It’s hard to find a Long Islander from decades past who doesn’t remember shopping at Korvette’s. One of the first discount department stores to emerge from the 1950s, they are best remembered for their low prices and, perhaps surprisingly, their outstanding music departments. Once plentiful on the Island, they sadly never made it out of the 1970s.
E.J. Korvette department stores, commonly referred to as Korvette’s, were the brainchild of a WWII veteran named Eugene Ferkauf, who first entered the retail business back in 1948. At the time, due to various fair trade laws, department stores were required to offer goods at the manufactured suggested retail price.
Ferkauf decided to challenge these laws, and as a result, was able to sell products at a significant discount. Sales increased steadily into the 1950s, encouraging the company to open a flagship 90,000 square foot store on Long Island in 1954, in the town of Westbury, only a few miles from bustling Levittown.
The impressive department store carried everything from furniture, housewares and clothing, to sporting goods, electronics and one of the most extensive collections of discounted music available. You may also remember that every Korvette’s location had a pretzel stand out front, which were not only quite tasty, but also made a lot of money.
More locations followed, in places such as West Islip, Hempstead and Lake Grove, eager to lure cost-conscious shoppers from these blossoming suburban communities. The stores were clean and inviting, and soon became a favorite place to shop among middle and working class locals, thanks to prices that were consistently 10-20% lower than the major department stores.
Perhaps most notably, Korvette’s prided itself in offering an extensive collection of records and tapes that rivaled the selection of places like Sam Goody, but at a fraction of the cost. For many a Long Island 70s Kid, Korvette’s was the go-to place when you had a few bucks to spend on a new album or a couple of 45s.
But cracks were starting to show in the business model throughout the 70s. One of the biggest mistakes the company made was partnering with a small local supermarket chain called Hills. They were unprepared to handle the demand from the department stores and made very little profit for the join venture.
Likewise, the furniture business, which was outsourced to a fledgling manufacturer turned into a major headache for Korvette’s when they were unable keep up with demand, leaving the retailer to clean up the mess.
Besides the record department, the only other area that Korvette’s did quite well in was consumer electronics, especially in regard to their own brand, called XAM, which offered stereo receivers, amplifiers, turntables, etc. Most of the equipment was made by a relatively unknown electronics company in Japan at the time called Roland.
Despite the fact that Korvette’s had over fifty locations in the 1970s, spread out as far as St. Louis and Chicago, and despite their efforts to market extensively on television throughout the decade, the company declared bankruptcy in 1980, closing every single location.
But while the days of discount shopping at Korvette’s came to a close, the memories are still strong among both the millions of former customers on Long Island, and the countless employees that worked there over the years, many of whom count Korvette’s as one of their fondest employers. The impact of Korvette’s on Long Island, and on the retail industry in general, will not soon be forgotten.
If you were a former Korvette’s shopper, perhaps spent countless hours browsing their record department, or a former employee, I hope you’ll take a few moments to share all of your recollections in our comments section below, as we pay tribute to an extinct store that once dotted the landscape across New York.