Top 10 Oldest U.S. Retailers

By Christina Zarrello — August 19, 2008

In one of the toughest economic climates in recent memory, it is important to note that many well run companies have survived far worse. These survivors deserve special recognition for their ability to run smart businesses and satisfy customers in all economic conditions. The retailers cited here have weathered previous downturns including the Great Depression, two world wars and the birth of modern retailing.

Retail's oldest survivors have succeeded by developing an enduring brand, giving customers what they want, and adapting to changing conditions. They have also avoided piling up excessive debt, over expanding their store base, and dodged the recent wave of consolidations and retail store closings.

Here is our list of the top-10 oldest retail chains that have been through it all - and have managed to find the winning recipe for longevity and retail success.

1. Brooks Brothers -1818
Brooks Brothers is the oldest surviving men's clothier in the United States. The privately owned company is owned by Retail Brand Alliance, and is headquartered on Madison Avenue in New York City. On April 7, 1818, Henry Sands Brooks opened H. & D.H. Brooks & Co. and in 1870, Brooks' four sons inherited the family business and renamed the company "Brooks Brothers".

2. Lord & Taylor-1826
Lord & Taylor, based in New York, New York, is the oldest upscale department store chain in the United States. Concentrated in the eastern United States, Lord & Taylor is owned and operated by NRDC Equity Partners. NRDC bought the chain from Federated Department Stores in October 2006 as Federated sought to concentrate on the Macy's chain.

3. Macy's - 1858
Macy's, also known as the "world's largest store," is a chain of mid-range American department stores with its flagship store in Herald Square, New York City. The retailer produces the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a well known parade which was started in Newark, New Jersey by L. Bamberger & Co. and has been held on the streets of New York City annually since 1924.

4. A & P - 1859
The only grocery retailer to make the list, A & P was started as The Great American Tea Company, founded by George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman in New York City. It was renamed "The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" in 1870. The company originally focused on the tea business, selling tea by mail order from a storefront in Lower Manhattan. It purchased tea directly from Chinese tea plantations and by 1876 operated 67 stores.

5. Bloomingdales -1861
Bloomingdale's is a chain of upscale American department stores owned by Macy's. Founded by brothers Joseph and Lyman G. Bloomingdale, Bloomies started selling hoop-skirts in their Ladies Notions' Shop on Manhattan's Lower East Side. As the popularity of the hoop-skirt was declining, the brothers opened their East Side Bazaar in 1872 in a small, ordinary row house, selling a variety of garments such as ladies' skirts, corsets, "gent's furnishings", and European fashions.

6. Saks Fifth Avenue - 1867
Saks Fifth Avenue, an upscale American department store was founded by Andrew Saks and incorporated in New York in 1902 as Saks & Company. In 1923, Saks & Co. merged with Gimbel Brothers, and in 1924, Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel opened Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Today, Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises (SFAE) consists of 54 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, 48 Saks Off 5th stores, and saks.com.

7. Barnes & Noble - 1873
Barnes & Noble, the largest book retailer in the United States , operates mainly through its Barnes & Noble Booksellers chain of bookstores headquartered in lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Barnes & Noble, founded by Charles M. Barnes originated as a book-printing business. The first true bookstore was set up by his son, William, in partnership with G. Clifford Noble, in 1917 in New York City.

8. Sears - 1886
Sears, Roebuck and Company, commonly known as Sears, is an American mid-range chain of department stores founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Roebuck From its mail order beginnings, the company grew to become the largest retailer in the United States by the mid-20th century, and its catalogs became famous. Competition and changes in the demographics of its customer base challenged the company after World War II as its rural and inner city strongholds shrank and the suburban markets grew. Eventually its catalog program was largely discontinued. Sears merged with Kmart in early 2005, creating the Sears Holdings Corporation.

9. Belk - 1888
Belk, a Monroe, North Carolina-based department store chain, grew in size and influence throughout the South via numerous partnerships and acquisitions over more than a century. The partnership-based corporations, numbering more than 100, were consolidated in 1998 into a single corporation. Belk is currently the largest privately held department store chain in the United States, with its stores primarily located in the Southern United States.

10. Abercrombie & Fitch - 1892
Founded by David T. Abercrombie, A&F had been an outfitter of sporting and excursion goods. It struggled financially from the late 1960s until it was purchased by The Limited in 1988 and repositioned as the "Casual Luxury" lifestyle brand in present day. This American lifestyle brand and company markets youth apparel under five banners: the namesake flagship brand Abercrombie & Fitch, abercrombie kids, Hollister Co., Ruehl No.925, and Gilly Hicks.

Other retailers that deserve special longevity recognition for their ability to survive include: Bon-Ton (1898), Nordstrom (1901), JCPenney (1902), and Steinmart (1902).

In order to qualify for this list, retailers must have 10 or more store locations in the U.S. or have surpassed sales of $100 million. The brand name must also be in continuous operation. The list was compiled from Web research, industry sources, and reaching out to retail experts. We look forward to hearing from anyone that has additional candidates that make the list.

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