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Weaver’s Keeps it New After 150 Years



Lawrence, Kan. — In its 150-year existence, family-owned and operated Weaver’s Department Store has survived the Civil War and both World Wars, two fires and the Great Depression.

Perhaps one of its toughest obstacles has been stiff retail competition, which has intensified over the past two decades. Lawrence, home to about 100,000 residents and the University of Kansas, has grown over the past two decades and attracted many major national chains.

But all the while, Weaver’s has successfully managed to stay relevant and prosper in this small city’s “vibrant” downtown.

This single-unit, 30,000-square-foot, four-story retailer, which first opened its doors in 1857 (one year before R.H. Macy opened his original New York City store) and earlier this month celebrated its sesquicentennial birthday, may not have the real estate punch that many big-box stores boast.

But Weaver’s says it offers something not easily found at the competition: customer service.

“We’ve been able to hold on to great associates for many years — great associates who take remarkably good care of our customers,” explained Joe Flannery, president of Weaver’s for the past 20 years. His father, Larry, took over Weaver’s in 1962 from the second family that had owned and operated the store, and he served as its president until 1987 when, a merchant to the end, he died of a heart attack in New York during a buying trip.

Joe Flannery emphasized, “If you offer good customer service, you will continue to have good, loyal customers who will tell other people.”

Of course, that isn’t the only ingredient in Weaver’s recipe for success.

Earl Reineman, who joined Weaver’s as vp and merchandise manager in 1989 after a five-year stint as merchandise manager for women’s apparel at a JCPenney store in Houston, believes a key has been Weaver’s willingness to “evolve” from a somewhat budget to a moderate-to-better source for Lawrence’s increasingly sophisticated customer base.

Weaver’s average customer ranges in age from 25 to 55, is predominately female (75%) and draws upon a household income of $40,000 and higher, Flannery said.

For this shopper, Weaver’s has over the past 10 years added more major brands, such as Polo and Tommy Bahama in apparel, and a sampling of higher-scale offerings in home with luxury-like bath towels by Home Source International, for example.

Home has not been a sweet spot, but remains an “important element” in Weaver’s assortment, asserted Flannery.

In the past decade, the home mix has gone to 65% housewares — with a heavy concentration on gourmet cooking-related appliances and supplies — and 35% soft goods, from what used to be a 50-50 assortment, Flannery said. Additionally, soft home sales used to make up 15% or more of Weaver’s total sales; today they might hit 7%.
Flannery pointed to the “demise of major domestic brands like Fieldcrest and Pillowtex” as the main reason for this shift.

“It’s just changed our makeup of vendors,” he said. “Competition has affected the soft home business as well, but primarily the demise of so many of the domestic manufacturers is what has hurt us. This is a problem for Weaver’s because merchandise seemed to be more accessible when it was made and warehoused in the United States, and now things aren’t warehoused as readily. It’s an import world. About 95% of our merchandise at the store is made offshore.”

He continued, “We’ve adapted, but we feel like soft home has become more competitive at the national chains and we’ve tried to focus on categories that weren’t as readily available in all national stores.”

Basics and solids are the soft home approach at Weaver’s. Its current roster of soft home vendors includes: Springs Global; Louisville Bedding; Home Source International; Pacific Coast Feather; Creative Home Products; Messina & Zucker; Now Designs; Kay Dee Designs; J & S Housewares; and Lintex Linens/Cobra Trading.

“We still do a nice business in soft home,” he said. “It is still a significant part of our business. Since we’ve been in the business for so long, it is important to offer soft home because people look to us for certain categories, whether it be bedding or bath or table linens.”

Price points have also suffered in soft home. Depending on the category, Flannery said, “They’ve seemed to come down over the last couple of years, whether in down comforters or high thread-count sheet sets.”

Through it all, Weaver’s has “tried to stay moderate,” he continued, offering mostly middle-of-the-road prices while adding a smattering of distinguishing, higher-end goods, such as Home Source International’s bath towels.

“We’ve traded up primarily in apparel,” he said. “In home we try to be competitive because we know that there are other stores in other parts of our community that people can go to instead, and we want to be able to offer them what they need at Weaver’s.”

While admittedly one of its smaller customers, Weaver’s has remained a retail partner to table linens and bath towel supplier Lintex Linens/Cobra Trading for the past 35 years because of its style of doing business and the integrity of its staff.

In simple terms, Lintex Linens/Cobra Trading president and managing director Kurt Hamburger flatteringly described Flannery as “an old-fashioned merchant.”

“There are no shenanigans that go on with the national chains, with all of their deductions and chargebacks. With Weaver’s it’s an informal arrangement, as it used to be, too, in this business long ago,” Hamburger said. “When you ship goods to him you get paid promptly and correctly and these are the kinds of accounts that are sadly no longer around. We are certainly going to do business with him as long as I am alive, and I only wish there was a Weaver’s in every town the size of Lawrence in the U.S.”

Weaver’s didn’t always carry its name, nor has it always been at its same address — but it has been on Massachusetts Avenue since the beginning.

Originally dubbed Bullene’s after Lathrop Bullene, the store sold dry goods in the territorial days of Lawrence. Shop was first set up at 723 Massachusetts but in 1860 it was moved down the block to 741 where it operated until, in the middle of the Civil War, it was torched during William Quantrill’s raid on Aug. 21, 1863 — when a large band of Confederate guerrillas from Missouri crossed the Kansas River and attacked Lawrence, burned most of the town and left more than 150 people dead.

Bullene was luckily at market in New York when the massacre occurred. He continued to operate the business, in 1866 purchasing 739 Massachusetts and joining it with 741 to build a new three-story building.

In 1886 Bullene retired and sold the store to A. D. Weaver, who came to work for Bullene in 1883, fell in love with his daughter, Gertrude, and married her six months later. They renamed the business Weaver’s.

One of Weaver’s friendly competitors was George Innes, whose store, Innes, Bullene and Hackman, was two blocks away at 901 Massachusetts. That store included new technologies — an elevator and restrooms for customers. Gertrude Weaver’s younger brother, Herb Bullene, had married Innes’s daughter. In 1924, George Innes died and five years later the Weavers bought his store and building.

The Great Depression followed, and for the first time since 1886 when A.D. Weaver took over the store, the retailer recorded net losses — both in 1932 and 1933.

World War II was the next challenge. The number of students at the University of Kansas shrank but this was offset by the nearby construction of a large war plant, Sunflower Ammunition Plant, in 1942. As Lawrence became the residence for many of the plant’s workers, Weaver’s sales hit record levels in 1942 and 1943.

In 1950 Larry Flannery joined Weaver’s as merchandise manager. Upon the retirement of Art Weaver (son of A.D. Weaver) in 1962, he formed a corporation with a group of Kansas investors and acquired the store from the Weaver family.

A journalism major from the University of Kansas, Joe Flannery had not planned on becoming a retail executive. But upon his father’s offer, he agreed to try the business out for two years, “to see how I liked retailing and working with my father.”

He’s been at Weaver’s ever since.

“The greatest thing about retailing that I’ve found is that it is constantly changing,” Flannery said. “There is always something new. And every day is enjoyable just because of the newness and the people you work with.”

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