John Conkright admits the days of the small-time, local downtown retailer are over.
Yet Conkright is just that — a local downtown retailer who owns Ben’s at 112 E. Main St. in downtown Belleville. The store celebrates 40 years in business in October.
What started out as a Ben Franklin store in 1976 evolved into Ben’s Crafts and Floral and then just Ben’s as the store’s continued expansion offered more and more items for sale.
Conkright, 76, says it’s hard — really hard — to make a physical retail store successful, especially in the digital age. But he said his store and others like it rely on a trump card online retailers can’t play: Customer service. He says that service, coupled with a focus on listening to customers and employees, are the basis for the store’s success that’s stretched four decades.
Q: How did Ben’s come to be? What’s your history with this store?
A: “First of all, I started out with the W. T. Grant Company. I worked there 15 years. I was merchandise manager of the Grant’s in East St. Louis. When Grant’s went out of business, I knew this area and I knew this building was up for lease and I decided I wanted to open up my own store. So I contacted Ben Franklin. That was in 1976. When we started we leased this building, which was 10,000 square feet of selling space. Then I bought the buildings on both sides and now we have 35,000 square feet. It started out as a Ben Franklin but they went bankrupt. We’d paid to use their name, (which after the bankruptcy) meant nothing, so instead of paying a franchise fee we changed our name to Ben’s Crafts & Floral. As we grew, we dropped the ‘crafts and floral,’ because we had so much more than just crafts and floral.”
Q: There is a ton of things for sale in the store. Did your continued success and growth depend on offering a wide variety of items for sale?
A: “Absolutely. We had a stretch where we expanded into something new for 10 years in a row. For example, we started with eight linear feet of framing and now we’ve got about 2,000 square feet. We’ve picked departments that were growing and enlarged those. We’ve had to do our thing, and we continue to find our thing. As an example, we’ve expanded our women’s fashion department. As another, where we used to have craft fabrics, now we’re expanding into quilting fabrics. It’s a matter of listening to your customers, and a matter of listening to your employees. We find our own niche and have been successful doing that.”
Q: What’s it been like watching the history of downtown Belleville play out over the years?
A: “It’s been a challenge, to be honest about it. Downtown is doing its own thing. The small retailer is gone, you don’t see those anymore. But we’re getting in some good restaurants and night clubs. That’s grown and is continuing to grow. It’s just changed quite a bit.”
Q: How have you been able to stick it out despite these big changes?
A: “Again, by listening to my customers and my employees. Because we found out from customers what they’re looking for, and we also look at our records. My daughter (store manager Beth Womble) has databases to see what departments we’re getting growth in. We can tell you exactly how many of every item we have in the store. We see where we’re getting our growth. We expand on the things that are growing and cut back on the ones that are not.”
Q: A physical retail location is becoming more and more rare. How do you continue despite that trend?
A: “I’ll tell you one thing we do that no one else does: We give great customer service. We have nine rooms here. If you look above the entrances, you’re going to see room numbers and what’s in there. We have a map that we give to the customers to show them what we have and in what area it is. When a customer comes in asks us for something, our employees have radios. We’ll tell you what room it is and how to get there. And then we page a clerk in that department and have them meet that customer in the section. Customers love this. You don’t get that anywhere. We also thrive by having employees stay with us. We hire mainly full-time employees. I believe in hiring full-time employees, giving them benefits. You get better-trained employees and better customer service. We just had one retire after 20 years. We’ve got others that have been here 10, 15 years and longer.”
Q: When you think about having been in business 40 years, what comes to mind?
A: “How much hard work it’s been. How fortunate we are. The day of the small, individual store owner is basically gone, and they’re falling apart fast. For us to survive and continue to grow, I’m very proud of it.”
Q: What’s your prediction for the next 40 years?
A: “Ask my daughter. Retail, like all businesses, gets tougher every year. Every expense you have goes up year to year as a percent of sales. You just have to stay on top of everything. We go to merchandise shows all over the country. You got to stay aggressive. I think of retail like a pyramid. If you’re not going uphill, you’ll start to slide downhill. You got to keep growing. We’re always looking for new items, new opportunities.”
Q: Sounds like that’s the biggest key to staying successful.
A: “I’ve always operated under the idea that you’ve got to think positively, how are you going to make something happen and not why it cannot happen. We find a way to make it happen; we find a way to make our sales; we find a way to make customers happy.”
Q: Any plans to wind down or retire?
A: “It’s talked about on a daily basis. I have slowed down. As long as I’m physically and mentally able, I will be involved. But I told my daughter Beth this is the last Christmas I’m going to spend working 60 or 70 hours a week. Next year I plan to slow down more. I have a motorhome and I want to travel more. Beth is going to keep the store going. She basically runs the store now. When you asked about the next 40 years, that’s in Beth’s hands.”
- Job: Owner of Ben’s at 112 E. Main St. in Belleville
- How he did it: “It’s a matter of listening to your customers, and a matter of listening to your employees.”