11 Stores That Used to Sell Unexpected Items

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It’s no surprise that not every hugely popular retail giant was an instant success (for instance, did you realize that Target stores have been around since 1962? Or that the founding family of stores that spawned Target first opened their doors more than 110 years ago? It’s true!), but it may be a little shocking to realize that plenty of well-known stores didn’t even start out selling the stuff they’re best known for now.

Success, it seems, sometimes involves pivoting to something new—like getting rid of safari-themed clothing in favor of more sensible (and marketable) khakis.

1. Gap

The Gap remains synonymous with exactly one item from their original incarnation—well, sort of. The first Gap opened in San Francisco in 1969, and sold just two things: Levi’s jeans and LP records. In 1974, the chain had expanded to about 25 locations across the country, and they finally started selling their own private label merchandise—like their own jeans, which they are still best known for slinging. Sorry, Levi’s!

2. Abercrombie & Fitch

Although A&F isn’t the hot teen clothier it was for the better part of the early aughts, the store is still recognizable for its tight fits and sexy styles, the kind of stuff its original founders—David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch—probably never dreamed of when they started their namesake store back in 1892. The original Abercrombie & Fitch was essentially a sporting goods emporium, one focused on selling fishing and camping supplies, including rods, boats, tents, and even guns. There was not a cheeky logo tee to be found in the entire place, and not just because such a thing had yet to be invented. In 1988, the store was sold off to The Limited, who eventually turned it into what it is today.

3. Banana Republic

Much like A&F, the original Banana Republic store was founded with a very specific (and weirdly preppy) purpose: to provide its patrons with the best in safari-themed clothing. The first store opened in 1978, but just five years later, Gap, Inc. purchased the brand, turning it into the upscale arm of its retailing empire. Fortunately, khakis worked for both incarnations of the store.

4. Spencer’s Gifts

If you’re strolling your local mall and suddenly remember you’re in need of a gag gift, a dirty card, or a really ill-advised T-shirt, you probably won’t think twice before hitting up the nearest Spencer’s. This was not always the case, however, as the first Spencer’s wasn’t even a store, much less one you could find at the mall. Spencer’s started as a mail-order catalog back in 1947, and while they specialized in gag gifts even then, we’re guessing things weren’t nearly as heavy on the Playboy branding. The first brick and mortar Spencer’s went up in 1963, at the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

5. Cost Plus World Market

If you’ve ever thought, “Wow, Cost Plus World Market really loves rattan furniture,” you’re not far off. The first Cost Plus (which you might now know as just “World Market,” depending on where you live) opened at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1958 as a rattan furniture discount store. Founder William Amthor already owned his own furniture store, and when he caught on to how much people loved the rattan stuff, he rented out a massive warehouse space and dedicated it to selling only rattan furniture. It was such a hit that Amthor soon turned to importing rattan items full time. By the 1990s, Cost Plus World Market was already a big brand that sold all manner of imported knickknacks (and rattan and wicker, of course).

6. Sears

Sears’ origin as a mail-order business should come as little surprise to shoppers who are familiar with their (still great, especially around the holidays) catalog. What would become Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1893, originally conceived as a mail-order watch business. Sears got into the watch business somewhat unexpectedly—he was a railroad station agent who sort of fell into selling watches after a Chicago jeweler offloaded a shipment to him, which he then sold to other station agents. A mail-order business sprang up, and eventually Sears teamed with Roebuck to start selling more items—like farm equipment—and the first Sears retail outpost opened in 1925.

7. Kohl’s

Consider this a bit of a technicality, but the first incarnation of “Kohl’s” was actually a small supermarket chain named Kohl’s Food Stores, founded by Maxwell Kohl in 1946 in Wisconsin. Kohl then went on to found Kohl’s Department Stores in 1962, and the grocery side of the business was absorbed by A&P before closing altogether. The department store side of the business is now known just as Kohl’s and continues to be successful throughout the United States.

8. Nordstrom

Have you ever wondered why Nordstrom has such a famously solid shoe department? It’s because the department store’s roots are ankle-deep in the shoe world—founder John W. Nordstrom first got into the retail business with a Seattle shoe store he co-founded way back in 1901. The chain steadily expanded as a shoe-only enterprise for decades, before banching off into clothing and other items after the company acquired Best Apparel in 1963.

9. Trader Joe’s

Everyone’s favorite purveyor of cheap snacks actually started as … a purveyor of cheap snacks. Wait, it’s not what you’re thinking! Before TJ’s became a bonafide grocery chain, founder Joe Coulombe envisioned it as convenience store chain in the vein of 7-Eleven. In fact, Coulombe’s “Pronto Markets” (which opened in 1958) were so like 7-Eleven stores that even he was freaked out by the possibility of competing with them. Coulombe then opened his first “Trader Joe’s” in 1967, featuring grocery items and its now-beloved South Seas theme.

10. Burlington Coat Factory

Yes, Burlington Coat Factory started as a coat seller. Back in 1972, Henrietta and Monroe Milstein bought a closed-out factory outlet in Burlington, New Jersey, and set about selling only coats and jackets at wholesale prices. Soon, however, they moved into other items—turns out, coats are kind of a seasonal thing—including other apparel, linens, and gift items.

11. A&P

Your local A&P gets its name from its original owners, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That’s right: What would become America’s first grocery store chain originally started as a purveyor of tea and coffee, first founded in 1859. A&P veered off into the supermarket game in the early part of the 20th century, while still retaining its beverage-based moniker. Fortunately, supermarkets need to sell coffee and tea, too, so it’s not a huge jump.

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June 11, 2014 - 8:11am
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