In the 21st century the big-box stores rule business. Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s and more have become the norm even in small town America. Long gone are the days of the smaller mom-and-pop stores being plentiful. More so than that, gone are the original generation of the big box department stores that began springing up in America during the early to mid 20th century. Places like Woolworth, Jordan Marsh, Sears, and others have faded into the past. In the same vein as stores like Ocean State Job Lot, K-Mart, and other regional discount department stores like Caldor and Ames, there was another that once dominated the Northeast and Cape Cod. It was a place where many people from my generation and the surrounding years either shopped or worked. Bradlees was its name and this is its story.
The origins of Bradlees goes back to the late 1950’s. Three Connecticut businessmen, Morris Leff, Edward Kuzon, and Isadore Berson met at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT just outside of Hartford to discuss the next step in the evolution of discount stores like the old Five and Ten’s. Due to the location of where the initial meeting took place the men decided to name their new venture Bradlees.
The first of the new Bradlees department stores was located in New London, Connecticut. It opened its doors on March 14, 1958. Bradlees was labeled as a modern self-service department store. It advertised first quality good and nationally advertised merchandise. Many of the stores would have snack bars. The concept was a success and within a few years subsequent Bradlees had been opened in Connecticut in Milford, Derby, Hamden, and Bristol, along with West Springfield, Massachusetts. The burgeoning success of the department store chain caught the eye of another up and coming business, Stop & Shop.
|The original Bradlees in New London, CT|
In May 1961 the future grocery store giant purchased Bradlees from Leff, Kuzon, and Berson. The two stores would be forever linked after this purchase. Four more Bradlees were opened within a year. By this time the department store began eyeballing Cape Cod as a future home. In 1965 Dennis Port was chosen as the location for the first Bradlees on Cape Cod. It was to be located in the same general parking area as a Stop & Shop where Rt. 28 and Upper County Road met. The new store created 125 jobs and was an impressive 36,000-square-feet in size. This would be the 31st Bradlees store in the chain.
On August 9, 1965 Bradlees in Dennis Port had its grand opening. A specially made ribbon of cranberries was cut and excited customers passed through the doors for the first time. Inside there were free balloons for children, free rain hats for adults, and a giveaway of a seven-day all expenses paid vacation in Florida. Having Stop & Shop as its owner certainly helped Bradlees gain a foothold in the department store business. By 1968 there were 52 Bradlees stores that generated an annual revenue of $139 million ($1 billion in 2020).
Subsequent Cape Cod Bradlees’ opened in Falmouth in May 1966, in South Yarmouth in April 1972, and eventually a fourth store in Orleans and a fifth in Hyannis. Although Stop & Shop was the boss during the 1970’s it became obvious that Bradlees was the one running the show. The supermarket’s profits began to slide during the early 1970’s while Bradlees grew, opening stores in New Jersey. It was during the 1970’s that people were introduced to Mrs. B, the Bradlees ‘mascot’ of sorts. Actress Cynthia Harris would play the smart shopper in Bradlees ads for nearly two decades.
|A typical Bradlees storefront at the turn of the 21st century.|
Bradlees upgraded and improved their stores later in the 70’s and early 1980’s. They began to focus more on hardware and home goods while also creating a smaller group of discount stores dealing in women’s sportswear. In 1979 sales reached $634 million ($2.2 billion in 2020). It appeared as though there was no stopping Bradlees from becoming an icon of American shopping.
In 1982 Bradlees stores made up 78% of the Stop & Shop corporation’s total profits. However around this time alternatives began to spring up. Walmart and K-Mart began to take a bite out of the discount retail pie. Bradlees though continued to expand in an attempt to outrun its new competitors. During the mid-1980’s the company headed south into Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Bradlees peaked at nearly 170 stores. The costs of opening these new stores coupled with the expanded impact of Walmart, K-Mart, and Target among others began to shrink Bradlees’ profits.
1986 proved to be the apex of the Bradlees empire. It saw sales of $1.9 billion ($4.4 billion in 2020) despite the removal of its then-president Harry Kohn Jr. by the Stop & Shop corporation. It was during this year that a new, larger Super Stop & Shop and Bradlees was built on Rt. 132 in Hyannis. This resulted in the road needing to be widened.
The trouble began in 1988 when Stop & Shop acquired massive debt as it arranged a buyout among shareholders to become a privately held company. This forced Bradlees to step back from its attempts at expansion, eventually selling off the leases to the 37 stores they had opened in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Several under-performing stores would be jettisoned.
On Cape Cod the first casualty was the Bradlees in South Yarmouth on Long Pond Drive. It closed early in 1988 with Stop & Shop moving its store into the former Bradlees. Rumors persisted soon after that a Lechmere retail store would move into the plaza. That was not to be. In fact Lechmere would go out of business before Bradlees.
With Bradlees streamlining operations it looked to rebound in the 1990’s. This included the end of the tenure of Mrs. B in the store’s television commercials. Profits began to slowly rebound and in 1992 Bradlees became its own company, breaking away from Stop & Shop, and even being publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. This was followed up by a six-floor Manhattan location, the largest Bradlees yet.
The company ran into financial trouble again though without Stop & Shop as its parent-company. During this time Walmart and Target grew into the leaders in retail. In June 1995 Bradlees filed for bankruptcy. More stores were closed in 1996, some being converted to Ames. They emerged from bankruptcy with 105 stores and nearly 10,000 employees. In 1999 a brief resurgence occurred as rival store Caldor closed down. However a second bout of bankruptcy in 2000 proved to be the death knell.
Slowly the stores began to close. It was ironic that Bradlees was replaced by the even larger fish in the big pond. The Hyannis store became Home Depot. The Falmouth location became Walmart. The final Cape Cod location to close, and one of the last in the chain in general was the Dennis Port store. It closed in March 2001 and was eventually replaced by Ocean State Job Lot.
It began as an idea to revolutionize retail shopping and in the end Bradlees became a casualty of the next wave of that same revolution. Though it was stopped short in its quest to become an American institution it did succeed in becoming an icon of New England. Bradlees was a cherished memory for many on Cape Cod for more than 30 years. In between the Five and Ten stores of the early 20th century and the behemoths like Walmart and Target of today there was Bradlees, a store that took the baton from the old, carried it for a while, and eventually passed it ahead to the new.
In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Hill's Dining Room
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