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At Ocean State Job Lot, the hunt is on for bargains

WESTBOROUGH — “The hangers are moving. They’re singing,” says Bruce Bent, the store manager.

It’s the last Saturday in May, a little past 8:30 a.m., and standing near the women’s apparel department at the Ocean State Job Lot you can hear the click-click-click of shoppers sifting through the racks — what Bent calls “retail sounds.”

By noon, the clicking will become a drone, blending with the piped in music and the clank of open-sided carts wheeled up and down the aisles carrying Ben Hogan golf shirts, Scotts Turf Builder, and dozens of other products advertised in fliers and promoted on banners inside the front windows.

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Each of the 117 stores in this regional chain has a similar layout. But interiors vary depending on their size and previous tenant. A former big box department store, for example, gets organized differently than a building that was once a supermarket. A small space offers fewer options for displays.

In the Westborough store, which covers approximately 50,000 square feet, customers enter through the front, turn left at the service desk, and follow “the power lane” through racks arranged like cairns. Approaching the high traffic “yellow space,” they’re encouraged to slow and take in the view — an eruption of color and quirkiness.

Stefani Ward of Grafton rang up customers at Ocean State Job Lot in Westborough.
Stefani Ward of Grafton rang up customers at Ocean State Job Lot in Westborough. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Analysts lump Ocean State Job Lot into a category with dollar stores, Big Lots, and other discount merchandisers, businesses that exploded during the recession and continue to grow. The corporate kingpins are Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar; but there are also smaller, independent businesses selling staples at a single price or close-outs at cut rates.

Taken together, according to the 2014 Chain Store Guide, these stores operated from 1,284 headquarters in 60,155 locations nationwide, with total sales of more than $198 billion.

The breakdown of companies by price point was: 909 “extreme value,” retailing products for $10 or less; 330 selling odd lots and closeouts at 40 percent to 70 percent off retail; and 93 selling all their products at one price.

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The privately held Ocean State Job Lot, based in North Kingstown, R.I., is a small fish in a big pond. But Scott Latham, dean of the Manning School of Business at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and an expert on recessions, says it’s a different kind of fish. At the dollar stores, customers shop for things they need — toilet paper, laundry detergent, toothpaste, and the like — paying the same price for the same product every week.

Andy Brehme of Grafton left the Westborough Ocean State Job Lot with a kiddie pool.
Andy Brehme of Grafton left the Westborough Ocean State Job Lot with a kiddie pool. Matthew Healey for The Boston Gl

By contrast, Ocean State Job Lot customers shop for things they want.

It’s like “opening Christmas presents,” Latham says of shopping at these stores.

These days the Westborough store is gearing up for its busiest season of the year.

“Hot weather is our Christmas,” Bent says.

In one area, shelves are packed with air conditioners and fans. In another, displays of flip-flops, beach towels, and sunscreen catch the eye. Entire sections are devoted to barbecues and picnics, swimming pools and pool chemicals. Fishing, kayaking, and camping equipment occupy a huge swath of floor.

The floor plan looks as hard-and-fast as a board game, and that’s because Barbara Verzillo, the field merchandiser, is in constant motion. She’s the one who unpacks the boxes delivered by truck five days a week and spots $100 purses and high-end apparel that are now dirt cheap.

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Part of her job is to move the inventory onto the floor, rearrange wall panels along the power lane every week, and break down and replace the seasonal area — today gardening, next week the beach.

Verzillo gets as excited as her customers when she spots a deal. Last fall, two days before Thanksgiving, the truck delivered Spyder jackets.

“They sell for huge dollars,” she says. “They were fighting for them! I put them out and said, ‘Ladies, go for it!’ ’’

Other items tickle her funny bone.

“For years, we carried bug zappers, funny things that looked like tennis racquets, for $5,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything sell that fast. They came in February to buy them.”

Phyllis Daigle of Hopkinton shopped for sun dresses in Westborough.
Phyllis Daigle of Hopkinton shopped for sun dresses in Westborough. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

As noon approaches, the strip mall parking lot is filling with vehicles as various as the customers who drive them. This is a store with a clientele that cuts across every demographic: gender, race, age, education. Some arrive dressed to the nines, others look like they just rolled out of bed. But with the exception of an occasional partner or child who’s been dragged along, most look like they’re having a good time.

Bent, who joined the company 14 months ago and has been running the Westborough store for just a week, stops to point out more seasonal attractions: three circular racks crammed with women’s bathing suits — tanks and fashions in deliciously bright colors; and a high panel, chock-full of sunglasses, five bucks a pair.

“You try to make your customers happy,” he says.

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Jeanette Levesque of Auburn shopped with her Chihuahua Ruka.
Jeanette Levesque of Auburn shopped with her Chihuahua Ruka. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

In the power lane, Jeanette Levesque, an Auburn resident, wheels her five-pound Chihuahua, tucked into a bag in her shopping cart. Levesque wants capris in bright colors and will have her pick: around the corner is a rack with orange, yellow, and lime green ones, cut roomy, with elastic waistbands.

In giftware, Tasha Garcia has just finished shopping for her best friend’s bridal shower — stoppers, coasters, and wine glasses for a party with a wine theme.

And in clothing, Phyllis Daigle, a preschool teacher from Hopkinton, loads five summer dresses into her basket.

Gail and Randy Malboeuf, Oxford residents, park their cart near the ladies’ flip-flops while Gail tries on pair of pink water shoes.

The couple is not in a hurry: In the 20 minutes that they’ve been inside the store, they’ve covered just two rows; by the time they leave, they will have walked up and down every aisle, inspecting, considering, laughing together, and moving on.

“I’ve had a list going for weeks,” Gail says, fishing into her purse to find it.

Jim Norgoal, head of the Food Department at the Westborough Ocean State Job Lot, arranged condiments on a shelf.
Jim Norgoal, head of the Food Department at the Westborough Ocean State Job Lot, arranged condiments on a shelf. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein1@hotmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated total annual sales for dollar stores. It is approximately $198.6 billion.