Benny’s to close all 31 stores this year

93-year-old retailer cites aging owners, changing retail landscape

SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) — Iconic Rhode Island retailer Benny’s Inc. will close its doors for good by the end of this year after nearly a century selling Southern New Englanders everything from car parts to shovels, Eyewitness News has learned.

Benny’s President Arnold Bromberg and his siblings, the third generation of their family to run the chain, came to the decision to shut the company down over recent months as they discussed their desire to retire.

The news was being announced to employees Friday afternoon. Gov. Gina Raimondo was informed earlier in the day.

“We take great pride in what our retail stores have meant to our employees and many loyal customers for so long. But it is simply time,” Bromberg said in a statement. Changes in the retail industry have made it “nearly impossible for small, family-owned chains like ours to reasonably compete moving forward,” he said.

The 31 Benny’s stores in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut will all cease operations by the end of December, putting the company’s 715 employees out of work; slightly more than half are full-time. Benny’s owns most of its stores’ land and buildings, and Bromberg said they are fielding offers for the real estate, “with an eye toward future use.”

The privately held company does not disclose sales figures, but Bromberg described the decision to close as “a calculated business decision based on our knowledge of the retail industry and where it is going in the future.”

He added, “That future is not so bright for small, family-owned chains like ours.”

Governor Raimondo said in a statement, “Like all Rhode Islanders, I am heartbroken to learn that Benny’s is closing its doors at the end of the year. The strong connection that Benny’s has forged since its founding in 1924 with its loyal customers cannot be replaced. I thank the Bromberg family and their hardworking employees for their contribution to Rhode Island’s economic and cultural fabric.”

The governor also said the R.I. Department of Labor and Training’s Rapid Response unit has reached out to workers at Benny’s to help.

The Benny’s announcement triggered an immediate outpouring of shock, sadness and nostalgia on social media, from elected officials as well as average citizens.

While Rhode Island has lost many famous retailers over the years — from Shepherd’s and the Outlet Company to Almac’s — the looming disappearance of Benny’s stands out. The store was where many got their first bicycle or backyard swimming pool as a child, and where they went for last-minute Christmas lights or storm supplies as an adult.

“We feel that Benny’s has become part of what makes our small corner of the world so special,” Bromberg said. “We’ll miss our loyal customers and our employees — friends and neighbors — generations of whom have shopped our stores for the past 93 years and have referred to Benny’s as ‘my favorite store.’”

‘It’s really hard’

Yet as Bromberg’s comments indicated, the end of Benny’s is part of a bigger-picture trend dramatically reshaping retailing in the United States, as brick-and-mortar chains struggle to compete with e-retailers, notably Amazon.com, and adjust to changing consumer behavior. Benny’s has a website but has never offered online shopping.

“If you can’t be an omni-channel retailer, it’s really hard,” said Kevin Hively, a former state official who now runs economic-development consultancy Ninigret Partners. “What an omni-channel retailer means is somebody who has physical, who has potentially a web presence – you can buy stuff from them in a lot of different ways. It’s just very hard to do, and the amount of capital to help build that out is not insubstantial.”

Hively said Benny’s appeared to be caught in the middle – not small enough to be a boutique retailer, but not big enough to achieve the economies of scale that some of its competitors could. “It’s hard,” he said.

Hively also noted that many privately held family-owned businesses reach a point where they have to decide what to do as times change and the company’s profit margins shrink, particularly when one generation is ready to step aside.

“I think it’s a tribute to the family and the ownership that they kept this alive as long as they did,” he said.

‘We’ve never had any grandiose plans’

Benny’s was founded in 1924 by Benjamin Bromberg, an Eastern European immigrant, as a single store on Fountain Street in Providence that sold auto parts and radio equipment. “To my customers and the public I pledge the best possible quality and service at most reasonable prices,” Bromberg declared in a Providence Journal ad announcing the store’s opening.

A 1924 ad in the Providence Journal newspaper announces the opening of the first Benny’s story. (credit: Benny’s)

The company grew steadily over subsequent decades, adding more stores in the 1920s, then expanding its selection to include items such as toys and bicycles during the Great Depression, and capitalizing on the postwar consumer boom to widen its footprint into the 1970s. Longtime Warwick Beacon editor John Howell once called the store “as Rhode Island as coffee syrup and Del’s Lemonade.”

In a 2012 interview on Executive Suite, Arnold Bromberg summarized the Benny’s approach. “We try to offer great customer service, and our stores are located in neighborhoods where you can park easily – you can get in, you can get out – you don’t have to wait in a very long line,” he said. (“Unless,” he added, “there’s a blizzard coming.”)

Benjamin Bromberg ran Benny’s until his death in 1965, when the company was taken over by his son, Malcolm Bromberg, who remained at the helm until not long before his own death in 2014, at age 90. Arnold Bromberg and his two siblings, Howard Bromberg and Judith Rosenstein, followed in their father’s footsteps and remain in charge today.

In the 2012 interview, Bromberg said the desire to remain a family business is one reason Benny’s never expanded outside Southern New England. “We want to be able to go to work and get to any of our stores, and get home in the same day,” he said. “We’ve never had any grandiose plans.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook