Al Lechter Packed His Mall Stores With Kitchen Gadgets at Bargain Prices

By James R. Hagerty Features Dow Jones Newswires

As a retailer of pots and pans and other kitchenware, Al Lechter was old-school. Not for him was the 1980s trend of museum-style displays at higher-end kitchen stores. He stuffed his Lechters stores with thousands of basic kitchen tools, from spatulas and pickle grabbers to egg slicers and as many as eight types of garlic presses. Gadgets dangled from rows of hooks extending from floor to ceiling. Most sold for less than $10.

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"Stack it high, and let it fly," he sometimes said. A consultant calculated that four out of five people entering the stores ended up buying something.

That approach worked well from the mid-1970s, when Mr. Lechter co-founded Lechters Inc., through the 1980s. The company went public in 1989 and brought in younger executives from bigger chains as Lechters raced to expand. Mr. Lechter retired as president in 1993.

New executives recruited from Federated Department stores and IKEA spread the New Jersey-based chain to malls across the country, opened outlet stores, experimented with new formats and expanded the product line to include closet organizers and picture frames. Then mall traffic dwindled and competition heated up. In 2001, Lechters closed its remaining stores and liquidated.

Mr. Lechter died Nov. 6 at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 89 and had Alzheimer's disease.

"He was the ultimate salesman," said Bernard Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot who worked with Mr. Lechter at another company in the early 1970s. "He sold 24 hours a day."

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Albert Norman Lechter was born Sept. 18, 1928, in Washington Heights, N.Y. His father, David Lechter, was a house painter who later went into the housewares business. His grandfather, Harry Lechter, was a licensed push cart peddler in Newark in the 1930s and opened a housewares store there.

The younger Mr. Lechter attended Tulane University in New Orleans on a baseball scholarship and graduated in 1949 with a business degree.

Mr. Lechter and his father in the 1950s and 1960s leased space inside discount stores to sell housewares. The younger Mr. Lechter learned to find bargains. At a panel discussion for housewares executives in 1966, he said his firm was retailing plastic pails at a price range of 29 cents to $1.29. "We don't have to pay $1.98 to get quality," he said. "The money made in this business is in buying, not selling."

In the early 1970s, he was among a band of young retailing wizards who worked at retailer Daylin Inc. One of his Daylin colleagues, Eugene Kalkin, went on to found the Linens 'n Things chain store. Two others, Mr. Marcus and Arthur Blank, founded Home Depot. Mr. Marcus recalled urging Mr. Lechter to be an early investor in Home Depot. Mr. Lechter, intent on building up his own business, declined -- and later considered that his worst business decision.

When the company made its initial public offering of stock in 1989, Mr. Lechter splurged on a Mercedes. He later endowed a professorship at Tulane's business school.

He is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2017 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)