by Claire Sykes
It’s billed as the largest independent variety store in the world. From candles and kitchenware to candy and kitsch, tens of thousands of items jam the racks, shelves and counters of Vidler’s 5 & 10 in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo.
Since it first opened in 1930, Vidler’s has occupied the same building, constructed in 1870. Robert S. Vidler, Sr., rented the 900-square-foot space, all set to sign on as a Ben Franklin five-and-dime. At the 11th hour, the corporation gave the franchise to another retailer down the street. This only emboldened Vidler to open his own store The Fair 5 to $1.00 Store.
In 1945, he bought the building and widened it, and within a few years his sons, Robert, Jr., and Edward had joined him. Six years later, the store was renamed Vidler’s 5 & 10, $1.00 and Up Inc. Today, at about 20,000 square feet, the two-story, business-district landmark occupies four connected storefronts on Main Street. It has kept its original wood flooring, stairs, counters and, in the basement, hand-hewn beams and tree-trunk posts.
Chaotic and charismatic, historic and nostalgic, Vidler’s has appeared in several made-for-TV Christmas movies, and served customers that included Katherine Hepburn and Renee Russo. Regional bus tours include it as a must-see stop.
Edward Vidler’s son, Don, the store’s president/treasurer and co-owner; and his cousin Cliff DeFlyer, vice president/secretary, talked to edplay recently about Vidler’s diversity, history and longevity. They told us what the holiday season means to the third-generation of business owners, and about the people who matter most.
edplay: Can you give us an idea of the scope of your operation?
Don and Cliff: We have about 16,000 square feet of selling space for more than 75,000 different SKUs and 11 checkout counters. We don’t use a warehouse or distribution center. We have some basement storage, but most of the merchandise comes in the freight door and gets put out right away.
Currently, there are 27 employees – 20 of them fulltime and the others part-time high-school and college kids. We usually add several fourth-quarter helpers.
Cliff and I are at the store almost every day. We’re open seven days a week, closed only New Year’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
How big is your toy category in relation to other categories at Vidler’s?
Toys are big, about 15 to 20 percent of our total sales.
We try to stay current with the hot toys, like when Beanie Babies were huge, fidget spinners, and now Pokémon, Halo and Minecraft cards. But most people think of us more for classic and retro toys – Hula Hoops, coonskin caps, Silly Putty, board games, Slinky, yo-yos, etc. We don’t sell big-ticket toys, and only a few handheld electronic games. At
Christmas, we’re well known as “stocking-stuffer central.” Toys “R” Us went under, but we weren’t greatly affected, but we brought in a few more toys.
How do you get the word out about Vidler’s and the kinds of products it offers?
Up until the early ’60s, it was just a local five-and-dime; one of three in the same block. To get our name out there more, we started with newspaper ads.
In 1970, a nationally known graphic-designer friend of my dad’s and a native East Auroran advised us to play up the traditional five-and-dime image. We made our signature red-and-white-striped awnings and gold-leaf lettering more prominent, and promoted the store as a nostalgic, historic destination. That’s when the bus tours started arriving, first locally then from Rochester, about an hour away.
Next, in the ’80s, came TV commercials featuring the “Vidler boys” and the larger-than-life resin replica of my father on the roof, the “Vidler on the Roof.” That attracted regional tourists.
In summer 2015, Intuit ran a national contest to win a free, 30-second Superbowl spot. The store came in second, out of 15,000 original entrants, which got us national attention.
Wow. Impressive! What about social media and online sales?
We have more than 20,000 fans on Facebook and I regularly post there and on Instagram. For the past five years, we’ve worked with an independent videographer and our digital ad agency to create 50-plus “Vidler’s TV” YouTube videos that promote our products in a fun,
Online selling hasn’t worked for us. We do a lot of mail order, though. Email or call us and we’ll ship it right out – with a hand-written note, too.
What’s your holiday selling season like?
Most of our Christmas merchandise is shipped to us by the end of July through August. Vacationers and tourists are already asking for it by then, and we filter it onto the floor gradually. Seasonal help starts by mid-to-late October. We extend our hours starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Sunday, which remains 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Winter weather can be a big issue for us! While we stay open through most weather, we don’t want to endanger our employees. Some of them drive a fair distance to work.
In November 2014 we had the infamous “Snow-vember” storm. It dropped almost 6 feet of snow over three days the week before Thanksgiving. It closed us for nearly five days, and our bottom line really took a hit. We couldn’t recover those lost sales.
Do you have a specific sales goal in mind when you head into the holiday season?
Not really. Just to beat last year-to-date, last month-to-date, last day-to-date. With just one store and using the same store’s sales metric, it’s pretty easy for us to measure.
How do you decorate for the holidays?
The staff and I do all the decorating. Throughout the store we have tabletop trees with ornaments and décor specific to the individual departments: gifts, candles, garden, crafts, etc.
Garlands we’ve had for 50 years hang on our main floor, what we call Vidler’s “original” five-and-dime. Our main windows showcase merchandise in Christmas-themed displays. They also include some very old, retro figures of carolers, elves and Santa. We string lights on the building exterior and the “Vidler on the Roof” wears a Santa hat.
How do you create Christmas magic at Vidler’s?
Hmm, “Christmas magic?” Just being in Vidler’s! It’s very colorful and there’s a lot of activity. The local Santa comes in every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and hands out candy canes and popcorn to the kids. Our employees wear Santa hats or dress up as elves. The town’s Village Singers come in singing Christmas carols. And we’re the main sponsor of East Aurora’s annual Carolcade, now in its 47th year. Last year, it drew 3,000 people, many in Victorian costumes and horse-drawn sleighs. It’s very Currier and Ives.
Who are your holiday shoppers and what are they looking for?
Everyone shops here, and they’re looking for everything, not just toys! We have a large and popular housewares department with every kitchen gadget you need, and more that you didn’t know you needed. Last Christmas we had about 400 different cookie cutters and sold a huge number of them.
When do you start buying for the fourth quarter?
I go to the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market in early January to buy most of our Christmas merchandise for that year. In alternating years, Cliff goes to the International Home + Housewares Show and Toy Fair in New York. We’re always looking for what’s new and different, and rely a lot on what our sales reps tell us. We buy online and still have about 15 to 20 reps that call on us regularly.
We also stock just a few Hanukkah cards, decorative menorahs and dreidels during the fourth quarter since we don’t have a large Jewish community in our area.
Do you have any predictions for this year’s holiday-shopping season?
If I did and they were accurate, I wouldn’t be working six days a week during December!
How do you feel about the future of bricks-and-mortar retail and Vidler’s place in it?
Cautiously optimistic. I’m not naïve. Online sales, meaning Amazon, continue to affect us, but we’ll never be able to compete on price alone with them or the big-box chains. Nor do we want to. We think our prices are fair, but we’re not a discounter and we don’t offer percentage-off coupons or frequent-buyer cards. Still, we generally get very high marks on Google, TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc., also for our customer service, which further separates us from Walmart and Amazon. We are very much selling the total Vidler’s experience – the history, atmosphere and nostalgia of our buildings and merchandise – and also that we’re a successful, third-generation business with the family still running the place on a daily basis.
Is there a fourth generation for Vidler’s waiting in the wings?
Not right now. Cliff and I both have grown children, all of whom have worked at the store at some point in their lives. But none have expressed a desire – yet! – to be involved. The door is always open, though, as it was for us. But hey, we figure my dad and uncle worked here a combined 120 years, and Cliff and I only have about 50 between us. We have a ways to go. And besides, most longtime customers still refer to us as “the kids.”