While the giant chains battle for business, quirky little Rodman's keeps its customers happy with gourmet imports and discount microwave ovens - not to mention the Very Extensive Incontinence Department
A SIXTYISH BLONDE IS heading across the Rodman's parking lot toward her metallic-pink Lincoln with Florida handicapped license plates.
Dressed in a yellow jogging suit and gold cha-cha heels, she pushes her shopping cart, overflowing with bulging plastic bags, to the car and deftly hurls the bags into the expansive trunk. There is some spillage --
a four-pack of Charmin and a quart of Pride of Hungaria strawberry preserves roll out of their bags and onto the floor of the trunk.
She turns when approached, then blanches when she hears there will be a story about frequent Rodman's shoppers. "Oh, you don't want to talk to me," she barks in a voice from a Woody Allen movie. "I hardly ever shop here."
RODMAN'S DISCOUNT FOOD AND DRUG. THE name has no special cachet. The main location on upper Wisconsin Avenue -- tucked among banks, a movie theater and Gawler's, the funeral home where D.C.'s rich and famous are laid out -- is no prize. The no-frills ambiance -- buckets of 59-cent flip-flops, jammed narrow aisles, tacky hand-lettered signs and products displayed in open cartons -- poses no threat to Nordstrom. But this wacky little outpost known for its slashed prices and offbeat offerings has a loyal cadre of customers who may or may not admit they shop there.
With all the charm of a Magruder's supermarket, the sophisticated comestibles of a Sutton Place Gourmet and the matter-of-fact price-consciousness of Syms, Rodman's is a drugstore that thinks it's a department store. It's also an appliance discounter, a beer and wine store and a place to run to for a fast quart of milk. It stocks enough toilet paper to make a Muscovite cry; customers claim the macadamia nuts are cheaper than in Honolulu. But how the hell do you get your shopping cart down the escalator to the lower level? (More on that later.)
Open every day of the year, Rodman's has been dubbed "the Filene's of Foodies." Exotic olive oils and chutneys stand cheek-by-jowl with enema bags, ostomy germicides and Dragon Lady fake nail kits. The mundane to the sublime.
It's where Mamie Eisenhower bought her lipsticks, where Sugar Ray Leonard has an occasional prescription filled, and where, at one time, George and Barbara Bush stopped by once in a while to stock up on essentials. Local Hungarians are mad for Rodman's pickles and preserves, the Russians hoard the store's Danish mussels-in-water, and thrifty Washington Cave Dwellers stop in for cases of Schweppes, a few boxes of water biscuits and a refill of Valium. A generation of college students have bought their hair dryers and their Trojans at Rodman's. And more than one mesmerized shopper has come by to pick up some razor blades and left with a $229 VCR.
What brings the fast-lane types to this mad emporium of miscellany along with the coupon clippers and the penny pinchers?
Its baffling mix of merchandise, of course, and those prices.
In the every-other-Tuesday advertising circular that highlights its best buys and special purchases, Rodman's brings its message to the masses.
"Our motto is, 'What items will we put on the front page to get the customers to leave the throne?' " says Rodman's czar and founder, Leonard Rodman. "We specialize in items people need. The question we ask ourselves is, 'Are people going to get off the toilet for it?' "
Can this man be serious? And in the button-down, uptight world of Washington retailing, is this any way to run a $35 million business?
LEONARD RODMAN, 67, A WEATHERED SAGE OF DISCOUNT retailing, has been in the local pharmaceutical business since 1947. The Shecky Greene of borscht and beauty aids, Rodman, who usually has a Churchill-size cigar clamped in his mouth, may challenge you to an arm-wrestling match minutes after he meets you. Forty years ago, he set out to get on the nerves of the large drugstore chains. And now he is trying to do the same to Giant Food and Safeway. He's had his ups and downs, and he's watched giants like Dart and its successor, Fantle's, stumble and fall. But he keeps on plugging, and he's proud of the legacy he's created, which now includes a second generation of Rodmans and an enviable $1,000 in sales per square foot, more than twice the chain-drug-industry average, at his flagship store.
These days Rodman's team consists of three thirtysomething honchos -- Leonard Rodman's sons, Roy and Yale, plus Richard Ennen, top gun in buying the store's food, seasonal items, household goods and appliances. And his mini-empire consists of six locations where they ring up the $35 million a year in sales -- small potatoes when compared with Peoples, and its roughly 800 stores, or the mammoth Rite Aid, and its 2,400 stores, both with sales around $1 billion.
But the Rodman's story really isn't about size, it's about personality. And the facts, as dispensed by Leonard Rodman, don't deliver the experience of the 12,000-square-foot Wisconsin Avenue flagship store. Because as local airwaves personality Jerry Strong used to pitch on radio back in the 1960s, "Between Harrison and Garrison, there is no comparison."
YOU DRIVE INTO THE PARKing lot in back of the Wisconsin Avenue store, which pulls in 45 percent of the company's sales, and you notice a Wobbly WASP in a silk dress wheeling her White Cloud and Stoned Wheat Thins to her car. The lot is packed, but you wedge your vehicle in next to a Cadillac illegally parked in a handicapped spot. Two huge trucks are unloading cases of Bounty and Diet Coke. Your pulse quickens. As you enter the store, you see Day-Glo signs announcing the specials on some of the 30,000 products Rodman's stocks. Sometimes sales are announced on the loudspeaker over the din of scraping shopping carts.
Here are the necessities of life -- and a few extras -- priced to move. Earplugs, electric knife sharpeners and pasta. Cajun hot pepper sauce. Oriental rugs at $14.99. Silk ties suitable for shiny suits, $9.99.
Now comes the tough part. You are finished touring the upper level and your cart is half full. You realize that although this is billed as a drugstore, so far, you have seen no drugs. You need some Advil. Oh, no. You have go to downstairs, where they hide the walkers and trusses and microwaves. But the sign reads "NO STROLLERS OR ROLLING BASKETS ON ESCALATORS." So what do you do? Do you try and squeeze the cart down and pray no one is looking? Or do you leave your precious cargo -- that last box of Posh Puffs -- unguarded while you scout the basement? The answer is obvious from the jumble of shopping carts left to graze at the head of the "up" escalator, waiting for their rightful owners.
Once downstairs, watch out. You might be walking happily through the deodorant and shaving cream department and, suddenly, it's like the supply room at Sibley -- canes, walkers, Ace bandages. And here comes the Very Extensive Incontinence Department. Just keep walking. You'll be back in coffees and Ultra Slim-Fast soon.
"Mohamed, Line One." Rodman's employs more than 300 people, 100 in the Wisconsin Avenue store, and most of their names are called over the store intercom at least once a day. They are Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. They are Cambodian, Ghanaian, Israeli, Jamaican, Mexican and Vietnamese. The night manager, Sharan Singh, sports a blue turban. One week someone may be on the front line defending his village in Afghanistan, the next week he may be stacking bottles of Quibell water at Rodman's.
This international mix is also reflected in the merchandise. Some loyal shoppers are convinced that Rodman's is single-handedly propping up the economy of Eastern Europe. Or that the crafty Rodman's gang regularly intercepts tractor-trailer loads of pickled eggs and Romanian marinated artichokes intended for shops in Budapest and Prague.
There can also be stacks of smoked oysters from the Philippines -- slightly lethal-looking but so cheap it's silly not to stock up.
"That's the secret -- in Rodman's there is a special light that makes everything look like such a good buy," says one longtime shopper. "There's the canned beef that you never eat, and the herring in mustard sauce that you can't stand. Half the city of Washington has something from Rodman's in the cupboard that looked like a great idea at the time but nobody has touched it since. It has that unmistakable Rodmanesque feel."
"IS THAT THE ONLY CLOSE-OUT YOU CAN OFFER ME?"
The Rodman's boys play "Let's Make a Deal" from a warren of smoked-filled rooms in an office building next door to the Wisconsin Avenue store. Trump Tower it ain't.
"We're a maverick outfit," says Leonard Rodman. "We govern by crisis."
The empire's command center is decorated with dusty plastic plants, stained carpeting, boxes overflowing with file folders and lots of dirty ashtrays. The same dead rose has been sitting in its vase on top of a storage cabinet for months. The coat rack holds one powder-blue sports jacket. Rodman's office is lined with trophies and community award plaques. A broken clock, perpetually at 10:41, says "It's Hoover Savings Time." Te-Amo cigar ashes dot the desk. Rodman is unfazed when he spills an open bottle of Texas mineral water over some invoices.
He does business informally and gives virtuoso phone. "Rodman," he says, picking up a call, then transferring it with one of his "Mohamed, Line One" announcements over the store intercom.
Rodman graduated from the University of Maryland in 1943 with a BS in pharmacy. He pulls out a cracked picture of the 1943 boxing team, of which he was a star member. Rodman eventually went on to fight two pro fights and won both by knockouts. He retired undefeated in 1944. (He maintains an active interest in boxing -- he has invested in a rising heavyweight named Riddick Bowe.)
He takes a phone call from someone trying to sell him 2,040 cases of Enfamil baby formula. He listens to the offer. "How does that compare with list?" he asks the caller. He turns the caller down.
A salesman pops in. "I want to say hello to Mr. Big. Look how casual it is here. He has no tie on. I can come right in. In other chains, we wait for two hours to see somebody." The salesman may be performing for Rodman's benefit, but there's truth in what he says.
In the Washington area, stores are frequently owned by national giants, their strategies mapped out by the big boys in New York (Bloomingdale's) or Chicago (Raleighs) or even Seattle (Nordstrom). Even at smaller store chains (like the Gap), the teenagers who tend shop know lots about their overtime and benefits, very little about real, old-time retailing.
That's not Rodman's. "We have the ability to move in and out of fields and pick hot categories," says the cherub-faced Richard Ennen. "We can get into obscure categories and expand."
And they can make good and effective use of what retailers call "loss leaders," the items priced to get people into the store, items that may not generate any profit at all. Rodman is the first to admit that not every item in the store sells at the lowest price in town. "Otherwise we would be out of business," he points out.
RODMAN BEGAN PRACTICING PHARMACY IN BALTIMORE AND after a year came to Washington to work for his uncle Morris Rodman with his cousin Al Pearlman. The drugstore was called McReynold's and was at 18th and G streets NW. He and his cousin bought their uncle out in 1948. They then began discounting cosmetics, perfumes and vitamins, maverick pricing behavior that got them threatened with expulsion by the Washington Pharmaceutical Association. Rodman threatened suit and it backed down.
The first store with the Rodman's name opened in 1958, a few blocks from the current Wisconsin Avenue location. "Discounting was a nasty word," says Rodman. "Our competitors claimed we sold outdated merchandise." But the concept took off.
He picks up the ringing phone. "I take the apology," he says, then slams down the receiver.
Says Yale Rodman, "Dad's a real competitor. He has this combination of toughness and friendliness. But even after he mauls you, you like him."
In 1965, a bad fire at the original location destroyed the store. Herbert Haft, founder and then owner of the competing Dart Drug chain, called Rodman. "Leonard, what can I do to help you?" said Haft. "You can use any one of my stores to fill prescriptions. Just keep track of what you use." Says Rodman, who took him up on the offer until he found a temporary location, "We did it for a week. Everyone puts the knock in for him. I won't ever forget his act of friendship."
In the 1970s, there were a dozen Rodman's stores, all franchised. The idea bombed. "We could have been the McDonald's of the drug business, if not for the lack of organization and other shortcomings," says Rodman.
But they plugged on, and Rodman has loved every minute of it.
"This business is like an athletic contest. The bottom line is always challenging. We have to deal with competition, landlords, natural elements and the changing moods of our customers. And we have to move with the times. So what's not to have fun?"
Another call. "I'm very good, thank you. So, whaddya wanna sell me?"
"WOULD THE MOTHER OR FATHER OF SIDNEY PLEASE COME to the Wisconsin Avenue entrance. He is waiting for you."
You imagine Mom or Dad back in the chocolate department, mulling over the Almond Roca and Lindt truffles.
"Our customers have personality," says Roy Rodman.
There are people who have to stretch their dollar, lots of people who are cheap and others who just like weird foods. Dads who sneak away every Saturday morning and pick up their Pampers, their Coors and their Drano and charge everything on Visa. Europeans who load up on Edelweiss Red Cabbage and Di-Gel.
Says Roy Rodman, "Some shoppers come in with a list of four items and end up spending $80 on a cartful. Our most sought-after items are those that people use daily. What is our strategy? What will get people out of their homes and into Rodman's? What will get them off their butts and into our store? Cereals, sodas, waters, coffees, sunscreen, mouthwash -- whatever it takes.
"Some people love the hubbub and excitement. Some people prefer the department store ambiance. I want to win these people over, but the sheer traffic can be a turnoff. The ones that are really energized by it are the real Rodman's shoppers."
Rodman's shoppers are loyal. Washington native Margo Kranz, now 30, remembers browsing at Rodman's before her orthodontist appointments in the early 1970s, and she still has a hairbrush she bought there back then. Northwest resident Christina Sprague remembers the day 12 years ago that her roommate moved out. "I went into Rodman's to buy some shampoo and ended up replacing the TV set that she had taken with her. It still works."
Leonard Rodman loves to move about among "his people." Dressed in one of the brown sports jackets with jaunty pocket squares he is partial to, he stops a customer with a wrist splint and identifies himself by pulling out a wad of $20 bills and credit cards held together by a rubber band. He shows her his name on a charge card and discusses the store's splint selection. He then arm-wrestles a stockman on a stack of cases of Proud Mary Bloody Mary Mix.
Richard Ennen ambles through the store, stopping to rip open a package of Confetteria Raffaello Coconut Cocos, a hot new candy confection. He starts passing them around to surprised customers. That may not be the way things are done at Safeway, but Ennen clearly takes his cues from the ebullient Rodman.
Ennen has a photographic memory for prices. He spends some of his free time combing the aisles of Sutton Place Gourmet, Larimer's, Giant Gourmet. He claims that the employees of la-di-da Sutton Place shop at Rodman's in their off-hours. And so, he says, do people who make up pricey gourmet food bas- kets. Which may explain why at Christmas, Rodman's sells 16,000 boxes of Italian panettone cake and 24,000 boxes of Ferrero Rocher hazelnut candy.
The time Ennen has put in at those upscale fancy-food shops may have paid off in another way. The offbeat food products are not all exotica from Eastern Bloc countries. There are expensive almond biscuits and premium ready-to-use packaged plum tomatoes from Italy, fancy French biscuits and ready-to-fry pappadums from India.
But Ennen does have bombs. Like Vita Fiber, something to put over your cereal that looked like rabbit food and tasted like wheat germ. Ennen bought 168 cases. Then there were radon test kits. A big fat bomb.
A DRIPPY SATURDAY FINDS 75 PEOPLE HUDDLED AROUND open cartons of merchandise in the Rodman's parking lot. What's this, the leftovers of Garfinckel's liquidation?
No. It's Rodman's annual "sidewalk" sale, at which Ennen and the Rodmans unload those less-than-successful "bargains." Jean Dolfis lives nearby and comes every year. She is wearing a trash bag on her head against the rain and clutching two ironing board covers ($1 each) and several vacuum bags (50 cents each). Whatta deal.
It's like a yard sale. People poke through the Scotch-Brite toilet bowl scrubbers, flea and tick powders, the aloe body lotions, the crimping irons.
There are Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian, ladies in saris, yuppies in Saturday's Generation outfits, seniors in Sansabelt slacks.
And then there's the very tanned gentleman in a white shirt and black pants going through a carton of hair mousse and gels, picking out bottles and jars. He is Brad Winebrenner, a funeral director and embalmer at Gawler's Funeral Home, just up the street.
Winebrenner goes to Rodman's every day. "I usually can find everything I need here," he says, clutching a handful of bottles. "For home or work."
For work? "Different kinds of soap and hair and nail items," he adds.
And perhaps that, more than anything, is proof that Rodman's creative merchandise mix may be as helpful in the next world as it is in this.
Jura Koncius is a writer for The Post's Washington Home section.