John's Bargain Stores chairman dies at 80
- I always wondered where my dear departed father (God rest his soul...)
picked up referring to skinflints as "Cheap Johns". Thanks for the info.
From: Edward.J.Tracey@... [mailto:Edward.J.Tracey@...]
Sent: Sunday, June 02, 2002 12:31 PM
Subject: [EddieEvents] John's Bargain Stores chairman dies at 80
John Gamble and I always remembered the signs in their stores, "Do or Die",
"Sell or Bust", "Out They Go". A piece of retailing history.
David Cohen Is Dead at 80; Led Chain of Bargain Stores
By Douglas Martin, NY Times
David Cohen, who led John's Bargain Stores to the top rungs of discount
retailing in the 1960's, died on Thursday at his home in Medford, N.Y. He
The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Blanche, said. He also had a home in
Delray Beach, Fla.
John's Bargain Store (with its big red sign and white lettering) was once a
ubiquitous presence in the New York metropolitan area, particularly in
sections. It grazed the low end of retailing, relying on paying cheap rent
for locations few other retailers wanted, as well as on buying merchandise
that could be startlingly
inexpensive, often because the manufacturer had overestimated demand.
"Give us your mistakes and we'll make them pay," was a company slogan. A
company maxim was that the best places for stores were areas with few new
automobiles but many used baby strollers.
At its peak in the mid-1960's, John's had 527 stores along the Eastern
Seaboard and in Puerto Rico.
"Our plan is to blanket the United States with John's units and to
ultimately have more stores in operation in this country than Woolworth's,"
Mr. Cohen said in an interview with Women's Wear Daily in 1964.
A Woolworth spokesman had said, "We wish them luck."
Three years later, John's was in full retreat, the victim of over-expansion,
shoplifters and, most important, the yearlong absence of Mr. Cohen, who had
nearly died in an automobile accident. In 1967, the company sought
protection under federal bankruptcy laws. By the early 1970's, with new
ownership, it had disappeared.
His father, Harry, began as a peddler with a horse and wagon and moved on to
running games of chance on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. In winter, he would
buy the merchandise of a company going out of business and rent a store to
sell the goods.
This led to his getting his own store in South Ozone Park, Queens. For some
reason, he named it John's, although there was no John in the family. People
began calling it Cheap John's, partly because it was competing with two
neighboring stores, Cheap Sam's and Cheap Charlie's.
Young David was needed to work in both his father's endeavors, and kept
transferring from school to school. As a sixth grader, he dropped out to go
to work full time.
Working with his siblings (Benjamin, James and Stella) David, as chairman
president, expanded their father's concept into more and more stores. Their
father died in 1963 at 75.
At first, the children bought odd lots and surplus goods from manufacturers,
but as the company grew, increased bargaining power let them order new
The company placed larger orders for single items than any other chain in
ordering 250,000 dozen of an item at once.
After buying more cheaply, it also tried to sell more cheaply, or at least
to undercut the competition. Its markup of 32 percent was 8 percentage
points below that of most other stores. John's also routinely bought things
out of season: after Christmas, it filled its bins with toys; ski caps were
sold in the summer and swimming suits in winter. For customers, part of the
fun was never knowing what they would find.
The company also economized by using newspaper ads that covered large
numbers of stores, thereby cutting the cost per store. It accepted delivered
orders at warehouses, meaning distributors did not have to make drops at
But real estate was the most important factor. Mr. Cohen sought out
locations that other stores considered unprofitable and then drove a hard
bargain. He learned that former supermarkets were a good size, and also that
supermarket owners who had moved to larger stores nearby often offered cheap
rent to prevent another supermarket from opening.
A story he loved to tell involved the lawyer for a wealthy property owner
who disapproved of renting to John's because he considered it déclassé. The
client overruled the lawyer, declaring that she was a faithful John's