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Foreign imports hold American style

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 1980



New York

Since the mid-1950s Americans haven't had to travel to the grand bazaars of the world, for the grand bazaars have come to them. They come, in a massive way, through the networks of import stores that send out their own buyers to scour foreign markets, commit their own money, and then ship in and retail the goods. By buying directly and selling in simple no-frills, supermarket-type emporiums, they avoid wholesale costs and are able to sell at one-fourth to one-third less than normal retail, a ratio they still maintain.

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The groundwork for the import-store concept was laid by stores like Cost Plus Imports in San Francisco; the Pier I Imports chain, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas; the World Bazaar division of Mumford Inc. in Atlanta; and the colorful Azuma and Bazaar stores in New York. They helped make shopping more fun and more adventurous, with their colorful array of handcrafts from primitive societies, as well as their well-designed modern furnishings, produced in high-technology factories in many countries.

This postwar marketing phenomenon has made the United States the low-cost design crossroads of the world, particularly between East and West.

Prices today go from $1 to $300 and apply to a vast array of household staples ranging from rattan chairs to ornamental baskets, china, glassware, stainless steel, and plastic shelving and housewares.

Real bargain prices, however, are disappearing behind world inflation and steeply rising costs in all the trading countries. Japan is now getting but a fraction of the business from import stores that it once had. China is emerging as a new source of inexpensive merchandise, and Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, and India are coming to the fore. South American and African countries, Mexico, Poland, Yugoslavia, and even England are being much more thoroughly explored.

Cost Plus Imports, an originator of the import-retailer idea, opened in 1958 in old warehouse space on San Francisco's waterfront. It was gorged with exotic and unusual merchandise, the type of which many customers had never laid eyes on before, and it immediately became a store landmark, popular among Californians and tourists alike.

Cost Plus Imports this past year expanded to five new locations in southern California, and its seven buyers still fan out across the world to find the best buys of many countries. Andrew Katten, executive vice-president, says, "Some crafts like lacquerware and gold-leaf work from Japan have almost disappeared, and high prices are causing us to narrowly limit our rattan and wicker furniture lines, but our ingenious buyers keep locating new sources.

"Baskets from many countries have, and continue to be, one of our biggest success stories, and the demand for them has never waned. Young marrieds are our biggest customers. We offer them goods they can't find anywhere else."

In New York, Azuma is now buying from many countries, including the US. On a recent afternoon, students, matrons, and interior designers were milling through the largest Azuma store, looking for those good buys of "instant decoration" such as paper lantern lamps, folding screens, tatami matting, bamboo blinds, fat floor pillows, and cotton bedspreads. One wife and mother said she had furnished each of her children's rooms out of Azuma, as well as the family's beach cottage.

A Hunter College student was selecting two kites, one shaped like a dragonfly and another like a butterfly, to add design and color to her rather bleak quarters.

A young man in the Third Avenue Bazaar import shop was searching through the array of picture frames; he wanted to cluster photographs of his friends on one wall of his apartment. He said he found the biggest selection and the lowest prices at bazaars. A young woman paying $12.98 for a plain but handsome glass pitcher said she always shopped the Bazaar import stores for inexpensive glassware, plain white china, stools, and hampers.

The main national chains of import stores are World Bazaar Imports and Pier I Imports. Pier I, with stores in 275 locations in the US and 20 in Canada, was started in 1962 and quickly expanded across the country. Rattan furniture made in China and palm leaf furniture made in the Philippines continue to be best sellers in Pier I stores.

Atlanta-based World Bazaar Imports has 134 import stores, largely concentrated in the Southeast and Middle West. The president, Paul Orosz, says: "We sell best what is not made on an assembly line, but is handcrafted in some part of the world. As crafts die out or diminish in one third world country, our buyers move on to another. There is lots of good craftsmanship still out there, but we do have to keep looking for it."

Officials at both chains agree that customers today are more discriminating and are buying better quality. They say that the initial novelty of import shops has worn off and that customers now consider them constant sources of both decorative and utilitarian household items. They are just more international in character these days.

All the stores report less interest in posters but more interest in baskets, in decorated porcelain vases, decorated tinware, and useful plastic items. All of them find that young people are seeking other items besides pictures to hang on their walls - things like big palm leaf fans, collections of offbeat hats, and textile hangings.