Tomlinson Sales Co. has spent the last 75 years getting to know its customers. From its nine locations – seven in South Carolina and two in North Carolina – Tomlinson Sales Co. focuses on the specific needs of each city it serves. The merchandise retailer is divided into various outlets such as traditional department stores, a gift shop and warehouse showrooms, which is a stark contrast from how it was founded.

U.C. Tomlinson founded his first store in Johnsonville, S.C, in the heart of the Great Depression. The lean economic times provided the foundation for a fiscally conservative and sound business philosophy that served it well during tough times.  As the business grew, he opened a number of other stores in small rural towns in the state’s northeast. In 1945, he formed a new wholesale distribution company in Florence, S.C., to supply to his stores as well as other locally owned merchants in the area. In 1963, he built a new warehouse and distribution center.

Into New Venues

“At the new facility, the inventory mix was expanded to include gifts, home accents, toys, a small fine jewelry department as well as further expansion of home textiles and men’s and ladies apparel,” explains CEO Rick Tomlinson, U.C. Tomlinson’s son. “Additionally, our customer base expanded in Florence as area businesses shopped us for products to use in their business but also for merchandise for their personal use. The Florence warehouse showroom became the prototype for four other warehouse showrooms that we now operate today.”

Tomlinson Sales Co. continued to grow and today operates various retail outlets – five warehouse showrooms, three smaller junior department stores and one gift shop. In addition to its brick and mortar stores, it operates an online store, www.shoptomlinsons.com, out of its Florence location.

Three years ago, it cut the red ribbon on its newest warehouse showroom in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. It plans to break ground on another warehouse showroom soon, with the opening planned for 2015.

 “We have a site already picked out located in South Carolina, in the middle of the state,” Tomlinson says. “We are still doing our due diligence on it. But the idea is that once we accrue the land, it would probably be another three years or so before opening the store. The new store would be a duplicate of the North Myrtle Beach store.”

Plans for the new store will follow Tomlinson’s time-tested model of maintaining a standard merchandise mix while adapting each store to meet the particular culture of its community. Each location carries categories such as home décor, bedding, cookware, apparel, toys and jewelry, with the department stores leaning heavily toward apparel and the warehouse showrooms bent toward home textiles. 

Each store also carries merchandise that speaks to the area’s shoppers. For example, Tomlinson explains that because of a rivalry between two of South Carolina’s state colleges, collegiate merchandise in the state is a fast seller. Last year, the same was true for South Carolina after the University of South Carolina Gamecocks men’s baseball team took home the 2011 College World Series Championship title.

Tailored to the Individual

“We have a hometown feel,” Tomlinson explains. “But in addition to that, since we work very close within our markets, we probably understand what’s going on a little bit better than a chain that has stores here but a buying office elsewhere. They don’t seem to catch on quite as quickly to the hot trends or respond as well, whereas we seem to have the ability to pick up on things like that and we can ride those trends strongly. Last year, for example, the University of North Carolina won a national championship and the day they won, we had t-shirts in stock celebrating that win.”

Tomlinson also will tailor orders to individual customers, and maintains a special-order business to meet customers’ unique needs. “If a customer comes in and he’s in the extra-large category but we don’t stock Carhartt apparel in his size, he can come in and we’ll be glad to special order two or three pairs for him,” Tomlinson explains. “Or if a customer sees one of our framed prints on the wall, but doesn’t like the matting or the mold doesn’t fit her décor, our wall art supplier will change the mold or matting for that customer.”

Tomlinson explains that being a smaller company gives Tomlinson Sales Co. the freedom to respond to community trends and provide these types of specialized services. It also allows greater inventory control, which Tomlinson says is a key strength of the company. Through precise merchandise forecasting, Tomlinson can minimize its losses and boost its profits. Even during the recession, Tomlinson did not have to close a single store.

“Inventory control is a central part of our success,” Tomlinson explains. “We don’t tend to overbuy too often and we don’t even have to use a very sophisticated inventory system. By staying lean and monitoring our inventory, we’ve developed tracking records on spreadsheets. If we utilize the information properly, it will give us good guidance to control inventory.”

Another key to Tomlinson Sales Co.’s success is its pricing structure. Tomlinson’s pricing philosophy is to provide good value every day and it uses many tools to do this. First, it maintains a fiscally sound operation and avoids third-party financing. It also builds relation­ships with manufacturers to negotiate better pricing and discounts, passing those savings along to its customers.

“Our day in day out pricing philosophy that we have stuck with rigidly over the years has built a good reputation for us with our customers,” Tomlinson explains. “People feel like they are not going to get cheated at Tomlinsons. Other retailers may advertise a better deal on a particular item on a particular weekend, but at Tomlinsons, day in and day out, customers can come to us and get a good value.”