Saturday, October 5, 2019

What Could Have Been: Fred's Discount Depot, West Memphis, AR (BONUS: "Bluff City Law")

Today's post highlights Crittenden County, AR, retail.

Believe it or not, I managed to go a whole two months without any Fred's posts. This, after going all-in and bombarding you readers with three posts in the course of just two months this past summer. I still have plenty of Fred's posts to write up in the future, too, but tonight will be my final post covering current events news regarding Fred's. That's because, as I'm sure you've heard by now from other sources, Fred's soon will be no more.

Indeed, to no one's surprise, following its fifth consecutive closure round in July, leaving the chain with just 80 stores (down from over 550 to start the year), Fred's Inc. on September 9th, 2019, officially announced that it was commencing voluntary Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings, with the intent to begin an orderly wind-down of its operations. This will result in the company going out of business completely by the end of this month, October 2019.

There's not much more in the way of commentary that I can add to this news that hasn't been said before. Fred's has been in the news all year due to its lengthy downward spiral, and it was pretty clear to most that the company had a slim chance of survival. In the official press release, CEO Joe Anto - who, you'll recall, was able to ascend to his position thanks to Fred's hedge fund ownership - said, "Despite our team’s best efforts, we were not able to avoid this outcome. I want to thank all of our employees for their hard work and continued support of the Company as we wind-down our operations." Employees received an additional notice from Mr. Anto concerning the news, which is pictured below.

Letter supplied to Fred's employees announcing the chain's bankruptcy and wind-down of operations. Courtesy Twitter

As for the remaining Fred's pharmacies - remember, even while front-stores had been closed down over the course of the year, Fred's kept a majority of its pharmacy counters open - the bankruptcy press release reiterated that "The Company expects to continue fulfilling pharmacy prescriptions at most of its pharmacy locations, while it continues to pursue the sale of its pharmacies as part of the court supervised proceedings." Ultimately, a bulk of the remaining pharmacies have been purchased by none other than Walgreens, the same company that purchased 185 of Fred's pharmacies last fall. As with that 2018 sale, it is assumed that the prescription records will be transferred to the nearest Walgreens location - although, since one assumes there's a reason Walgreens didn't purchase these pharmacies last year, one can infer that there might be quite some distance to said nearest Walgreens. In happier news, ten other Fred's pharmacies were sold to ExpressRx, who, unlike Walgreens, actually will keep the pharmacies operational in their existing buildings; and still others have been sold to newly-created independent pharmacies, in most cases helmed by the very pharmacists formerly employed by Fred's.

The stores themselves (the real estate that Fred's owns, as well as all of its ongoing leases) will be auctioned off later this month. The company's remaining distribution center in Dublin, Georgia, will be shutting down, too, as will (presumably) the newly-relocated Memphis headquarters presence, which must have lasted barely three months in their new office space at Lenox Park. And finally, speaking of the headquarters - while the relocation of those key Memphis-based team members seemed to go against the long-brewing narrative that Fred's was being de facto operated out of Dallas, where Alden Global Capital, its hedge fund owner, is based... the official bankruptcy filing with the SEC, one of Fred's final public documents, quietly confirmed a September 8th, 2019, amendment to the company's charter and bylaws accounting for the change in address of the company's principal office to 2001 Bryan Street, Suite 1550, Dallas, Texas 75201. So, technically, for this last two months of Fred's existence, it's incorrect to refer to them as a "Memphis-based company." But, I doubt anyone actually cares, knowing that their final destination is very soon to be the retail graveyard.


Clearly, the purpose of today's post isn't just to relay that bankruptcy news to y'all. If it were, given that I'm a month behind in sharing it, I may as well not have bothered posting it at all! No, as the title indicates, this post will take a look at what could have been, had Fred's actually managed to avoid filing for bankruptcy, and made a comeback. It's easy to think that they were headed for total liquidation all along, but shortly before the filing, a new concept was debuted, with plans to expand across the chain's remaining footprint - quiet plans, but plans nonetheless - and ultimately result in a new operating model for the company. Obviously, this mysterious, born-to-die concept would be lost history if I didn't share it with you today - so, of course, you know that's what we're here for :)  But before we can get any further into those details, first we must take a quick look back at August 2018...

"Fred's amps up the treasure hunt," proclaims a RetailWire headline from August 7th, 2018. That article heavily references an original piece by The Commercial Appeal, which was published five days prior. The RetailWire article continues:

Fred's, the deep-discount retailer in the southeast, has launched a new treasure hunt concept, "Fred's Closeout Bonanza," that drops prices throughout the week until all the items are gone. 
The first two Fred's Closeout Bonanza locations opened this past Saturday in Bartlett and Memphis in Tennessee. 
Every Saturday, the store is refilled with new merchandise, all priced at $9.99. A microsite for the concept highlights a number of items available for sale that were worth well over $9.99, including a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, a Fitbit Flex 2, a set of Skullcandy Hesh 2 headphones and an OtterBox Defender Series iPhone case. 
On Sunday, prices for whatever is still available across the store are reduced to $4.99. Fred's then lowers prices to $2.99 on Monday, to $1.99 for Tuesday and Wednesday, 99 cents on Thursday and 19 cents on Friday. 
Fred's restocks the stores late Friday with a promised mix of different goods. The items include inventory being liquidated from other Fred's stores, merchandise returned to other retailers and special purchases arranged by Fred's.

Interior of Fred's Closeout Bonanza. Courtesy Twitter

The Appeal article further clarifies that "The treasure-hunt style mixes an array of unlike goods in bins located on the floor," as shown in the image above. A mere two months later, the daily price-reduction strategy was dropped, and starting September 29th an everyday pricing strategy was instituted, with prices ranging from $1.99 to $99.99. Reactions to this change on social media were somewhat disappointed, but Fred's Closeout Bonanza continued on unscathed until mid-February 2019, when the concept quietly disappeared, the two stores closing down (precursors to the many, many more to follow in the ensuing months).

I briefly referenced the Fred's Closeout Bonanza stores in my first post on Fred's this summer, but what I failed to mention - mostly because I didn't quite realize it at the time - is that the concept was actually initiated under the tenure of Joe Anto as CEO. So, contrary to the notion that Alden Global Capital was out solely to strip Fred's of its cash and then leave them for dead, the fact that this concept was introduced prior to their 2019 troubles seems to indicate that the new hedge fund management was actually trying to go somewhere with the business. So, when in July Mr. Anto suggested that Fred's may "evaluate re-launching certain closed stores in the future under a new operating model, with an updated assortment," it was easy to shrug off that quote as either an expression of misplaced optimism or a deliberately false, empty statement, but in hindsight, there seems to be a clear connection between what Anto describes in the quote and the short-lived Fred's Closeout Bonanza concept instituted under his reign the year prior. And sure enough... in August 2019, Fred's Discount Depot was born.

The very first Fred's Discount Depot opened in West Memphis, Arkansas, in a former Fred's building (owned by the company) that had previously shuttered in the first round of closures in the spring. No official press release announcing the concept was ever released, but a Facebook page was created, and the City of West Memphis Instagram page described Fred's Discount Depot as follows:

The new treasure-hunt style Fred’s is an array of inventory that automatically reduces the price on all unsold merchandise each day of the week. Located in the previous Fred’s location (606 E. Broadway) the store is restocked late every Friday. Rather than offer the same items every week, the treasure-hunt style brings in a variety of different goods. 
Items include unsold inventory from other Fred’s stores, open boxed items and other major online retailers from discount groceries, clothing, hardware, lighting, home appliances, mattresses and more.

Sounds familiar, right? Clearly, Fred's Discount Depot was Fred's Closeout Bonanza, reborn. The price-reduction strategy cited in the city's post was likely a miscommunication - the store ended up operating with the same everyday pricing strategy the Closeout Bonanza stores had, rather than the daily price-reduction strategy that was so short-lived - but other than that, Fred's Discount Depot seemed to have a welcoming home in West Memphis. And what's more, it intended to expand elsewhere, too.

Grand opening of Fred's Discount Depot in West Memphis, AR. Courtesy Facebook

"Now Open!" banner, listing Fred's Discount Depot's merchandise lines and prices. Courtesy Instagram

Though the aforementioned Facebook page for Fred's Discount Depot only ever referenced the West Memphis store in any of its posts, a "Locations" tab on the page led to a list of eleven other stores, all in Alabama, all existing "traditional" Fred's stores that were targeted for conversion to the new "Discount Depot" concept: Columbiana, Heflin, Lincoln, Lineville, Midfield, Montevallo, Moody, Rainbow City, and Warrior, as well as Haleyville and Red Bay. Unlike West Memphis, which had to be reopened, the first nine of these Alabama stores were still operational, having made it onto the list of the final 80 "go-forward" stores in July. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but per some intel I acquired, the plan was ultimately to convert all of Fred's remaining stores to the Discount Depot concept, as well as possibly come back and open more Discount Depots in areas/stores they had departed during the year. An example of the latter could be seen in the Darien, Georgia, store, which had been selected for closure in the July round only to be told in early August that the store would be remaining open instead, to convert to a Fred's Discount Depot. ("We are flying high!" store management told the local paper.)

Headline from The Darien News on August 8th, 2019. The article noted that "The Darien store has remained in the top 20 of the best sales stores that the corporation has."

Fred's in Heflin, AL. Note the "Coming Soon!" banner advertising the Fred's Discount Depot conversion on the left of the image. Courtesy The Anniston Star

Ultimately, of course, with the news of Fred's bankruptcy, these conversions never happened. The above image of the Heflin store shows that work must have been underway (per the red banner to the left of the entrance), but I imagine work was halted at the onset of the announcement, if not sooner. As for the Darien store, The Darien News reported on August 22nd the headline "Fred's Inc. flip-flops and decides to close Darien store," with information of an August 12th "conference call to four stores that were supposed to be converting to the discount depot, informing them that the stores would be closing" instead. I would assume the Haleyville and Red Bay, AL, stores were among those four, as well as one other unidentified location. ("This has been a roller coaster for us," Darien store management lamented.)

Obviously, there are negative opinions out there concerning Alden Global Capital's ownership of Fred's, and rightfully so. I'm not going to say that the hedge fund did right by Fred's by any means. But I'm also not going to lay all the blame on them - as I noted in my first post on Fred's this summer, the company was in a precarious position even before Alden entered the picture, and has had lots of ups and downs in its past. As a matter of fact, I'd actually like to give Alden at least a tiny bit of credit. Yes, they ultimately bankrupted the company and ran it out of business, I know. But in 2018, they launched a new Closeout Bonanza concept intending to see where that type of operating model could take them, and in 2019, after reducing their footprint by 85 percent, they revived the concept as Fred's Discount Depot with the intention of expanding the operating model across not only the chain's remaining stores, but also potentially areas they had had to exit earlier in the year. Furthermore, also in 2019, amidst the hundreds of store closures, Alden relaunched Fred's long-dead investor relations website, with numerous historical images of Fred's stores as well as copy indicating a shift in focus for the chain: "By getting back to our heritage and combining the value and convenience of a hometown discount store with the excitement associated with a 'treasure hunt' for great closeout deals, we can differentiate ourselves and give customers a reason to spend their money with us." (Notice how this quote implies both the transition away from pharmacy operations, and the conversion to the "Discount Depot" model.) Call me crazy, but revamping your investor relations website in the middle of multiple successive rounds of store closures seems kinda stupid if you're not planning on the company lasting much longer past that point.

Background collage from the relaunched Fred's investor relations website, featuring a variety of historical Fred's images. Courtesy Fred's Investor Relations

UPDATE, 10-16-19: Another photo collage I found, this time courtesy of a job search website.

Ultimately, I can't say what drove Fred's to liquidation. I know I gave credit to Alden in the above paragraph, but maybe I should have said "the new management" more specifically; perhaps Mr. Anto indeed wanted to flush Fred's down the drain all along, and it wasn't necessarily him who created or approved the new operating models in 2018 and again in 2019. Or, maybe it was him, and the company simply really did reach the point where continued operations became unsustainable - that's not terribly difficult to fathom, either. In any case, while the new concept was ever-so-briefly poised to become the future of the company, in the end, only one Fred's Discount Depot ever operated. And I had the privilege of visiting it on August 30th, 2019. My photos follow.

UPDATE, 10-16-19: I now have some reason to believe that a second Fred's Discount Depot - the one in Red Bay, AL, mentioned above - may well have opened after all. However, absent official confirmation of that fact - which is likely never to arrive, sadly - I'll leave the rest of this post intact. Just wanted to include this note here for posterity.


We begin with a collection of images of the West Memphis Fred's from prior to its liquidation, courtesy of a LoopNet real estate listing for the property. According to that listing, the building, located at 606 E Broadway in West Memphis, is 16,857 square feet, and was built in 1969.

Courtesy LoopNet

Courtesy LoopNet

Courtesy LoopNet

Courtesy LoopNet
Courtesy LoopNet

Courtesy Google Maps

As I mentioned previously, the West Memphis Fred's was axed in the first closure round back in April, same as the very first Fred's store in Coldwater, MS. The above image shows the store closed with its sign blacked out, courtesy of Google Maps. But, by August, the store was up and running again, reborn as Fred's Discount Depot.

Most of the store's parking was in a narrow parking lot off to the side, but judging by the streetside parking here, locals were happy to have Fred's back open again! Exterior-wise, there were virtually no changes; in fact, the new Fred's Discount Depot sign is simply a banner placed on top of the still blacked-out Fred's sign beneath.

It's not super easy to make out in my photos, but if you scroll back up to the logo image for Fred's Discount Depot that I shared earlier in this post, you'll see that the "Discount Depot" part of the logo is actually horribly off-center below the "Fred's" text. I actually like the new Fred's logo - which also debuted this year - but the "Discount Depot" add-on feels decidedly unprofessional. Of course, it's highly likely that it indeed did not involve any professional logo design folks, unlike the Fred's logo proper. But whoever put it together did at least have one goal in mind - it fits exactly perfectly within the circular icon shape of a Facebook profile.

Heading inside the store, my first stop was the front left corner, home to apparel. As you can see, there was a bunch of stuff everywhere, including several bins of merchandise placed directly inside the entrance; and as you'll soon see, the apparel department has been dramatically expanded from what I assume its previous size was, now taking up a majority of the left-side wall. But, beyond that, the previous Fred's décor remains wholly intact, including the green stripe on the walls and the "Clothing" sign hanging above the fitting room.

I don't want to say that all of the merchandise here was strange, because it wasn't, and I don't think there's ever a store of this format (think Ollie's, for example) that is 100 percent oddball stuff. That said, the weird items are always what stand out more, so naturally that's what I gravitated toward, too. Our first example is this ball cap that very clearly identifies itself on its brim. I love it XD  I'm honestly kicking myself really hard right now - I was looking for something to buy here, and ended up grabbing a cheap deck of cards right before checking out just to say I bought something. I totally should have bought this instead. It even would have worked out in more ways than one, because I've been wanting a hat anyway. I hate that I had already forgotten about this by the time I checked out!

Some more shots in the front left corner, including a close-up of the Clothing sign above the fitting room. If you look closely, you'll notice that the "FITTING ROOM" sign is from a previous décor package.

Merchandise-wise, in this area we have women's/girls' apparel, including what appear to be prom dresses along the wall.

In this duo of shots, the top pic looks across what you could call the front actionway of the store (over toward the right-side wall), while the bottom pic looks straight back toward the rear wall of the store. As I said, clothing lines a majority of the left-side wall, and aisles occupy the remainder of the salesfloor.

The first aisle holds a variety of merchandise, probably the best-stocked aisle in the entire store as far as "multiple of the same items on the shelf" goes. A lot of it is Fred's brand, too. Perhaps these specific items were actually meant to be stocked regularly, in contrast to the ever-changing selection found throughout the rest of the store.

Some more shots from beside or within apparel. When I was taking that pic of the paper plates, I thought an employee who was working within this side of the store noticed me. That was confirmed when much later in my tour, after I had circled the rest of the place and returned to apparel, she came up to me and asked who I work for. I was confused and answered no one (because I don't), and then she clarified by asking if I work for Fred's, because she saw me taking pictures of the prices (I had my camera on in the apparel aisles as well, and she must have thought I was taking pictures of price tags on both the clothes and those paper plates earlier). She didn't seem upset by my photography (she seemed kinda amused, in fact), so that made me happy, but while photographing price tags obviously wasn't my intent, I also didn't want to come out and say "nah, I'm just photographing literally everything else inside this building!", so I kinda fluster-mumbled something about simply having my camera app on and she walked away. Awkward social interactions is my middle name.

Nope, it definitely wasn't the prices I was after - but I did capture a few of the crazy shirts that caught my eye :P  The first is a men's T-shirt with a clever scene involving chocolate Easter bunnies, and the other two are women's shirts. Of those, the first one is also a fun shirt, but the second one is just a total piece of nonsense. Seriously, anybody have a clue what's up with that thing?! We met and talked with the manager here (again, getting ahead of myself, but still), and when she saw us laughing/puzzling at this shirt she jumped in and agreed that she had no clue what it means either, but it had been here since the day the place opened. She and her staff had tried Googling if it was a meme or something, but to no avail.

The perimeter wall gives way from clothes to shoes about halfway down, then, at the edge of the apparel department, the back left corner of the store begins a stockpile of a whole bunch of random stuff! I think in theory this area was meant to be the "big items" area - mattresses, appliances, furniture. But as much as there was of those things, there was an equal amount of giant boxed pallet-drops. Made for a rather crowded, definitely less-than-organized layout, but hey - it's not called a Discount Depot for nothing!

Speaking of "Discount Depot" - like any good closeout store, Fred's had its own product testing station set up right here, so customers can check the quality of their goods before they buy them. The policy, as is customary in this line of business, is no returns or exchanges (which, frankly, would have been helpful to Fred's as a going concern had they fully converted to this business model, I would think).

Here's a large number of shots from within the back left corner of the store, showing the variety of merchandise to be found in the area. Again, not the most presentable (I shudder in particular at that mattress with the wet brown stains on the packaging - ewww), but that's to be expected from a store of this format; and anyway, beyond the presentation the deals actually seemed pretty good. Right before the bankruptcy was announced the Facebook page for this store advertised a 99 cent TV giveaway for the first however-many people to visit the store that Saturday. I don't know if they were still able to go through with that as a result of the filing, but that sounds like a phenomenal deal!

The back aisle of the store wasn't too much better in regards to pallets of things just sitting around idly; as a matter of fact, it was worse, with a number of the aisles closest to the rear wall actually impassable due to the amount of boxes blocking the pathways. My bet is that this store was being shipped so much stuff they ran out of space in the back, and it spilled over into the salesfloor.

It's my understanding that the shelving remained in this store post-first-closure just like the department signage, and so that also means there was a price sign left on every endcap. Thing is, with changing merchandise, there's not really much to advertise on the endcaps, so a lot of them simply had the Fred's logo put up there instead. Like I said, I really actually like this logo... it definitely did a good job of demonstrating the shift back to discount merchandising from a focus on pharmacy for so long.

A pretty large chunk of this next part of our stour will be a collection of various random aisle shots. The aisles were pretty well sorted into departments - for example, the ones near the bottom of the above set were home to bedding, curtains, and the like - but it's pretty easy to lose your bearings in here regardless. (On the plus side though, the more you get lost, the more time you spend in the store shopping, haha!)

You'll note that there are still plenty of Fred's Rewards advertisements hanging from the shelves - apparently that program was still in effect - and also that there are lots of scars on the floor, left behind from where the aisles used to be located back during the "regular" Fred's days.

In order, this next batch of photos 1) looks from a cross-store actionway down a set of aisles toward the front doors (there's a lot of toilet paper in that aisle!)... 2) looks from that same actionway over to the left-side wall... 3) takes us down an aisle, where an alarmingly high amount of Fred's-branded 2-liter sodas and 4) a fan still wearing its Lowe's price tag could be found... and finally, 5) glances once again from that actionway over toward the right-side wall. In addition to Lowe's, a lot of merchandise here came from Target. I always see Target stuff in droves at any closeout store I visit, actually. The amount I see would honestly make me think the company is doing poorly, if I didn't know any better.

A handful of the aisles closer to the right-side wall of the store were home to a scattered assortment of food items. Placed all throughout these aisles were shelf tags titled "Understanding Dates." For example, the one shown here explains that "use by" means the quality of an item is best if used by the date printed, but not that the item should not be consumed after that date. These definitions are sourced directly from the USDA, but I still think a lot of people are less than willing to buy items past the dates printed on them, regardless of whether they're still "technically" good. My thinking, therefore, would be that this department would be one of the lower sellers in the store... and on a related note, this would be a major fault I would have had with the concept had it actually materialized elsewhere: a lot of the small towns Fred's was in, such as Darien, GA, mentioned earlier, rely on Fred's for groceries - and I can't consider this haphazard selection to be a sufficient replacement for that.

Some more actionway views looking toward the perimeter walls, followed by a close-up shot of that aforementioned aisle dedicated exclusively to toilet paper. My photos were taken all out of order, so now that I've sorted them into an orderly fashion, what I'm going to say next doesn't fit in quite as well, but still... About this point in the stour, I noticed an employee working in an aisle stocking merchandise, and she looked awfully familiar. Then it hit me - I asked her if she was the manager from the headquarters store on Getwell, and she said yes. She also was manager at Hernando for a time, as I remember discussing when talking with her at the Getwell store. She further explained that she actually started here in West Memphis, and only transferred to those other stores after West Memphis had closed. Once Fred's decided they would reopen the store under a new format, she came back, and said she is 100 percent loyal to Fred's - she's not going to leave until she goes down with the ship.

On that note, she was rather optimistic about the future of the chain. She discussed the previous headquarters complex on Getwell, describing it as totally untouched since it was built - wood paneling, some floors of the building unusable due to asbestos, totally unautomated distribution center. The Dublin, GA, distribution center that remained after the sale of the Memphis complex was much newer as well as automated, and the Lenox Park offices that Fred's relocated to, she claimed, finally returned Fred's to having a bigger presence in Memphis than in Dallas. We also discussed the future of the Discount Depot concept, including the nine conversions taking place in the Birmingham area and potential for more to open in areas Fred's had left previously (as I wrote earlier). She was very nice to talk to, and clearly enjoyed her job. I hate that the company wound up liquidating, if for nothing else than how excited she seemed at the prospects for survival. I've included a discussion I found in the Facebook comments between her and another person below, before we resume our tour. (The manager is Pam.)

Note also what I said earlier about the Discount Depot logo fitting perfectly within the circle icon shape!

One of the first aisles of the store (nearest the entrance, anyway) housed the health and beauty aids. I don't believe this store ever had a pharmacy, but it still likely had an increased emphasis on this line of merchandise seeing as how Fred's itself had a large focus on this area for a number of years. Now, the selection is considerably more varied! With the bottom shot in particular, I wanted to showcase the Rite Aid-branded items... Fred's and Rite Aid, two drugstore chains that have completely exited the Mid-South :(

This next series of photos travels all along the right-side wall of the building, a majority of which is home either to additional merchandise bins (as can be seen closer to the back right corner) or additional food items (closer to the front right corner). A lot of the food in this area was seasonal, which I can imagine is often left unsold - hence why it ends up at a closeout store like this! Note also the handbasket lying on its side in the aisle - for some reason that scene strikes me as particularly sad...

The front right corner housed the Grocery department sign, which must have been relocated here from elsewhere in the building given how it covers up that other Fred's sign behind it. (Also worth noting are that all of these signs left over from the previous décor package still feature the retired lowercase Fred's logo, which is unfortunate.) A lot of the stuff up here was soda, chips, and candy, including the coolers directly beneath the department sign.

The edge of one aisle had a nice "Who We Are" sign introducing Fred's Discount Depot, which I wanted to be sure to photograph and share with y'all here. It reads, "Fred's Discount Depot aims to offer the lowest prices on items you use every day - that means unbeatable savings on clothing, home, discount grocery, and more! The catch? Get it before it's gone! We buy overstock, so the deals are always hot and the item selection is always changing. There is one thing that doesn't change: great finds at Fred's prices!"

One final aisle shot, this time looking from the front toward the back of the store, followed by some additional views of the aisles as seen from the front actionway. The endcaps up here, you'll notice, are probably the most presentable displays in the entire store, clearly so that they attract customers who see these aisles immediately upon entering.

I didn't actually get any photos of the checkouts proper, so instead here's a shot kinda-sorta looking over that way, followed by another shot looking from the start of the checkout queue over toward the front left corner again. This store did indeed keep its queue system for the checkouts.

Some final overview shots of the store, which should give you a pretty good idea of the layout. The store was somewhat narrow, but pretty deep to make up for that. There were three different sets of aisles running from front to back. The Coldwater store was similar; I'd imagine this setup was common to many older Fred's stores.

One last shot looking toward the exit doors...

...and finally, stepping outside, and watching the facade go past as we drive by: the West Memphis Discount Depot, and Fred's Inc. as a whole for that matter, are now officially in the rearview mirror :(

As usual, we'll wrap this stour up with a pic of my receipt. Like I said, I couldn't think of what to buy (as I didn't need anything, besides that cap I forgot to buy!!), but I did want to purchase something, so I bought a deck of playing cards. I always like to buy something anywhere I take photos regardless, but at this store in particular I also wanted to be sure to get that receipt tape: this may well be the only store ever to have had receipts with the new uppercase Fred's logo on them...


In an alternate universe where Fred's stayed in business, this would have been their future. But alas, as you and I know, the company instead chose to declare bankruptcy and go out of business. So... the million dollar question now is, what happens to all the former Fred's buildings?

While it remains to be seen what will happen to the final 81 stores currently undergoing liquidation sales (the 80 that remained open following the July closure round, plus West Memphis), recall that there are close to 500 other Fred's stores out there that are already sitting empty, having been shuttered in previous closure rounds throughout the year. Of those that have already secured new tenants, I've seen Roses pop up the most (including one of the formerly franchised locations, in Greenville, Alabama, which celebrated its grand opening last week). As a fellow discount retailer with a similar operating philosophy and geography to Fred's, Roses seems best positioned to take over spaces left behind by Fred's, with the only limiting factor being that most Roses stores seem to occupy a larger square footage than the typical Fred's. There's also what could perhaps be considered delicious irony in Roses taking over multiple former Fred's buildings, in regards both to the fact that Fred's once tried to buy Roses in the 1990s (ultimately, Variety Wholesalers Inc. wound up purchasing the chain), and that Variety Wholesalers' current CEO is none other than Bruce Efird, who assumed that position in 2017 and has been with Variety ever since. Efird was previously CEO of Fred's from 2009 (2007, as president) until November 2014, at which point control of the company transitioned to Jerry Shore, followed quickly by Michael K. Bloom by August 2016.

If you remember from all my previous posts, Fred's reached its peak operating status under Efird's tenure, in the year 2012; and it was during Bloom's tenure that the company began its ill-fated move to go all-in on pharmacy and attempt to get a piece of the pie from the similarly ill-fated Walgreens/Rite Aid merger deal. Clearly, since he spearheaded much of Fred's growth as the company approached its peak, Efird must have a strong knowledge of, and connection to, the towns where Fred's once operated and has now departed, and I'm certain he and the rest of the team at Variety/Roses must be looking closely at the various opportunities arising from Fred's downfall and liquidation.

Other tenants I've seen in various news articles as taking over vacated Fred's buildings range from Harbor Freight Tools, to Goodwill, to a locally-owned furniture store, city offices, an eye doctor, and even a church. If any of the towns somehow don't already have a Dollar General (or Dollar Tree, or Family Dollar), I could absolutely see those retailers being a good fit for former Fred's spaces as well. Additionally, a good number of the Fred's with pharmacy counters have sold their prescription records to the very same pharmacists who used to work for Fred's, who are now embarking on new business ventures and opening independent pharmacies either in the former Fred's buildings or elsewhere in the towns in question. Of course, there will be plenty more announcements, and therefore clarity, concerning new stores occupying old Fred's buildings over the next several months as deals are struck.

To close out this post, I wanted to just briefly share one particularly interesting reuse of a former Fred's. Memphis has had a lot of major stories this year, including, of course, the whole Fred's debacle, but also - elsewhere in the business realm - yet another bankruptcy of a locally-headquartered company, Perkins and Marie Callender's Inc. Happier news came when it was announced that Huddle House will be buying Perkins and will continue to operate the business as a separate entity, but this is still a loss for the city since their Memphis headquarters will be eliminated in favor of Huddle House's Atlanta HQ. Regardless, though, there has been one major piece of good news that has had Memphians flying high all year - NBC's new TV show set in Memphis, Bluff City Law.

Bluff City Law is huge enough to be a post on its own, but since this blog covers retail and not TV shows, I'm going to try and condense it down as best I can here. Long story short, NBC was interested in filming the show in the city in which it is set, but as ever with production on this scale, money is a major concern - and unlike many other states and localities famous for doing so, neither Tennessee nor Memphis has a major film/entertainment incentive program designed to draw in Hollywood folks. However, Memphis is well-known for its persistence and dedication to causes that matter to its residents (some might call this "grit and grind"), and ultimately the EDGE Board (Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis & Shelby County) devised a very unique, nontraditional incentive plan that gave a tax abatement to several existing Comcast-owned properties in the city, with the idea that Comcast, NBC's parent company, could then pass those savings on to the production of Bluff City Law. Comcast/NBC accepted, and Bluff City Law was officially confirmed to film in Memphis, lending the show an air of authenticity. There was just one problem - where to film?

Just as it doesn't have a major film incentive program, Memphis also does not have any production sound stages, which obviously are crucial for the development of a television program. Bluff City Law filmed the courthouse scenes for its first episode inside the Lafayette County Courthouse on the square in Oxford, MS, but obviously this could not be a permanent solution for an entire series intended to be shot locally. Through some location scouting, the crew at the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission ultimately honed in on the Fred's on Summer Avenue, which had been built in the 1950s as Skateland and for a long period of time after that operated as a Fred P. Gattas showroom (no relation to Fred's Inc.). The building's origins as a skating rink meant that it had a large vaulted ceiling, perfect for production purposes. The Commercial Appeal shares more details:

An iconic Memphis skating rink-turned-catalog showroom on Summer Avenue has been transformed into a sound stage and courtroom set for "Bluff City Law," the NBC legal drama currently in production in its namesake city. 
In a resourceful example of the type of "repurposing" necessary if Memphis is to become an active base for filmmakers, the former longtime Fred P. Gattas store and original Skateland building now houses a convincing faux courtroom of gleaming polished wood with trick walls that slide away; a ceiling rigged with huge lights; and a cyclorama image of a supposed Memphis skyline behind a large bank of windows, ensuring that the city will have a visual presence even when much of the action remains indoors. 
The lack of readily available sound stages - secure, soundproof buildings with large interior spaces where sets can be constructed - has long been cited as a drawback in Memphis' attempts to lure film and television production. Leased from building owner GCI (Gattas Children Investments), the new "Bluff City Law" sound stage provides an example of a solution. 
The elegantly curved ceiling - high enough to provide room for the lights, crane and scaffolding of a movie set - is the most distinctive element of the 27,000-square-foot room, originally constructed in the mid-1950s as the city's most impressive roller-skating rink at that time, the original Skateland. 
In 1963, Skateland relocated to its more familiar and longer-lasting location nearby on Old Summer Road. The original building was sold to the Big M company, a discount store chain that converted the roller rink to retail space and expanded the building to 97,000 square feet. 
When Big M went bankrupt, the Fred P. Gattas company bought the building. ... In 1976, the Fred P. Gattas Company catalog showroom opened at the Summer Avenue location. 
[T]he Gattas showroom was closed in 1996. The family retained ownership of the property, however, and leased the space to Fred's Dollar Store and a number of other businesses, christening the six acres of property "Gattas Plaza." 
On May 31, Fred's closed its Gattas-building space, along with most of its stores nationwide. The timing proved fortuitous for film-industry boosters, however, because the next week city officials and producers of "Bluff City Law" announced a financial deal that would enable the series to remain in Memphis, with production on nine episodes starting in late July. (The series pilot had been shot here in March.) 
When Tom Gattas heard the news, he contacted the Film Commission, in case his building might fit the production's needs. It was not entirely a shot in the dark: In the one-year interim between the closing of the Fred P. Gattas Company and the opening of Fred's, director Francis Ford Coppola used the building for some modest sets for his John Grisham adaptation, "The Rainmaker." 
"As soon as we walked in and I saw that vaulted ceiling, I knew that I'd found it," [Film Commissioner Linn] Sitler said. "It was, 'Bingo!'" [Longtime local location scout Martin] Lane confirmed that the site was made-to-order. 
The Gattas building provides a discreet shooting location. From the outside, the building - which still houses several functioning businesses along its strip mall-like western edge - is nondescript. Knowledge Tree, a Gattas-owned school supply company, occupies the opposite side of the structure from the sound stage. 
The "Bluff City Law" production company leased the sound stage area from the Gattas company for two years, on an agreement to be renewed every six months. Because the space was used for retail, it already was air-conditioned, equipped with a sprinkler system and otherwise "up to code," said [Tom] Gattas, 66. "So they were in there the day after we signed the lease."

So far, a $500,000 courtroom set has been constructed inside the building, with a $250,000 judge's chambers to follow. The photos below show some views of the interior of the building - including some glimpses where old Fred's décor can be spotted in the background - many of them courtesy of personnel of WMC Action News 5, Memphis's NBC affiliate, which has obviously been running numerous stories promoting the show and interviewing its actors and actresses, seeing as how the show is set in Memphis, filmed in Memphis, and airs on their very station. (In return, Bluff City Law has also featured WMC Action News 5 on its show.)

The Fred's on Summer Avenue prior to its closure in May 2019. Courtesy Fox 13 Memphis

Fred's post-closure, with filming for Bluff City Law underway indoors. Courtesy The Commercial Appeal

View of the courtroom set, with the judge's bench visible front and center. Series stars Jimmy Smits and Caitlin McGee can be seen on the right of the photo. Behind the judge's bench is a removable wall, beyond which you can make out some of Fred's old blue paint and green stripe on the wall. Courtesy Kontji Anthony, WMC Action News 5 co-anchor, on Facebook

View of the back side of the sound stage constructed inside the former Summer Avenue Fred's. The vaulted ceiling is clearly visible in this image. The old green stripe from Fred's can be seen once again on the wall in the background. Courtesy Facebook

Production crew for the show. The plywood has been placed on top of Fred's old tiled floor, likely for durability and soundproofing purposes. Note how the back side of the set here says "Wild Wall" - that means this wall is movable, depending on the needs of the scene(s) being filmed. Courtesy Facebook

View of the Memphis skyline visible on the other side of the courtroom set's faux windows. Again, more Fred's wall paint can be glimpsed in the far background, beyond the set. Courtesy The Commercial Appeal

UPDATE, 10-16-19: I just recently found this additional photo, which clearly shows the former Fred's pharmacy behind the interview taking place in the foreground. Courtesy Susanne Brunner, KARK 4, on Twitter


I thought that would be a fun, upbeat way to end this post, which otherwise covers the sad news of the demise of Fred's. Fred's Discount Depot was an interesting concept that could have been the future of the chain, but ultimately, it wasn't to be. Still, though, I'm glad I got to experience the lone, short-lived West Memphis store before it, too, got caught up in the company's bankruptcy and liquidation. I'm also happy to see news reports of new tenants taking over former Fred's buildings - including the unique Bluff City Law situation described above! - and hope to hear more good news for the affected towns in the future.

As I said at the top of this entry, I have plenty more Fred's posts set to come your way in the months (and probably years, knowing me!) to come, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for those. (I will continue to try and space them out so as not to bombard you with Fred's post after Fred's post.) And, as always, I've got lots of other content up my sleeve as well, including another post tonight with some big news - please check that out, too, and check back often for more! Until next time, then... farewell, Fred's; and to the rest of you, have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are :)

Retail Retell


  1. Fred's Discount Depot was certainly an interesting concept. It's a shame it was never able to go much further, as it would have been interesting to see the company evolve and potentially have stores reopen with the new concept. I feel bad for the people who worked at the Darien, GA store, as there were a lot of conflicting messages going on there!

    I also find the fan with its original price tag from Lowe's funny. I know at places like Ollie's and TJMaxx (who do the our price/their price thing on the labels), people sometimes aren't convinced with how accurate the "original price" is and how much the savings really are. With the original tag, hey, there's the proof! :)

    And as for the weird "fevey maehf amitfdh" sweater, some intensive Googling led me to discover that sweater is a somewhat popular one with teenagers in Asia. The words on the sweater are in Urdu, but I haven't been able to pull an exact meaning as to what "fevey maehf amitfdh" translates to in English. Individually, Google Translate shows fevey means "Fee", maehf means "stuff", and amitfdh means "upright". Running the entire chain of words together the translations I'm getting are "Very Confused" and "Only Amateurs". I don't know anything about Urdu to give anymore insight into the exact translation of "fevey maehf amitfdh" though. But if you wanted to be trendy in Korea, you should have bought that sweater!

    1. I agree. It would have been a little strange - not sure the new concept would have been as useful to the small towns as the old Fred's - but it was a way to keep the company open, at least. Too bad it didn't work out. And yes, the Darien store is a particularly upsetting situation! Thankfully the prescription records were at least sold to the pharmacists, and they'll remain operational in the same building.

      Ha, yes, what an ingenious method! Obviously not laziness on their part, no way XD

      Wow, that's some intensive Googling indeed! I'm impressed :P Thanks for going to all that trouble... I think! Whichever the actual meaning is, the "Very Confused" certainly applies to me :P

    2. That's good to hear about the Darien store!

      And no problem! I find intensive Googling to be fun :) If "Very Confused" is what the designers were going for, the sure got that one spot on!

  2. This certainly does look like an interesting place, even if it seems like somewhere I would very much hate to shop at :) Those initial pictures of the "Closeout Bonanza" place look particularly unpleasant, and the pricing strategy, though certainly innovative, sounds even more bizarre. But it would have been quite interesting to see either concept roll out more broadly, and particularly nice if it meant Fred's was able to stay around.

    I've gotten that "who do you work for" thing several times in stores, and always found it bizarre, as what professional photographer would use an iPod Touch?? But I have heard recently that some stores send employees around to competitors to check out their pricing (which seems rather bizarre in this age of massive corporate entities and internet shopping, but whatever...), which may be why the employee in your case was so concerned about price tags.

    1. Ha! Yeah, this type of shopping isn't really my style, either. That said, it must be popular around here - we have a lot of closeout stores. There's even one local outlet with two DeSoto County stores that's exactly like Fred's Closeout Bonanza, with a salesfloor full of just bins of random merchandise and prices that drop each day on the contents. (We also have a separate store called Discount Depot!) Like I said in my other comment, I'm not so sure this would have been as useful to shoppers as the traditional Fred's (although one could argue since they're going out of business, they weren't that useful even in their usual state!), but it's very interesting to know that Alden actually seemed to put a lot of effort behind experimenting this concept, and of course I absolutely agree that it would have been nice had it meant Fred's survived.

      LOL! A lot of lease listings I see seem to have had their photos taken with iPhones, so you're not far off :) Anyway, yep, that's what I figured she was thinking - that I was sent by a competitor. I knew that was a thing, but must agree, it sounds almost old-fashioned these days!

  3. Cool that you were able to experience the short-lived (and therefore, ultra-rare) Fred's Discount Depot concept! Sad of course that the company wasn't able to pull it off though. And Lol concerning the dates explantaion, seeing how every one ends in "...not a safety date!" :P Funny also how the different closeout stores treat this issue: Ollie's strives not to sell anything outdated (and I'm thinking Big Lots is the same way?), while at Burnsville Dollar Wise you can just go ahead and assume the vast majority of the products are outdated, some of them quite severely outdated in fact! (Learned the hard way from Dollar Wise: if it's more than 3 or 4 months out of date, there's a really good chance it will taste dull and stale, and possibly not look all that appetizing either) :P

    Also interesting story about Bluff City Law utilizing that old Fred P. Gattas building! While I haven't seen the show, I would imagine it would hold my interest better than the final season of The Good Place. Sadly, for the most part, the first few episodes of that show just make it seem like it's going for one season longer than it really should have :( But in order not to end on a bad note, in amongst all the seemingly rehashed Good Place storylines and concepts, a few really good jokes and sight gags pop up every now and then!

    1. Thanks! And I agree. As for the dates, I believe you're right. Went to the Olive Branch Fred's today, and they had several out of date items as well, likely from the same purchasing agreement that would have become the company's full focus had it continued. Also discovered that there's a slight chance a second Fred's Discount Depot may have opened (in Red Bay, AL), although I can't find any true confirmation on that.

      Sorry to hear you're not liking it as much this season! I wish I could compare to Bluff City Law for you, but I've only seen the first episode of that show. Looks like they're all free on the NBC website for now though, so I need to check out the others soon.


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