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Shoppers drag their steals by a string at Bargains in a Box

Walk into any one of the six locations of Chicago-area discounter Bargains in a Box, and the thematic obsession with boxes is immediately apparent. There are no shelves – discounted groceries, pharmaceuticals, home appliances and personal care products are heaped into giant storage boxes for customers to rummage through. And instead of shopping carts, customers pull along cardboard boxes on a piece of string. Sometimes with small children in tow.

“It’s a totally different experience. And people think of box stores as a discount and that’s the way I wanted it. You come in and it’s very gut level,” owner Rob Nardick says.

On Tuesday, Bargains in a Box, which started in 2005, opened its newest location in western suburb Villa Park. The town, which has a median household income of $67,065 — 19 percent higher than Illinois’ average — is an upmarket move. Four of its six locations, in Cragin, Humboldt Park, River Grove, and Irving Park, have per capita incomes that are significantly lower than the state. Its fifth, in Wheeling, is also a counterintuitive location for a retailer that asks customers to come to terms with themselves as bargain-basement shoppers.

“We decided not [to open in] affluent, suburban areas, more areas where people appreciate a bargain or need a bargain, but I’ve learned that people come from Oakbrook and Lake Forest and upper-income places,” Nardick says. “Some people need a bargain, other people love a bargain.”

Ann McGill, a marketing professor at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, thinks there’s a market for those who like Bargains in a Box’s “flea market” atmosphere, even if they don’t need to buy body wash at a steep discount. “It also appeals to some sort of story that already exists in your head,” McGill says. “There are treasure hunts and there are hidden signs so yeah, I think it appeals to a certain subset of customers who think it’s fun.”

Most goods in the store are priced according to a color-coded sticker system that designate $1, $2, and 50-cent prices. The most expensive is $10. And Nardick saves on bags — after customers fill their shopping box and check out, they take it with them to their cars. Not that Nardick uses the box-on-a-string setup as a ploy to minimize expenses. “I didn’t do it to save money,” he says. “I did it to invent a new shopping experience.”

But how cheap is too cheap? Paring down a bargain store to the absolute minimum allows the retailer to pass savings along to customers and promotes a relentless focus on discounts, but it also brands Bargains in a Box in a way that might alienate shoppers who are used to more trim and polish and less dragging their purchases along the ground.

McGill says that treasure hunters aside, Bargains in a Box’s branding strategy ultimately targets price-sensitive customers “who would be willing to accept clutter, bad layout, weird shopping cart circumstance.”

“You tend to see things like this happen when the economy is bad and there’s a decent number of buyers who have more time on their hands than they have money,” she says. “So they feel like what they’re doing is a decent deal with the store: ‘Look, I’ll drag this thing around instead of a cart. I’ll box it myself, I’ll paw through the things myself and that’s OK as long as I get a deal.’”