The universe of value-priced retailing revolves around the star that is Walmart. Target, K-mart, even Kohl’s are major planets. Dollar General and its sister orbs lie a bit farther away. But if there’s an equivalent of Pluto-with its eccentric orbit and uncertain status as a celestial body–it just may be Ollie’s Bargain Outlets.
As a brand, there’s no doubt that Ollie’s is out there. Waaaay out there.
A quick history: The first Ollie’s was opened in Mechanicsburg in 1982 by four partners, Mark Butler, Mort Bernstein, Oliver “Ollie” Rosenberg, and Harry Coverman. Mr. Coverman is credited by the firm with driving its impressive growth for the next 20 years. Ollie’s now describes themselves as the “Mid-Atlantic’s largest retailer of closeout, surplus, and salvage merchandise.”
Take one step into the organized chaos of an Ollie’s store and you immediately sense that this is no ordinary outlet. They both welcome and tease their customers with clever signage. They have no boring mission statements. No mantras to yawn-inducing “value” and “customer satisfaction.” They have mastered a brand of self-deprecating humor with statements like this one: “Our 100 ‘semi-lovely’ stores sell merchandise of all descriptions and some that are beyond description.”
Why would anyone want to buy something that’s beyond description? I don’t know, but I sure want to see what it looks like.
You’ve got to believe they’re having fun with this brand. Some of their stuff is just downright silly, but it all hangs together in a cohesive concept. Ollie’s is a little like a wing nut uncle who really isn’t as cuckoo as he seems, but who won’t stop joking until he makes you smile.
Only a brand that relentlessly makes fun of itself can win points by making fun of their customers as well. “So the bigger the cheapskate you are-the more you save!” says a prominent sign. And in that copy line is the real genius of the brand because it goes straight to the emotional connection with their customers that all brands need to be strong. The Ollie’s brand is a direct appeal to the thriftiness in us all, but it gets there by using humor to say, “Hey, it’s OK to scratch around for a bargain. A cheapskate isn’t cheap. A cheapskate like you is thrifty, smart and has a good sense of humor.” Nobody goes to Ollie’s thinking, “I’m a cool and urbane person.” They think, “I’m frugal. I take the time to find a bargain. I’m shrewd.”
Ollie’s may be crazy, but they’re crazy like a fox, because through all their quips and jibes, they are careful to talk about the name brands you’ll find at their store like Rubbermaid, Ekco, Mattel, or Igloo. You might go to Ollie’s looking for a cheap carpet for the laundry room, but come away with an armful of kitchen utensils, a $25 book for 99 cents, and a pack of deeply-discounted screwdrivers.
Brands that use humor are one thing. Apple’s long running campaign comparing Mac to PC by way of two actors on a white background was hilarious and effective. But Apple/Mac, while appearing hip and unassuming, was only making fun of its indirect competition, Microsoft and its operating systems. They didn’t make fun of themselves, and they certainly didn’t take a shot at their customers.
Ultimately, Ollie’s is a textbook example of how a brand can be different. They’re deliberately downscale. Where Target is “cheap chic,” Ollie’s is “cheapskate.” They’re funny. They’re smart alecs. And while they have moved past the direct influence of their founding partners, they have stayed unwaveringly on message and on concept.
So even though they spell “stationery” two different ways on the same page of their web site, nobody really cares. Ollie’s is about bargains, not spelling and grammar. It’s about “Good stuff cheap!” plus a wink and a poke in the ribs for good measure. Ollie’s built their brand by making it cool to be a cheapskate. And with 100 stores and counting, there seem to be plenty of cheapskates out there who like the idea just fine.