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One of Fastest-Growing Chains in U.S. : Whole Earth Access Stores Are 'Bargain Basement' for Yuppies

May 19, 1986|VICTOR F. ZONANA | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Counterculture capitalist Larry Farb likes to think of his Whole Earth Access stores as "Bloomingdale's without the frills."

His brother and partner Gene sees them as "the Nordstrom of hard goods."

A more apt description might be "K marts for yuppies."

Whatever they're likened to, the three Whole Earth Access stores in the San Francisco Bay Area constitute one of the fastest growing--and most unusual--retailing phenomena in the nation. Sales this year are expected to top $35 million, up from $25 million in 1985 and just $15 million in 1984. That's not bad for an outfit that began by peddling wood stoves, grain mills and other gear for "alternative life styles" from a 1,000-square-foot store that the Farbs took over in 1978.

Packed floor to ceiling with everything from IBM PCs to Jockey underwear at bargain-basement prices, the cavernous warehouses are one-stop shopping emporiums for the yup-and-coming set. Young professionals with a passion for quality pack the stores on weekends, picking and choosing from a dazzling array of discounted name-brand merchandise. There are Sony video cameras and Wolf ranges, Vuarnet sunglasses and Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls. There are Krups espresso makers and Maytag washers, Adidas, Nikes and Reeboks. There are books and bookshelves, TVs and stereos, power tools and kitchen gadgets, trendy furniture and natural fiber clothing.

"We've grown up with our customers," explains Larry Farb. "The person who bought wood stoves in the '70s is buying cappuccino makers today."

Customers say they seek out the stores--despite their remote locations--for their reasonable prices and knowledgeable, low-key salespeople. "The products are comparable to the big department stores, but the prices are much better," says Yolando Polanco, a technician who assists animal researchers.

Remote Locations

Polanco ventured to Whole Earth Access in Berkeley--tucked away in the city's industrial district--one recent weekday to buy an Olympia typewriter for $200, "the exact same model Macy's had for $300," she says. She promptly turned around and invested her savings on a vacuum cleaner and a citrus juicer.

The stores' attractive displays and their remote locations seem to encourage such impulse buying. "Once you come down here, you aren't likely to go somewhere else," notes Gene Farb, who points out that the Berkeley store and its sisters in San Francisco and Marin County are all located in industrial areas. Partly as a result, he says, the average store sale exceeds $100.

Expansion of the stores' merchandise base has followed their clientele's buying habits, says Gene Farb. "If our customers are going to buy computers, why shouldn't we sell computers?"

Earlier this year, Whole Earth opened a 10,000-square-foot annex dedicated to computers and electronics equipment across the street from its main 30,000-square-foot store in Berkeley. As in the main store, Whole Earth's unobtrusive salespeople keep customers coming back.

"I like the prices and the attitude of the people on the floor," says Dennis Dillon, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley who is shopping around for a new television and came to Whole Earth after being turned off by the high-pressure sales tactics of the big electronics chains. "They're here if you need help, but they're not constantly hassling you."

Manufacturers--including those who usually shy away from discounters because they worry about cheapening their image--share the customers' enthusiasm. IBM selected Whole Earth as an authorized outlet for its personal computers just before the company froze its number of authorized dealers.

"I wish all my accounts were as good as Whole Earth," says Sean O'Brien, a sales representative for Sony's hi-fi and audio division. "They do a phenomenal job for me.

"Their salespeople are sharp. Unlike a lot of audio dealers, they take the time to read product manuals. They work hard to make their customers come back. They don't bait and switch like a lot of other retailers. They depend on good word of mouth."

The strategy has allowed the company to pare advertising expenses and pass the savings along to customers. The company also keeps overhead down with its out-of-the way locations and lack of fancy store fixtures.

Despite the company's growth, Whole Earth Access remains very much a family affair. Management duties are split among the Brooklyn-born Farb brothers and their wives. Gene, 40, handles electronics and photographic merchandise, while Larry, 37, oversees hardware and appliances.

Popular Catalogue

Laura Katz, 35, who is married to Larry, runs the housewares and clothing departments, and Gene's wife, Toni Garrett, 39, handles book sales and mail order.

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