Before the advent of the big-box discount store, there was Eugene Ferkauf.
The founder of the E.J. Korvette chain died at his Manhattan home Tuesday at the age of 91, said Yeshiva University, where he was a former longtime trustee and benefactor.
"He was a brilliant entrepreneur, innovator and pioneer of the discounting concept," said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of the retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. People from around the globe, including such industry giants as the founders of Kmart and Wal-Mart, studied his stores and merchandising model, Flickinger said.
Ferkauf founded Korvette in 1948, first selling luggage from a loft on 46th Street before expanding to 45 outlets throughout the New York metropolitan area, including on Fifth Avenue just blocks from the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
He offered deep discounts of up to 40 percent on merchandise ranging from appliances to bed sheets.
Ferkauf was a pioneer in "selling something for every room and apartment and every home," said Flickinger. He also was "one of the great pioneers and innovators in the record and music business," he said.
At his funeral Thursday, one speaker recalled buying his first Beatles album at a Korvette store.
The Manhattan-born Ferkauf sold his share in the store in 1966 for more than $20 million. Korvette went out of business in around 1980.
Time magazine featured Ferkauf on its cover in 1962 with the title: "Discounting Gets Respectable." In the article, Harvard Business School retailing guru Malcolm McNair described Ferkauf as one of the six greatest merchants in U.S. history, a group that included Frank Woolworth and J.C. Penney.
"By succeeding at it in the sluggish 1960s, Eugene Ferkauf has seized the lead in a retailing revolution that is shaking up every U.S. merchant from Main Street to Manhattan's Fifth Avenue," the story read.
E.J. Korvette had one of the most explosive growths in any sector of chain retail during the 1960s, Flickinger said. And all the major regional discount chain stores sought to emulate it. "Sam Walton of Wal-Mart himself came to study his Korvette stores," said Flickinger. "Harry Cunningham, the founder of Kmart stores in 1962, studied Korvette stores."
Other large chains that extensively analyzed the Korvette model included Zayre, Caldor and Ames.
But Ferkauf, whose name means "sell" in Yiddish, had an adverse influence on some traditional department stores, which struggled "because of what Korvette initiated and inspired through its discounts," he said.
The store's name intrigued many. Many believed it stood for Korean War veterans, but Ferkauf had a simpler explanation: E stood for Eugene, J for his Brooklyn friend Joe Zwillenberg, and Korvette for the World War II sub-chasing ship known as a corvette.
Ferkauf and his wife, Estelle, were generous philanthropists who donated to Yeshiva University and other causes. The Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva is named after him.
His burial was at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus, N.J.