History of New York’s Korvettes Department Stores

History of Korvettes Department Stores

Photo: “Korvette Springfield, PA. 1958 pleasantfamilyshopping” by encanto_sunland is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The History of Korvettes Department Stores looks back at a much loved New York Department store chain that has been gone for more than 30 years. Nonetheless, Korvettes department stores are still fondly remembered by many generations of shoppers. New Yorkers have always had so many great shopping options, High end stores such as Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdales, and Lord & Taylor have always been countered with stores such as Woolworth’s and McCorys. In the middle was Korvettes. The franchise focused on offering quality merchandise at low prices. Their jewelry, appliances, luggage, clothing and other items were usually priced at a third off of suggested retail prices or more. Many of the stores were originally called E.J. Korvette, but over time they replaced many of their stores signs and advertising from E.J. Korvette to Korvettes as to that’s what most people called them

Over the years, there have been so many false stories over the naming of Korvettes. Many of them had to do with Korean War Veterans which was ridiculous because the company originated in New York in 1948. The Korean War did not begin until 1950. Korvettes was founded by two men named Eugene Ferkauf and Joe Zwillenberg. Ferkauf said that the company name was a combination of the two friends’ names and an intentional re-spelling of the word corvette. The corvette was a small naval ship. The Chevrolet Corvette did not come into existence until 1953.

Joe and Eugene’s first Korvettes store was located on Manhattan’s 45th street, between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue. The store could easily be accessed by people taking trains at the nearby Herald Square 34th Street and 33rd Street PATH subway stations. Korvettes expanded significantly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with many of their retail outlets placed in strip malls that were next to urban roads with high traffic volumes.

Korvettes was one of the first retailers to offer popular merchandise at discounted prices. Their initial concept was similar to how Pennsylvania-based McCrory stores, the S.S. Kresge company, Woolworth’s and other similar organizations operated at the time. Offering items that were far below manufacturers’ suggested retail prices made some critics and competitors think that Korvettes was violating the 1936 Robinson-Patman act. However, the company was able to avoid true price discrimination.

Several retailers filed fair trade lawsuits against Korvettes, in attempts to prevent them from providing merchandise at reduced rates. Fair trade laws at the time mandated that retailers sell items at prices that were suggested by their manufacturers. None of the lawsuits were successful. All those efforts really did was draw more attention to Korvettes’ low prices. Ferkauf credited Chas Wolf, a luggage wholesaler, as the inspiration for his company’s pricing methods. Wolf used these ideas sparingly, whereas Korvettes used their membership cards and low prices as key selling features in many of their advertising and promotional materials.

Membership cards were given to nearby businesses and to the general public. Employees were told to hand out membership cards to any visitors to their stores. This positioned Korvettes as a cooperative retail organization. It received products from suppliers at low prices and passed those savings on to their customers. This was something that Gimbels, Macy’s and other competitors just couldn’t match.

Korvettes opened their first modern retail outlet in Long Island in 1954. The Carle Place store had 90,000 square feet of retail space. It was also the first Korvettes location that sold clothing. The company expanded to six stores in total by 1956. This number would double to 12 in 1958. In its prime, Korvettes had 58 retail locations throughout the United States. At their peak, sales averaged more than $2,500 per square foot of retail space.

Locations were added in St. Louis, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, Detroit, Michigan and northern Virginia in the 1960’s. It was one of the first major retailers that opened on Sundays, after challenging local rules and regulations and conducting their own study on the matter in 1976. Many other companies started opening on Sundays after this breakthrough.

Ferkauf recruited businessman Jack Schwadron in 1961. Schwadron had previously worked for the Alexander’s Department Stores chain. He was named the general manager of Korvettes’ ready-to-wear division. Jack would rise up the corporate ranks, becoming vice president of Korvettes in 1964.

During that time, the company expanded their product lines to include home entertainment items. Several top of the line audio stations were constructed in several retail locations. Korvettes also launched their XAM brand of TV sets, amplifiers, speakers and receivers. It was widely speculated that the brand name was the backwards spelling of one of the founders’ former pet dog Max. The Roland company from Japan produced many of the products in Korvette’s XAM line.

Schwadron resigned from Korvettes in June 1965. He cited differences of opinion in how public relations, advertising and merchandising were handled as some of the primary reasons for his departure. Later that year, Korvettes created their own home furnishings department. They stopped subcontracting carpet and furniture sales and built their own distribution network and warehouses.

Purchasers in East Paterson, New Jersey would acquire furniture that would then be delivered to Korvettes’ central warehouse in Danville, Virginia. That warehouse would then send out orders placed by their customers to their Jessup, Maryland; Pennsauken, New Jersey or East Paterson delivery warehouses. Korvettes continued this process until December 1977.

Korvettes sales started to slump in the mid-1960’s. Problems arose in the furniture division after an independent manufacturer that they outsourced to couldn’t handle rising consumer demand. Another area of concern was the ill-fated decision to partner with the Hills grocery store chain. The fledgling grocers were not always able to keep up with increased product requests that were made by individual Korvettes stores. It was a risk that didn’t pay off very well. Korvettes later merged with retailer Spartan Goods in 1966. Ferkauf eventually left his leadership role after the merger.

Spartan tried to turn things around for several years with varying results. Korvettes was acquired by the land development business Arlen Realty and Development Corporation in 1971. The corporation hired well-known game show host Bill Cullen to promote Korvettes on many television advertisements over the next several years.

Arlen sold Korvettes to the French company Agache-Willot Group in 1979. Their new owners soon started closing some of the least profitable stores. They later sold real estate, fixtures, equipment and product inventory before declaring bankruptcy in 1980. All remaining Korvettes locations were closed by the end of that year.

One could always get great deals on clothing in Korvettes. They were closer to Sears style clothing than Macy’s. Yet, I always like the clothing better at Korvettes than Sears. Additionally, all the clothing accessories one needed like belts socks, underwear and everything else were sold extremely cheap and in pretty good quality at Korvettes. The store also had their own brand of many household items from hair dryers to record players sold at low prices that would last for years.

The Korvettes Record Department

Korvettes’ pretzel stands and exhaustive music selections were some of their more unique characteristics. Everyone loved Korvettes Record Department. They had the best record deals in New York. Their Record Departments were a heavenly space for music lovers. The Mall stores like Sam Goodys and Record World always charged way too much for record albums. Korvettes Record Department always ran great sales on their music albums. Albums in the 1970s were often sold for just a little over three dollars on sale. Their 45 rpm singles were cheap. The store was always filled with 8 tracks and cassettes They had their own hit singles charts that they would publish. The editor of this website is holding a picture of one below.

Korvettes Music Charts

Photo: Brian Kachejian

Korvettes Department stores were a preferred shopping destination for many busy middle class adults and families in New York. Although the company wasn’t able to properly manage their success to sustain long-term growth and profitability, their business methods did inspire several other retailers that continue to thrive today. A Korvettes store was good place to find many new, popular products at some of the lowest prices in town. It was a store that is so dearly missed by New Yorkers.

A vintage E.J. Korvette bag from the 1960s

Korvettes

Photo: Willem van de Poll, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

2 Comments

  1. Charles F Seaton March 17, 2021
  2. Sid Meyer March 17, 2021
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