TIFTON — Local retailer The Big Store was recently recognized in “MR magazine” for being open for more than 100 years.
According to Phil Perlis, who co-owns The Big Store with his wife Susan, Peerless Clothing and MR magazine came up with the idea to honor businesses that had been around for over 100 years. Phil said that MR magazine is well-respected and Peerless Clothing is a giant in the menswear world.
“Anytime someone honors you for any reason in our industry is unique,” said Phil.
A Family Rooted In Hard Work, Education
The ownership of the store has reached the fourth generation with Phil and Susan. The retail part of the store started with Ike Perlis selling merchandise from a wagon around the turn of the century. According to the Big Store’s website, the Perlis’ original store was in Cordele, and was started by Phil’s great-grandfather, Ike, and his only son, Isadore.
“In 1910, the family bought The Big Store, which had started as a low-end general store,” the website states. “In 1946, Isadore formed a partnership with his three sons: Lamar, Louis and Marvin and incorporated the business in 1951 as I. Perlis & Sons, Inc., which still exists today. The Cordele store burned down in 1955 and a decision was made to relocate to Tifton.
“Marvin came to Tifton to help with the re-open in its new location, and stayed in Tifton to run the business. Marvin soon married Lynette Hankin from Dublin, Ga. and together they worked for over fifty years to evolve the business into what it is today.”
When it came to choosing Tifton as the location for the store, Phil said that as immigrants to America, speaking with broken English, Tifton was one of the few areas that there was commerce to be done. “It was the one area where they were welcome, and with hard work and with high work ethics that they were generally accepted in those small communities,” he said.
“I will say in most communities, most of the immigrants were here without secondary educations. They had to learn to read and write and the family taught them, not the school systems back then. As they provided goods and services to their community, they assimilated well into their small communities. And I know that’s true on the Perlis family and I never knew my great-grandaddy, but my grandfather, he ended up with a third grade education. He might have been the one of the smartest men I ever knew, but it was self taught.”
Phil said that Isadore was “an unbelievable avid student of reading of everything, newspapers, novels to the day he died.” That mentality has lasted through the generations.
“You look through the recipients of these awards, there is a couple of common things you are going to see,” said Phil “The majority of the families that have this, if you look at their heritage, most of them were immigrants to America during that time period when the stores were first started.” He said that the linage of those families is definitely multi-generational, within the families or from employees that ended up with the business. “The second theme I see in this entire process is the importance of education, whether it’s the school of hard knocks or the Ivy League schools or trade schools,” said Phil.
“I have an 83-year old mother that I speak to every day. She and my father worked in this store everyday for over 40 years. Every day that I speak to her, she asks what went on in the store, who came in.” said Phil. “My father is completely deaf, so I can’t have those conversations with him, but still they want to know everyday about their customers. When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. It’s a lifestyle, it’s with a lot of pride.”
Phil said that family businesses are still important, pointing out businesses like Bowen-Donaldson Funeral Home, PlantTel, the Branch family who owns Curtis Packing, and Turner Furniture. “When you look at these things, it is unusual for a third generation to make it, to succeed.” he said “I’m fourth generation here. My children have worked in this store their whole lives before graduating college.”
Where Employees Are Family And Relationships Matter
The Big Store has around 20 employees and a few have been with the store for over 25 years and others for over 30 years. Three were classmates with Phil.
Phil says when you spend that many years together, employees become family.
“I can’t imagine walking into work everyday and not having this type of relationship with my fellow employees,” he said. “It would be very unnatural to my wife and I. With several of these [employees], it is in their blood, they take as much pride in this business. You can’t buy loyalty like this. Without them this store would not be in existence. We have a lot of customers that feel the same way.”
Phil said many of their customers are families that are shopping in the store through the third and fourth generation.
Phil recalled a story where Steve and Rhonda Dixon from Alapaha sent him a text with a picture of a check receipt that their grandfather had bought tobacco cloth in the 1940s.
With families, “their parents shop with us, their child shop with us,” said Phil.
“The best part about my business is the people we serve. It’s the relationship with our customers and our vendors. It’s the relationships, period. It’s my favorite thing I can say about this. It’s not how much money you are selling or how much merchandise we sell in a day or how much money we take in in a year. It’s the relationships,” said Phil.
“There is not a better feeling in the world than somebody walks in and shows us pictures from a wedding or from life events, whether its weddings, funerals, interviews. They share with us how confident, comfortable they felt in the products that we assisted them with. That’s a daily thing. That’s the biggest reward of all, when they come back and thank you for helping them.”
One of those times when the customer thanked Phil was when a young man came in with his mother. He had recently applied to either a medical school or a dental school. It was the young man’s second or third time going to interview and his mother had asked Phil to dress him appropriately for the interviews. Phil had asked how the young man had dressed previously.
“He was very bright, smart young man, but his sense of dressing for these events, he didn’t have all the confidence he should have had. And we got through and I gave him some interview tips and so forth,” Phil said, “And I said please when you get through, share your story with me. When he came back, he got his position in medical school, [was] offered a position there and took it, and thanked me. He said it was the first time in four interviews that…he didn’t worry about the way he was dressed. That he knew, just like he knew he was prepared scholastically, he was also prepared with his confidence. That was just a huge reward for me.”
Responding To COVID-19
Currently the Big Store is now back open, but is taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. It is providing masks and hand sanitizers to customers as they walk in the door. Hourly, employees clean doorhandles, telephones, bathrooms and armrests, anywhere customers are touching. They are wiping down areas with Clorox wipes. Any merchandise that is tried on is re-steamed with a steam set to around 200 degrees. Any merchandise that is returned is re-steamed and held out of The Big Store’s inventory before it is returned back to the store.
“Our doors are open and the customers that are coming in are very few, but they are coming because there is a need,” said Phil. “People that are buying in our store right now, this isn’t a hobby or a pastime, there’s a need.”
According to Phil, these needs can be things like someone’s size has changed, they need replacements of work shoes, or have an interview or need a suit for a funeral.
Phil says that one Saturday during the shutdown, he got a phone call from a man from Coffee County. The man’s young son, a Marine, passed away and he needed some clothes for the funeral. Phil arranged to meet the man at the store on a Saturday. As he unlocked the door, some of their regular customers, one by one, knocked on the door and asked if they could come in.
“They went and they served themselves, I did not help them one bit,” said Phil. “One of them found the shoes she needed, another one went over here and found his own work boots, and got him some work clothes. I never had any interaction except to tell them ‘Hello. Glad to have you,’”
Phil said he locked the door behind them and they shopped almost with no interaction.
“That’s how at home they felt with us. That’s the highest compliment they could serve us. And I hope that our customers feel the same about us.”
Phil said the landscape of retailing is in flux right now, and not just because of the coronavirus.
“I think in today’s world with these new internet companies or web-based companies, this whole next generation coming through here, there’s still a need,” he said. “It’s still a people business….the interaction between the customers and the stores, there’s still a need for face to face. Not everything can be ordered from a Zappos or an Amazon. There is more to this type of product than buying a pack of batteries.”
Phil said without the customers, the Big Store would not have lasted as long as it has. “That our customers have been so great to us and honor us, everyone that has graced our doors, it is an honor for them to walk in, whether they make a purchase or not,” he said. “But we’re still old-school. It’s not like ordering a Happy Meal here at the Big Store. Our employees interact to help and serve our customers. And how fortunate we are that this store was located in Tifton and this area of Georgia. The merchandise is not the most important asset, it is our employees. Just as important asset is our customers.”
Phil said that supply chains have been very interrupted during the pandemic, and with little commerce, the pandemic will flush out weak organizations, but that stronger companies with stronger balance sheets and quality merchandise will do good. “It’s a hiccup,” he said. “But it will also encourage our consumers and our merchandisers and our stores and our retail establishments to break some our alliances with so many China-based manufactures.”
‘Shopping Small Helps Us All’
When it comes to inventory, Phil said the Big Store tries to use North American manufacturers every chance they get.
“Unfortunately it is not enough of us, but there’s still footwear and there’s socks, there’s belts, there’s tailored clothing that I am proud to say is made in America when I can,” he said.
Phil said when it comes to being a better consumer, don’t believe everything you read and see on the internet. He encourages others to go touch and feel the product, whether they are buying a rug, a suit or a dress.
He also said it’s important to have confidence and trust in the person or organization selling to you.
“If they’re good, they’ve done their homework on the product. They feel that is a great value for the money or they would not have it on their shelves,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times during a prom season and wedding season where people order directly from China, their suits or their dresses, and how they come to us to bail them out because what was delivered to them was not what they thought they were ordering.“
“Shopping small helps us all. That’s been my new logo,” said Phil. “The dollars that are spent in your area or your state stay in your area and your state. Not only for payroll but for taxes raised. Don’t complain when the library runs out of funds or there’s pot holes or that the school system can’t provide computers or textbooks for the teachers. Shopping small help us all. That’s what funds our local school systems, our government, our roads.”
“We’re trying to buy some staple products for sanitizing and bathrooms and printer ink — we’re buying it local. I don’t ask price first, I ask who’s got it first. It’s the local merchants that are selling these products, I’m buying from them, whether it’s over at Citizen’s [Hardware] or Short and Paulk and Tifton Office Supply, whatever it is. I’m trying to spend my money locally first. I preach shop locally to my customers so I need to do the same thing. It’s important to us all.”
The Big Store is located at 346 Main St.