Sunday, May 19, 2013

From TVs to real estate: the story of Harrison's Two Guys

If you grew up in New Jersey in the '60s or '70s, chances are that you knew Two Guys. The retailer was the precursor to Walmart and a slew of discount department stores. Even better, actually. You could find just about anything there: groceries, toys, clothes, appliances, lumber, sporting goods, record albums and 45s... along with a snack bar and, if memory serves, a small bowling alley. I can recall the mob scene before dinner on the first day of school, with kids and moms from all over Union converging on the school supplies section for book covers, pencil cases and binders. I'm sure that a similar drama was staged at virtually every Two Guys location around the state.

The chain's "all things to all people" merchandising scheme had its roots in something more specific: scratch and dent returns in one of North Jersey's industrial centers. Back in 1946, brothers Herbert and Sidney Hubschman were running Herb's Diner across from the RCA factory in Harrison when they saw a business opportunity. RCA was one of the first manufacturers of televisions, and the Harrison plant held old floor samples and sets that had minor blemishes from shipping. I'd venture that the merchandise was equivalent to the "open box" stuff you see at appliance store clearance sales today. The equipment works perfectly well; it's just not pristine, new, in-the-box.

In any case, Sid went to RCA management to propose a deal. They'd take the sets at an agreed-upon price, pay the company for those they were able to sell within a month and return any leftovers. Given that RCA hadn't yet determined another way to dispose of the TVs, the company didn't have much to lose. They delivered the sets to a vacant lot the Hubschmans had located for the purpose, and the fun began.

Sid and Herb figured that if they sold each set for five dollars more than RCA was charging them, they'd add a nice bump to their weekly snack bar earnings. Their overhead apparently was pretty low: their salesroom (the lot) doesn't seem to have cost them much if anything, and their advertising consisted of flyers they printed up and left on the windshields of cars parked along Harrison's narrow streets.

On the sale date, the brothers were mobbed with customers. It seems that their pricing strategy had struck a sweet spot. Many RCA plant workers couldn’t afford to buy a set, even with an employee discount, and the Hubschmans “cost plus five” pricing was a much better deal, The brothers sold their month’s supply of TVs in just a few hours, and their discount appliance business was born.

That day was the beginning of a strong relationship between RCA and the brothers, so much so that local appliance retailers began calling Sid and Herb “those two bastards from Harrison.” According to local legend, the Hubschmans took pride in what would usually be an insult, and even tried to advertise using the “two bastards” phrase. (Hey, who could blame them? Their competitors would be promoting their business for free!) However, they found that no one would sell them advertising using that name, and the “Two Guys from Harrison” label was born. It was later shortened to “Two Guys,” but old customers continued to use the old name.

About a decade later, Two Guys acquired O.A. Sutton, manufacturer of the popular Vornado fan, and the retailer grew far beyond New Jersey. The brothers continued to innovate in retail, fighting for the repeal of Blue Laws that forbade the sale of clothing and some other items on the Christian Sabbath. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall seeing large portions of the Two Guys sales floor roped off on Sundays, despite the supermarket portion of the store being open for business. The company’s fight reached the Supreme Court in 1978, eventually knocking the laws down everywhere but in Bergen County.

Ultimately, Two Guys met its end in 1982, after parent company Vornado was acquired by Interstate Department Stores. The larger company started shutting down less profitable stores and focused on its burgeoning real estate business. Many of the properties were leased out to other discounters who, over the years, have met their own deaths. Those second generation stores have been replaced by the latest in a long line of places to buy cheap socks and who knows what else. Still, though, they're not those two guys from Harrison.

1 comment:

  1. My parents met while working at Two Guys. If it hadn't been for "those two bastards from Harrison" I wouldn't be here to read this blog.


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