Naked plastic hangers dangled in long rows like windblown cornstalks stripped of their grain in what used to be the women's department of the Woolco store on Route 1 south of Alexandria.
Coathangers were about all that was left Saturday and they were for sale: seven for $1.
The piles of ice skates looked interesting until you tried to match up a pair the same size and style. Oil filters for Subarus or some such car, a rats' nest of radiator hoses and a very nice selection of auto registration holders struggled for attention in the automotive department. Mis-mixed paint, mis-matched shoes, misanthropic clerks--some choice.
The security guards were superfluous. What remained of a $1 million plus inventory was barely enough to put on a good garage sale. Like suburbanites willing to take any offer so long as they don't have to haul the stuff back to the basement, Woolco workers were pleading for someone to buy what was left.
"All right shoppers, we're going to be closing early this afternoon, so make your selections now," the familiar voice echoed over the public address system.
Instead of blue light specials, he was offering to sell anything in the store for less than a buck. "Choose any item priced at more than $3 and we will mark it down to $3 and then take your 70 percent off," promised the voice from the ceiling. Let's see, that's 70 percent off $3--90 cents for anything you want.
But 90 cents was not cheap enough. The offer barely roused the gleaners picking their way through the piles of polyester bargain blouses and Hong Kong double-knit no-designer dreck.
By Saturday morning, even the smell of popcorn was gone. At 70 percent off, some bargain hunter probably took it home.
No one ever goes out of business gracefully. The Giant Department Stores went down a few years back with as much class as anyone could ask and the Design Store is failing with characteristic style and good taste. Of course Giant had the reputation of its supermarkets to protect and Design Store hopes to emerge from bankruptcy as an upholstered furniture company.
But F. W. Woolworth is burying its discount store business and wants to go home from the funeral with as much of the family fortune as possible. By announcing plans to close all 336 Woolco stores last September and orchestrating its final sale during the Christmas season when consumers are spending freely, Woolco seems to have minimized the damage to its balance sheet.
The same cannot be said of Woolworth's franchise with consumers. First came the foulup of raising the price of some goods before taking final markdowns. Consumer agencies jumped on that mistake, but didn't have much clout over the dying discounter.
The watchdogs slept through the final days of Woolco, ignoring some going-out-of-business sale practices that might have been questioned. Woolco was running ads offering big discounts on televisions, radios and appliances several days after some--if not all--the local stores were sold out of those goods.
It was to avoid leaving such an aftertaste in the mouths of consumers that Lucky Stores Inc. decided on a different plan for closing down its 13 Memco stores here.
Instead of stretching the final days out over almost four months, Memco didn't mess around. Less than three weeks after the surprise announcement Dec. 27, Memco as such is out of business.
Rather than plead for pennies over the last shread of stock, Lucky Stores says it decided to sell all the Memco merchandise to an inventory liquidation firm, a professional scavenger who will then conduct the final sales starting Jan. 21.
Even the ignominious last day of Memco was avoided by abruptly locking out customers on Saturday and closing the stores a day earlier than anyone expected.
But leaving disappointed customers on the doorstep is not a savvy public relations strategy, not when the television cameras are there with them. Not when it gives Memco workers another opportunity to attack the company for taking away their jobs with less than three weeks' notice.
Neither Memco nor Woolco is going to win any prizes for going out of business but then neither of them was exactly a winner when they were in operation.
F. W. Woolworth never did figure out how to run a discount store chain. When its first Woolco stores failed to turn a profit, Woolworth responded by opening more of them and built a $2 billion a year money-losing business.
Memco tried to become the dominant discount chain in the Washington market by clinging to a "membership" approach that has by now been abandoned by everyone else in the industry. Memco blithely maintained that charging a token membership fee and advertising directly to card-carrying customers was the way to build a base of loyal shoppers. Washington's fast-growing, highly transient population never caught on to Memco. Or was it the other way around?