A 118-year-old department store perseveres in a tenuous economy

One area of the economy that has not fully recovered from the blows it suffered during the pandemic, has been the department store. Employment at department stores is still 12% below pre-pandemic levels, and stores lost around 30,000 employees late last year.

Despite that and other economic headwinds, one department store founded in the early 20th century has been going strong. Dunham’s Department Store in rural Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, has been a family business for more than a century, today led by Ann Dunham Rawson, vice president of sales and merchandising, and great-granddaughter of its founder.

“Well, we’re still very strong,” Dunham Rawson said in an interview with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour as part of our ongoing Economic Pulse series. “We, fortunately, have a very strong community of locals who have supported us for our 118 years and continue to support us.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: So, tell us about your store. How did Dunham’s get its start?

Ann Dunham Rawson: Well, Dunham’s was started as a grocery store by my great-grandparents in 1905. And they grew that business through the teens and ’20s. They had a traveling store. So they would take merchandise out into the farming community, who maybe weren’t able to get into town on a regular basis. And then, in the ’20s, during the Depression, my great-grandparents decided that they didn’t have enough to do so they built what we now refer to as our department store building.

Ben-Achour: Now, you know, department stores have, in general, lost some sales to online shopping over the past few years, there are 31,000 fewer workers at department stores now than a year ago. How’s Dunham’s doing coming out of the pandemic?

Dunham Rawson: Well, we’re still very strong. We, fortunately, have a very strong community of locals who have supported us for our 118 years and continue to support us. But we also have a lot of people who live [in] Philadelphia, D.C., the New York metro area that have homes up here and cottages. So we are a tourism [-based], but also we have a very strong local-based economy.

Ben-Achour: Supply chains, getting the goods that you need, that was a big challenge for all kinds of stores the past few years. Has that improved for you?

Dunham Rawson: It is improving. I will say there are still areas that are difficult. Shoes, especially, because there’s so much that’s imported, it all comes from the same region. And so they’re still having issues, although a lot of the shoe manufacturers are overcoming that and are switching gears. You’re seeing things made in other places and other parts of the world. But still, factories aren’t as easily changed, as you know, apparel factories and some of those things.

Ben-Achour: This year is, economically speaking, so hard to predict between inflation, between recession that may or may not happen — it’s anyone’s guess. But you have to make guesses because you’re ordering supplies, what, a year in advance sometimes. What’s your take on how this year is going to go? And how are you predicting that?

Dunham Rawson: I am cautiously optimistic. My father used to say, you know, there are no bad years, just some years are better than others. So we’re just sort of going with that. There’s always challenges. You can’t prepare for the worst because the only thing worse than being overstocked is being understocked. So, you know, you hope that you make the right decisions and be a little cautious in certain areas, but cautiously optimistic. I always say we’ve been through two pandemics and survived. We’ve had a fire. We’ve survived a lot. We’ve been through a depression, a recession. My father always used to say we just don’t know when to stop, so we just keep going.

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