Industries

No new master merchants?

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Print this page Chip Jones

While the Richmond economy still has many strengths, at least one veteran observer wonders whether it has lost its entrepreneurial spunk for retail.

“I don’t know if I see anybody in a startup mode in Richmond anymore,” says Kenneth Gassman, a business consultant and former retail analyst with Davenport & Co. LLC. “The last big hit was CarMax,” and that was back in the early 1990s. “Where’s the entrepreneurial spirit? The answer is, I don’t know.”

Richmond, in fact, has a reputation for being home to a long string of retail innovators. In addition to CarMax (started in 1993), it was the birthplace of Best Products (the pioneer of catalog showrooms), Circuit City Stores (the former No. 1 consumer electronics retailer), Heilig-Meyers Inc. (once the largest furniture retailer in the country),  This End Up (a major “crate-style” furniture company) and S&K Famous Brands (a leading discount menswear company).

The city also was the longtime headquarters of two regional department store chains, Thalhimer Bros. Inc. and Miller & Rhoads Inc., which served as training grounds for many Richmond retailers.
Gassman ticks off the names of former Richmond retail leaders and asks, “Where have [they] gone? The answer is — they’re not in this part of Virginia anymore.”

Who will fill the entrepreneurial void? “I’m not hearing anything,” Gassman replies. Some of the talent in the retail realm — such as the CircuitCity/CarMax leaders — still has the brains and bucks to start new ventures, but they don’t seem to have the fire in the belly, he says. “There’s no second life for retail merchants anymore,” says Gassman. “It seems like they take their money and go ‘self-actualize,’ as Maslow said.” (Psychologist Abraham Maslow placed self actualization at the top of pyramid in his theory on the hierarchy of human needs.)

Gassman wonders aloud whether, after its distinguished history in retail, Richmond will become an also-ran in the industry. “Does Richmond become a plain-vanilla region, known for nothing in particular,” Gassman asks, “but still providing solid growth and a pleasant place to live?


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