depot have opened stores recently, giving privately owned retailers like Gracious Home, the company he founded in 1963, competition the likes of which they've never before seen.

Mr. Wekselbaum, 69, and his wife, Nancy, are owners of Gracious Home, a housewares store in Manhattan that started as a tiny shop and has grown into two Manhattan locations – a 28,000-square-foot store and the 45,000-square-foot original.

A store that began with $37 in revenues its first day, and between $200,000 and $300,000 it first year, now has grown into a furnishings empire with 2003 revenues of $59 million. The company ranks No. 85 on this year's Hispanic Business 500 list.

Mr. Wekselbaum, who was born and raised in Cuba, emigrated to the United States in 1961 at the age of 25. He says the key to his success has been providing customers with whatever they need. He has done that, he says, by keeping a wide range of products in stock and ordering anything else a customer might want.

"The store became known for having everything that a customer wanted and by being very nice to customers and being very friendly to neighbors," he says.

His stores, which began with two employees and now employ 465, originally stocked a couple of hundred items; they now carry approximately 150,000.

The company also is launching an e-commerce Web site that Mr. Wekselbaum hopes will combine the convenience of online shopping with a nod to the traditional business practices that have made him a success.

"We're going to start small with a number of products to test it and make sure it works and maintain the flavor of the store, and maybe expand it if we can," he says, adding that the rest of the business is run with the most current technology.

Online sales are a growing business for retailers across the country; the National Retail Federation estimates the Internet and multichannel retailing industry grew 26 percent in 2003 to $96 billion. Traditional brick-and-mortar stores also are experiencing a welcome increase in sales as consumer confidence slowly returns. The federation and the U.S. Commerce Department both show monthly retail sales increasing this year over last, with total first-quarter sales up as much as 10 percent.

But competition for shoppers remains fierce, with Mr. Wekselbaum and other retailers facing the skyrocketing trend that has come to be known as the "Wal-Mart effect" – Big Box retailers who have taken up residence in every major and medium-sized city in America.

But Mr. Wekselbaum isn't too concerned. He says his customers have looked at what Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond have to offer, and returned to him because of his stores' service and selection.

"We have a significant amount of products that are not represented in any other store and I think people in New York like that," he says. "We have quite attractive merchandise and we cater to a much more sophisticated clientele."


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