Following its namesake, Trader Horn stores use a no-frills approach to discount merchandising. Founded in 1958 in Butler, Pa., in a former feed store, the current name was suggested by the manager in 1973 who had worked at the family owned store all his life, which then was named Warehouse Sales.
“When we decided to open a second store, he asked if we could call it ‘Trader Horn,’” President Robert Greenberger recalls. “He read the book in high school and thought it would be a great name for a store.”
Greenberger was unfamiliar with the book that ivory trader Alfred Aloysius Horn had written in 1927 detailing his adventures in Africa. It was made into a movie twice, in 1931 and 1973. Greenberger read a library copy to see if there was any reason in the book not to use the title as the store’s name. “We decided give it a try, and the name took off pretty fast,” Greenberger remembers.
The store had established its reputation when Greenberger’s father and uncle were looking for a new retailing idea for their auto parts store. “They decided the days of the small auto stores were coming to an end after World War II and decided to try a discount house,” Greenberger relates. “They were the first in western Pennsylvania.”
Of course, the retail landscape has changed significantly since then. Now Trader Horn faces big-box retailers as formidable as any stampeding elephant or rampaging lion Alfred Aloysius Horn ever faced. Greenberger finds himself surrounded by these mass-market beasts, but like the store’s namesake, he always finds a way to fight his way to freedom.
“As the big get bigger, they get more competitive, even more ruthless,” Greenberger concedes. “We have to learn to turn on a dime. It’s getting harder and harder to buy right. We used to do a lot of direct buying, but as it became more difficult to deal with companies direct, we aligned ourselves with some major distributors, and it’s worked out very well. They have tremendous buying power.”
Trader Horn’s five buyers regularly attend shows held by major distributors Orgill and Bostwick-Braun. “We spend a lot of money at the shows,” Greenberger says.
“Smaller local distributors – such as Steel City Products, Masterworks Paint Co., Gateway Paint and Chemical Co. in Pittsburgh and Carine and Co. in nearby Sharon, Pa. – have helped our stores by having their salespeople work closely with buyers and store managers to expand and update product lines, educate employees and even wait on customers. These relationships have lasted for generations and are crucial to our success.”
Because Trader Horn locates its stores in existing buildings – ranging from a feed store to an abandoned plastics factory to the retail locations of defunct chains – its eight stores vary in size from 14,000 to 80,000 square feet. “We tailor each store to our customers in the area,” Greenberger points out. “If we open a store in one town and we start getting calls for lines and items we haven’t carried before, we immediately react.”
Trader Horn stores are located in rural and suburban areas of western Pennsylvania, where hunting and fishing are popular. So the stores carry a full selection of that merchandise. “One rural community lost its grocery store, and within one week, we had increased our grocery items, as well as milk, bread and eggs,” Greenberger recalls. He estimates that closeouts amount to approximately 3 percent of the company’s sales.
The company’s weekly ad insert can be viewed online at its website. It also is inserted in approximately 18 area newspapers, and varies in size from four to eight pages. “We do a small amount of radio advertising, but not very much,” Greenberger adds.
Trader Horn’s competitive advantage is that its size keeps it nimble. “I think we can be very creative and react faster than the big guys can,” Greenberger declares. “It’s hard for them to put us out of business because we’re able to change pretty quickly what we’re able to do.”
He attributes much of that ability to turn on a dime to his employees. “We have a lot of loyal employees who are a big help,” Greenberger emphasizes. “When people have been with us forever, we really start to trust them and take their advice seriously on different ways of advertising, merchandising or different strategies.”
Trader Horn has one employee who has been with the company for 46 years. “We have a lot of 30-year employees,” he notes “We try to have really friendly, useful, helpful employees.” Greenberger says that unlike the big-box competitors in his area, his sales employees are well-versed in the merchandise that they sell. “They gravitate towards what they are interested in, and we take advantage of what they are strong in,” he says.
Greenberger does not micromanage – he delegates authority for the local stores to their managers. “Our managers have a lot of freedom to do what they think is right in their stores,” he says. “We have an operations manager who goes to the stores very often. He looks for merchandise not properly displayed. I go out when I can and walk the stores with the managers to see my mistakes and get their input on how we can do things better.” Employee training is handled at the store level by assistant or group managers.
Trader Horn does not receive much competition from the Internet in its region and for its type of merchandise, Greenberger says. “It’s mostly just brick-and-mortar stores that are our competition,” he maintains. “There’s still a lot of people who want to feel and touch the merchandise and shop at our stores. We have the unique or hard-to-find items, and we are known for ‘having everything.’ Our customers have been comfortable with us, and we’ve been around a long time.”
Not only are Trader Horn’s employees loyal, but so are its customers. “We do get people asking us to come to their towns,” Greenberger maintains. “If I were younger, I’d follow up with it. I’ll be 78 in October. I have to figure out what I’m doing at my age before I can consider opening any more stores.”
One customer showed his loyalty to Trader Horn by wearing a baseball cap with Trader Horn’s logo on it literally for eternity. “I think we have a loyal following,” Greenberger stresses. “We did a television commercial some years ago, and someone from our Grove City store asked if he could be in the commercial. He was, and we gave him a Trader Horn hat. When he died, they buried him with the hat in the coffin because he loved our stores so much.
“We always hear our customers say, ‘Trader Horn – that’s my favorite store,’” Greenberger concludes. “It is more than our slogan – it is our goal to continue to do business in the right way to maintain their trust.”