In the impersonal world of modern retail, Mainers find much to love at Renys.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Amy Wilton
Susan Derector has done “le Tour de Renys,” by which she means she has shopped at each and every one of the sixteen Renys discount department stores scattered across Maine from Wells to Ellsworth to Dexter to Bridgton. She has snapped up ninety-nine-cent drinking glasses and inexpensive stationery in the former bowling alley Renys (Damariscotta), the old opera house Renys (Madison), and the erstwhile movie theater Renys, whose stage, balconies, and tin ceilings are still intact (Farmington). She has found bargains on socks and brand-name jeans in the strip-mall Renys stores of Belfast, Saco, and Topsham. Several years ago, Derector even made plans to fly to the northern Maine border just so she and her siblings — out-of-staters who insist on a Renys excursion whenever they visit — could shop at the Fort Kent Renys, but structural problems forced the store’s closing before they could make the trip. “That’s my sad Renys story,” Derector says. “Fort Kent is the one that got away.”
Derector, who lives in Bath (not surprisingly, the location of her favorite Renys), is an extra-exuberant example of a Maine phenomenon: Renys Love. Most of the time this is a quiet affair, expressed by shoppers going to “Chez Renée,” as it is fondly nicknamed, for good deals on everything from Columbia winter jackets to Eastport-made Raye's Mustard and for the frequent surprises that populate the shelves for a short time, never to appear again (a recent example: ninety-nine-cent cans of organic pumpkin).
Every now and then, the displays of affection go very public, as they did in 1999 when customers papered the shuttered Fort Kent store with signs begging the owners to reconsider their decision not to reopen (“Roses are red, violets are blue, without Renys, what will we do?” read one), and in 2003 when, inspired by a successful citizens’ campaign to stop Walmart from building a store in Damariscotta, Newcastle resident Art Mayers penned Renys: The Musical, which has since been performed to sell-out audiences at community theaters around the state. This year, the Renys charisma was demonstrated once again as large crowds gathered for the grand openings of stores in downtown Portland and Topsham. (Yes, Renys actually expanded and hired one hundred people in the midst of an economic downturn. It currently has 525 employees.)
How to explain such devotion? “ ‘Aisle three, bottom shelf on the left toward the back,’ ” says Suzanne Conlon, imitating the way sales clerks at the Camden store guide her to whatever product she is seeking. “Amazing!” A Massachusetts resident, Conlon shops at Renys whenever she is in town visiting her aunt. The two of them once hosted an Iron Chef night in which dishes had to be made from food purchased at Renys. They served moose-shaped pasta with artichoke hearts and black olives. “Renys has something for everybody,” Conlon says. “White T-shirts? Sure. Rain boots? Yes. Pasta? Canvas bags? Barbie dolls? Birthday cards? Winter jackets? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. It’s sort of the new version of the general store. It’s not a super store à la Walmart, where I have to walk a mile. They manage to cram a lot of useful stuff into a relatively small space.”
For Susan Derector, Renys’ appeal is all that and something more. “It’s funny,” Derector muses, “but all of the towns where I think, ‘This is a nice town. I could live here,’ are towns that have a Renys. They have attractive, vibrant old downtowns, and Renys is an anchor. Some of the old Renys have moved into shopping centers on the edge of town. They’re nice too, but it’s the downtown Renys that pull me back. Each one has its own character.”
SIXTY-TWO YEARS AGO, a young clerk at the Senter’s Department Store in downtown Damariscotta asked his boss for a raise. The boss, who also happened to be the young man’s landlord, obliged — and increased his rent by the same amount. The clerk, Biddeford native Robert H. Reny, quit and opened a small dry goods store across the street. A commitment to fairness — to customers, to vendors, and to employees — would become his stock and trade.
“Our father was very adamant that if you get a good deal, you share it with your customers,” says R.H.’s son, John, who started working in the Damariscotta warehouse at the age of five. Now sixty and president of R.H. Reny, Inc., he says that philosophy remains key to the business’s success. “We don’t fool around marking stuff up in order to mark it down like the big department stores do.”
That means that with the exception of clearance items and occasional vendor specials, Renys rarely has sales. Its prices on brand-name products are set at levels other stores trumpet as special discounts — and often lower. Hence, the Bogs women’s boots that many shoe stores sell for one hundred dollars are twenty dollars (and one cent) cheaper at Renys — all the time. Smart Wool light cushion hiking socks priced at $19 by sporting goods stores are $12.99 at Renys — all the time. And that Tom’s of Maine toothpaste you buy at the grocery for $4.59? It’s $2.59 at Renys — yes, all the time.
“Our customers never worry, ‘What if I buy it today, and tomorrow it’s cheaper?’ ” says Bob Reny, John’s younger brother and the company’s vice president. “They trust we’re giving them the best deal we possibly can. That trust factor is the goal of the brand.”
In addition to not playing the markup game, Renys buyers — John and Bob among them — are adept at negotiating off-price deals with vendors, holding true to another of R.H.’s maxims. “Dad would fight over a nickel with vendors if he thought it was his,” John says, “but he’d give the nickel if he thought it was theirs. He’d always say, ‘If you’re making a deal, don’t take the guy’s pants off all the way because he’ll never come back. He’s got to make a living, too.’ It’s all about relationships. It’s important to be the one they call first in order to get the sweet deals.”
It’s a strategy the brothers began sharpening and expanding not long after Walmart built its first Maine store in Scarborough in 1992. Their father had sounded the alarm against big box retailers two years earlier when he campaigned against a citizens initiative to repeal Maine’s “blue laws,” which prevented large stores from opening on Sundays. Reny believed his employees should be home with their families on Sunday, but if other stores opened, he would have no choice but to open his stores, which by then numbered fourteen. He also predicted that Sunday shopping would attract large national chains to Maine, driving smaller stores out of business. Reny lost that battle when voters narrowly approved Sunday shopping in a referendum that November.
“When Walmart came in, these guys [John and Bob Reny] notched things up,” says Bob’s wife, Mary Kate, the chain’s marketing manager and community liaison. “They knew that offering really fair prices was the way to compete.”
The brothers upgraded Renys’ mix of clothing and shoes, bringing in higher-end brands, such as Columbia, Woolrich, Carhartt, and Timberland. They also increased their emphasis on closeouts and product overruns, which are the sources of those ephemeral surprises that Renys’ customers adore. Over the years, these items have produced some of Renys’ best sellers. They have included lava lamps, which were so long out of style that they apparently induced nostalgia; a truckful of wedding dresses; and Cabbage Patch dolls with South African names (wildly popular in the United States, the dolls were a bust overseas, including South Africa).
On a few occasions, the Renys’ concerns about the megastore threat have taken the form of community activism, as in 2006, when Walmart wanted to build an 87,000-square-foot store just outside Damariscotta village, where Renys has two storefronts, the 1949 original, which sells clothing, and the former bowling alley, which sells everything else. The brothers were vocal supporters of a widely publicized successful effort to enact a local ordinance barring big boxes, which led to a string of similar measures in other communities. The sixty-eight-acre field that Walmart coveted was purchased this fall by the Damariscotta River Association and Maine Farmland Trust, which plan to sell the parcel with an easement ensuring it will remain farmland. John Reny serves on the project’s fund-raising committee.
The Renys plan for slow, steady growth has included a reaffirmation of its commitment to downtowns while also taking advantage of empty storefronts in strip malls. “The whole downtown presence of Renys is a big piece of our brand,” Mary Kate says. “In newer locations, like Saco and Wells, we’re reusing some not-so-great real estate. Dark windows in shopping plazas are not good for anybody.”
It’s a growth strategy that has endeared them to business and civic organizations. In 2009, the Maine Development Foundation, a nonprofit economic development organization, bestowed its Maine Street Hero Award on R.H. Reny, Inc. That same year, the Gardiner Board of Trade gave its President’s Award to the local Renys store, and in 2010 the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce named the Bridgton Renys its Business of the Year.
Last December Portland Press Herald editorial page editor Greg Kesich waxed rhapsodic upon hearing the news that Renys was coming to Congress Street. “We’re getting a Renys. It sounds so nice I’ve got to say it again. We’re getting a Renys!” Kesich wrote. Downtown Portland, he acknowledged, was rich in specialty shops, art galleries, restaurants, and cafes, but there was no place to buy socks and underwear. “This is not just another store,” he continued. “It’s a reversal of a longtime trend, and one that promises real change in the future of the city.”
Perhaps the real key to Renys’ success is that is remains a family business — and the family not only happens to be deeply involved in day-to-day operations, but is also guided by a strong set of ethics and values. “Our customers are always shocked when we pick up the phone or respond to their emails personally,” Mary Kate says. “If they have a complaint, they feel better simply because you’re owning up and saying that that shouldn’t have happened in our store.”
And it looks as though Renys will remain in family hands for some time to come. John’s daughter, Faustine, 28, joined the company two years ago, the only one of R.H’s seven grandchildren to take an interest in the business, but that could change. Her father and uncle, after all, had other careers in mind when they graduated from college in the early seventies.
GREGARIOUS AND AMBITIOUS, R.H. Reny was a natural salesman who chatted up the customers and kissed the ladies’ hands, but he also was a demanding boss, especially when the employees were his sons. From the time they were very young through their teens, John and Bob spent weekends and summers stocking shelves, tagging merchandise, and waiting on customers. “It was the last thing I wanted to do [for a career],” John says. “But at a certain point you realize that there are things that you are good at and things, like being a rock star, that you like, but you’re not so good at. Our father was tough, but he always treated us fairly financially.”
That’s yet another lesson they carry on. Three years ago, an accountant suggested the recession was an opportunity for Renys to discontinue its practice of paying out one-third of its profits in year-end employee bonuses. With all the news coverage about businesses slashing jobs and benefits, he argued, the employees would expect it. “We said, ‘But we actually made money,’ ” John says. “As long as it isn’t a detriment to the company, we’d rather take care of our employees.”
“We haven’t laid off anyone during this whole downturn,” Bob adds. “It’s hard to lay off people when you know them all. We know this person has a daughter with special needs and we know that person’s husband isn’t well, so we live with less profit.”
The company is repaid in employee loyalty. It is not uncommon to find workers with fifteen or more years of service at some of the older stores. They, too, are a large part of the reason Renys endures in the era of big box stores. Ask a Renys clerk where you can find razor blades, and she’ll walk you there. Ask her if a sweater is machine washable, and she’ll read the label with you.
“We take pride in what we do,” says Anthony Chandler, manager of the Bath Renys and a twelve-year employee. “It’s because Renys treats employees with the utmost respect. Being here isn’t like being at work. It’s like being with family. We have fun.”
A sampling of some of Renys’ best-selling products.
Bass BBQ Grill Lighter, $4.99: Sort of in the spirit of Big Mouth Bass Billy, only this fish doesn’t sing, and it breathes fire. Other stores sell it for $14.99 or more. It’s $4.99 at Renys.
Renys dark and milk chocolate bars, $ 0.50: “The store may as well not be open if we don’t have them,” says Bath store supervisor Diane Rabasca.
Smart Wool socks, $12.99: In truth, socks of any kind sell well at Renys. R.H. Reny, Inc., Vice President Bob Reny’s motto: “Socks are good.”
Stretch-Tite Plastic Food Wrap, 250-square-foot roll, $3.99: “The best food wrap ever,” says John Reny, president of R.H. Reny, Inc.
Carhartt clothing: “It’s work wear that has become fashionable,” says John Cunningham, Renys regional supervisor. Everything sells well, from fleece-lined jeans ($49.99) to sherpa-lined vests ($64.99).
Sweetzels Ginger Snaps, $0.99: “We cannot be without ginger snaps, ever,” says Diane Rabasca.
Bogs boots, $79.99: Warm and truly waterproof, no wonder these boots have been embraced by Mainers.
Columbia children’s fleece jackets, $21.99: “One of our hot, hot children’s clothing items,” John Cunningham says.
Anything that has to do with Maine: Raye’s Mustard, Wyman’s of Maine canned blueberries, Pastor Chuck’s Organic Applesauce, Look’s Atlantic Lobster Bisque — you name it, it sells.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Amy Wilton