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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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