Johnstown’s new Ollie’s Bargain Outlet to cut ribbon Wednesday

JOHNSTOWN –Discount retailer Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Wednesday will host the grand opening of its Johnstown store, the latest in a steady campaign of expansion by the Pennsylvania-based retailer.

The storefront in the Johnstown Mall on North Comrie Avenue previously was a Gordmans and before that a Peebles. Both brands were part of the family of stores operated by Stage Stores, which filed for bankruptcy in 2020. An employee at the new Ollie’s said staff there could not speak to the news media without permission from headquarters in Harrisburg.

Headquarters in Harrisburg did not return a call seeking comment for this story Tuesday.

However, Ollie’s a publicly traded company, so it must publicly report on its operation in extensive detail. The 2020 annual report filed in March 2021 explains the model the new Johnstown store will follow.

Ollie’s sells “Good Stuff Cheap” — it looks for bargains wherever they can be found in the massive worldwide supply chain that feeds the American consumer economy. It buys overstocked or out-of-favor products cheap and then sells them cheap.

Closeout brand-name merchandise accounted for 65% of sales in 2020 and private-label items about 35%.

With this approach, the inventory invariably shows significant variation over time: Cutlery, coffee, cookies, carpeting, children’s books, COVID masks, candy and clothing each will usually have a place reserved on the shelves, but brand name, size and other details will vary based on what Ollie’s can secure on the cheap.

Shopping there is a treasure hunt, basically, in a no-frills “semi-lovely” box of a store that averages 33,000 square feet. Ideally, the rapid turnover creates a sense of urgency or adventure for shoppers that leads to regular visits.

The company apparently has created a formula that works and built a market for it:

• In the five years from 2016 through 2020, it grew from 234 to 388 stores, doubled sales to $1.8 billion and quadrupled income to $243 million.

• Same-store sales increased an average of 5.4% a year in that period.

• Its Ollie’s Army loyalty program stood at 11.6 million members as of Jan. 30, 2021, and enlistees in that army accounted for 75% of sales.

Along with its grand opening in Johnstown today, Ollie’s will open a store in Hudson. In two weeks’ time, it will add a new store in Ohio, and in three weeks, a store in Texas.

Not counting any of these four, it reported 411 stores operating early this week.

Typically it seeks to lease second-generation, low-cost real estate such as closed department stores and supermarkets that it can convert quickly and without major expense. It looks for areas with at least 50,000 residents in a 10-mile radius and looks for sites with significant visibility.

Ollie’s opened 46 stores, closed four and reopened one in 2020.

As of Jan. 30, 2021, the company had more than 9,800 employees, more than half of them part-timers.

By Paul Wager