"If You Buy Something Right, Sell it Right."
How Renys Discount Department Store Has Thrived for 65 Years
By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Fred Field
Maine culture is defined by such rock-solid values as thrift, practicality, resourcefulness, hard work, and individualism, sometimes bordering on eccentricity. A sampling of Maine culture is on full display, and available for a dose of retail therapy, at any one of 16 Renys stores located from Damariscotta to Dexter, from Bath to Bridgton, and from Portland to Pittsfield.
What you won’t find, however, from one Renys store to the next, or from one visit to the next, is what you might have found on your last visit. Not only is every Renys store different from all others, but that great deal you might have found on a national name brand close-out last week has been replaced by another deal. Such a deal!
In the words of the store’s advertising slogan, Renys is “a Maine adventure.” One of Renys adventures occurs every November when the company stages its Early Bird Sale and customers line up at stores all over Maine, some as early as 5 a.m., looking for a great deal, or to do most of their Christmas shopping for the season.
As background for this story, I dropped by Renys in downtown Camden a few weeks ago with my retail therapist—and wife—to get an expert’s orientation to the merchandise. We were not there to buy anything, but came out with a large bucket, rubber slip-on spiked cleats for navigating icy walkways, a roll of Stretch-Tite plastic wrap, a lint roller, a Pez dispenser for an Easter basket, a pair of water shoes for wading in the rocky intertidal, and a package of votive candles for the evening dinner table. I felt lucky that Woolrich vests, for which I have a particular weakness, had given way to more seasonal apparel or it could have been worse than the $22.09 cash register total.
Robert H. Reny, known to all as R.H., founded his eponymous store in Damariscotta in 1949. According to his oldest son, John Reny, who took over from his father in 2004, R.H. entered the Navy after graduating from Dartmouth College and was halfway across the Pacific when World War II ended. When he returned, he went to work at a department store in Boston and after a few years migrated north to work for Senter’s Department Store in Damariscotta. R.H. rented a room from the local store manager. After his first year at Senter’s, R.H. asked the manager for a raise. His boss gave him the raise, and then raised his rent by the same amount. “That’s when R.H. decided to go into business himself,” says John. There was a vacant A&P across the street. With a GI loan and personal funds scraped together, Renys first store opened in October 1949.
R.H. had successful fall and Christmas seasons, but come January, “sales slowed down incredibly,” says John. “Most Renys customers were fishermen from places like Round Pond and Bristol, and since they were not working, they weren’t buying either.” So R.H. loaded up merchandise in his capacious Hudson car and began driving up and down the peninsula. “He didn’t sell a lot,” says John, “but he drank a lot of coffee and ate a lot of pie.” The following spring people remembered that he had stopped by to see them in the middle of the winter and came into the store. “Of course, R.H. had the gift of the gab,” John recalled. “He could talk to anyone, he was like the town crier, he knew who had been born and who had died and what was happening in town.”
Bit by bit business began to improve, and R.H. wanted to expand. He opened his second store in Bridgton. Why Bridgton, I asked? “I don’t know, but it was a hell of a good idea,” says John. “That’s been a great store.” R.H. would finish work in Damariscotta at the end of the afternoon, drive three hours—“It was three hours back then”—and work until late at night, fall asleep in a room he rented from a fellow who ran a sign-painting business, and then drive back to open the Damariscotta store the next morning. R.H. told the sign painter that he could teach him everything he needed to know about retail in three weeks. His landlord became his new store manager in Bridgton and stayed at it for the next 28 years.
Other Renys stores followed in Gardiner and Farmington. But when discount stores like Ames and Rich’s began arriving in Maine and setting up operations in strip malls at the edges of towns in the 1980s, they had an immediate impact on Renys business. “Business dropped 20 percent by the week at first,” John recalls, “but it also opened up new possibilities. For one thing, property values on main streets all over the state began declining, and we began acquiring new sites for our stores.”
A few years later, the arrival of Walmart stores presented another challenge. “They were like us, only much bigger,” says John. “We knew we had to have better quality goods because you cannot out-cheap cheap, and we wouldn’t want to.” John notes that Grant’s and Rich’s and other discount retailers trying to beat Walmart at its own game are now long gone.
Renys had always carried quality work clothes, such as Carhartt overalls for both men and women, barn pants, jeans, sweatshirts, caps, shirts, and Chippewa boots for all manner of outdoor work. In addition to these lines, Renys began carrying more upscale brands. I recall being taken aback when my wife first bought me a pair of SmartWool socks from Renys for a hefty $10.99 a pair. But I admitted to John that those socks changed my life, or at least my winters. Whereupon John swept his foot up onto the desk to show me “something better”—FITS socks with cushioning in the heel and toe.
John Reny had started working for his father in 1957, sweeping floors at 25 cents an hour in the company warehouse on the outskirts of Damariscotta, which he described as “two Quonset huts.” Later R.H. bought an abandoned school building, but Reny’s outgrew that approximately ten years ago and moved out to its current spacious warehouse and office space, a 90,000-square-foot distribution center on Route 1 in Newcastle. R.H. had acquired that land because at one point he thought of opening up a small strip mall there. But John says that his father knew that his store in Damariscotta “brought a ton of people into town and helped the town stay as good as it is.” So R.H. kept the company focused on maintaining his businesses in downtowns long before many others had adopted a similar strategy.
And R.H. kept enticing family members into the business. John’s younger brother, Bob, and Bob’s wife, Mary Kate, have all been part of the tightly integrated management of Renys for decades. When Bob joined our discussion, the brothers described their buying strategy. Bob pointed out that Renys carries top-of-the-line Asics running shoes, but they are last year’s models. “Most people don’t really care if they are a year behind,” says Bob. For a discount retailer, taking advantage of name-brand manufacturers’ close-outs is key. “If someone has a sweet deal, who is the first guy you are going to call?” asks John. “Because whoever gets the call will probably take the deal. So we try to be the first call. Sometimes we take a little nibble, while a big discounter takes the rest and everyone is happy. We’ve been doing this for 65 years. It’s all about relationships.”
When my retail therapist had walked me through Renys Camden store to orient me to the endless commercial attractions, I was surprised by the space devoted to specialty foods, including a great number of Maine food products. I was tempted by Bar Harbor Foods’s all-natural hardwood-smoked Atlantic mackerel, appreciative of the display of Look’s Gourmet Food Company’s lobster bisque from Whiting, delighted by Mother’s Mountain kitchen jams from Falmouth, surprised by Hick Lickin’ Good Maine apricot-ginger teriyaki sauce from Windham, glad to see Maine Maple candies from Madison, and overcome by the selection of 30 varieties of Raye’s Mustard from Eastport, including the delicious maple horseradish.
John says the decision to devote space to food products was simple: “People like food. They eat it and buy more.” He also says, “People know prices. We carry extra virgin olive oil at $3.99 for a 17-ounce bottle. We see people loading up and then heading to the grocery store.” The reason that Renys can compete with much larger grocery stores is also simple. “We buy from manufacturers,” he says. “You would be surprised how many grocery stores buy from distributors who mark it up and send it to shippers or warehouses who add 30 percent before a grocery buys it and marks it up again.”
Unlike Walmarts, all Renys stores are different. Bob mentions that sometimes customers from a different town walk in and say, “I didn’t know this was a Renys.” Part of the stores’ success, he says, is that they never advertise phony sales, where an item is marked up and then marked down to look like a deal. In fact, apart from the Early Bird Sale, Renys doesn’t do sales at all. “We don’t plan sales—we don’t have time.” With 80-120 pallets coming into the warehouse every day, Bob says they are too busy trying to get the merchandise into stores. This retail philosophy harks back to one of R.H.’s guiding principles emblazoned on the wall of the office: “If you buy something right, sell it right. Don’t try to make an extra buck off it.”
John, who is 63, and Bob, now semi-retired, are currently focused on training the third generation to manage the complexities of their expansive family enterprise. R.H.’s children and grandchildren have all worked for the family business, most of them from the age they could hold a broom or reach a shelf in a stockroom. John’s daughter, Faustine, 32, is also a mother raising a member of the fourth generation Renys. She earned her master’s degree in accounting before coming to work full-time for the company in 2009. “If you understand the numbers,” she says about the retail business, “you can get the rest.” Faustine recalls that when her sister could not find a shower curtain in Portland and had to drive all the way out to the mall, John and Bob were convinced to make the leap into downtown Portland in 2011. Renys took over space that L.L.Bean had vacated.
Bob’s son, Adam, 33, graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and became a music producer. But he grew tired of the music scene and getting home in the wee hours of the morning. When the longtime manager of the Renys Camden store retired, Adam was deployed to get some on-the-job training. “I learned more in those three months than I could have any other way. You find out how things are really working on the floor.”
The next generation of Renys will someday be responsible for an operation that now comprises over 500 employees. But the Renys have a philosophy about employees, just as they do in all parts of their business. “We allow our stores more associates than other stores,” says John. “You can add to the bottom line by cutting payroll. Instead we spend money on people. We hire people who love people. Our employees have been with us for over ten years on average. They know everyone who walks in the store and usually what they want.”
Faustine, understanding how competitive the retail environment is and how many choices consumers have, added, “For customers, we are only as good as the last conversation with an employee.” As Faustine and Adam speak to me about the challenges facing them, John and Bob fall into an animated private discussion about some bit of unfinished business. “They’re like yin and yang,” Faustine explains, “Half the time they don’t even have to talk, they know what the other is thinking.” Maintaining a family business through three generations is a great challenge for any enterprise, but in Maine where family roots run deep, there are plenty of examples of family enterprises that continue to flourish. And may it be so for future generations.
This article was originally published by maine. magazine. Maine Media Collective © 2016