In family businesses that successfully span decades, each generation must bring a fresh outlook, modernization and new direction. Few have done that better than Sam A. Dushey, President and CEO of New York-based Shoppers World. With roots going back to the early 1970s, Shoppers World had fewer than 10 stores when Dushey rose to the top rank in 2004. Within a decade, the brand was 40 stores strong with 20 more in progress. Today, it’s poised to go head-to-head with major retailers in each of its markets.
It’s no wonder, really: Entrepreneurship is in Dushey’s blood. His grandfather, Sam Dushey, a Syrian-born immigrant, peddled candy and gum at the age of 6, saving up enough money by the age of 15 to board a ship to the Philippines to run a factory for his uncle before returning to the United States to start his own business.
“He really worked in the trenches,” Dushey said of his grandfather. “He was incredibly hands-on and a penny pincher of the highest degree. He was very successful.”
In the late 1930s, Sam Dushey opened a small retail shop called The Mart in Baltimore, selling whatever he could get his hands on at a very cheap price, starting what is widely known today as discount retailing. His sons followed suit with additional stores opening in Brooklyn (The Pitkin Bargain Center) in 1959, then New Jersey in 1972. Dushey Jr.’s father, Abe, opened the New Jersey store – the first to bear the Shoppers World name.
In the decades afterward, the family enjoyed small-business success in the brick-and-mortar world, focused primarily on local competition from New York’s garment district. Now, in the family’s third generation at the company’s helm, that’s all changing.
Dushey Jr. practically grew up in the aisles of Shoppers World, tagging and stocking products as early as age 12. He attended New York’s Baruch College for a stint, but left in his second year to help with the family business when a key personnel member left.
“I ended up taking over that position and it took more of my time than I expected, so I made the decision to leave school,” said Dushey, noting that he might otherwise have gone into the real estate or finance fields.
That decision turned out to be the best possible one for both Dushey and Shoppers World, as it ultimately led to the company’s embarking upon a whole new frontier. In the meantime, though, Dushey took a cue from his grandfather’s hands-on approach to business, ensuring that he had a hand in literally every area of the company’s operations in an effort to prove himself to his family and fellow employees, preparing himself for something of a battle of persuasion.
“For many years, my family really wasn’t focusing on growing the company,” he explains. “The business environment then was far better for brick-and-mortar than it is today and they were happy with what they had, knowing that they could manage the business with a hands-on approach."
The combination of a tightening economy and a driven new leader called for a modernized game plan. By the time Dushey was settling into the company’s C-suite, Shoppers World was experiencing drops in sales and the rest of the retail world was in scale-back mode. While conventional wisdom might have suggested the same approach for Shoppers World, Dushey had a different approach in mind.
First, Dushey grew Shoppers World from within. Having primarily focused on childrenswear and school uniforms, the company added multiple new lines of merchandise including casual and dresswear for men, women and children of all ages, from newborn to juniors to plus size, as well as shoes, lingerie, accessories, work uniforms, home furnishings and decor, housewares and linens.
“It wasn’t something that was instantaneous,” Dushey said. “Things would develop slowly over time; we’d buy a rack of shoes, test and prove it. If it sold well, we’d expand it to two racks, three racks, four racks. Finally, we’d open a new department.”
Then, while other retail chains were closing, selling and scaling back remaining locations, Dushey instead launched a major expansion.
“Value City, Sears, JC Penney, Steve and Barry’s – a lot of the big-box retailers were closing stores,” he explained. “So we took advantage of the opportunity and made some very good real estate trades that enabled us to open a ton of stores within a short time period.”
Not only did this strategy go against the industry grain, but it also proved a bit unnerving for Dushey’s family.
“At the time, it was unheard of to open a store that we couldn’t actually drive to and visit on a daily basis. We didn’t have levels of regional or district managers and some didn’t quite understand how we were going to run a business from a computer screen,” Dushey recalled, noting that by this time, he had set up corporate offices in Manhattan and thus had a small-scale precedent to point to. “My family was very, very cautious. But when the first Indianapolis store proved a home run, we were able to run with it. From there, we opened stores in Maryland, Chicago and Ohio. It was all over after that.”
Shoppers World is proud to maintain a tight-knit family feel to the company. In fact, several of the same employees who held Dushey as a baby, worked with him side-by-side during his teen years and watched his quick rise to the top remain employees to this day. Together, they learned what Dushey did: that there is a world outside of New York far bigger than they had imagined.