“It’s a whole new concept,” Mal Coven declares over the phone. “Never been done before. Ten dollars is the magic price right now.”
Trying to interview the man who in 1962 co-founded the BiWay bargain clothing and household merchandise chain over the phone can be like trying to keep up with a whirlwind. Coven can’t talk now, but would a call later, say three o’clock, work?
“You can try, but I can’t guarantee it. I’ve got a lot going on,” he replies, referring to the preparations for the grand opening of his 7,500-square-foot “BiWay $10 Store” in North York next August.
“I’m out in the city travelling around, seeing people and chasing down 500 things right now,” explains the not-quite-retired 89-year-old retail dynamo steering the revival of BiWay the same way it began, with one Toronto store.
After opening a few more stores across the city, Coven and his brother-in-law and original partner, Abe Fish, were joined by Coven’s boyhood friend from Boston, Russ Jacobson, and the trio grew BiWay to more than a dozen locations by the late ’70s. That’s when Canadian retail giant Dylex, owner of clothing stores Tip Top Tailors, Fairweather, Braemar, Thrifty’s and others, bought 50 per cent of BiWay and set the chain’s national expansion in motion.
A pioneering Canadian discount chain, BiWay flourished into the ’90s, with 250 stores in eight provinces, including 200 in Ontario, by selling budget-priced items ranging from socks and shirts, skirts, jackets, jeans and shoes to bath, bedroom, dining, kitchenware and a lot of personal care and household goods in between.
Leaving in 1990, Coven cashed out his stake in the chain he helped build and took on a variety of retail and marketing ventures.
“I had 15 original projects. Some worked, some didn’t. Some were to make money, some not to make money,” Coven says.
These ranged from creating and selling novelty items to involvement in business enterprises, such as investing in a home electronics store and later brokering a deal leading to the sale of women’s and menswear retailer, Winners, to a U.S. company.
Approaching the century’s end, Dylex faced bankruptcy, and its holdings, including BiWay stores Canada-wide, were either sold off or shuttered by 2001. While Coven was engaged in his post-BiWay entrepreneurial ventures, he wrote his book, How I succeeded in Retirement and the BiWay Story, published in 2012.
Recently he’s been spending a lot of time preparing for the August launch of the BiWay $10 Store, investing his time, money and years of business know-how. The location, which he’ll only say is in the Bathurst and Steeles area, is leased, the store layout is set, with defined departments and wide aisles, and he’s been busy stockpiling merchandise from suppliers way ahead of the grand opening, by which time he’ll have celebrated his 90th birthday.
“I already have $100,000 worth of first-class, brand-name goods in storage,” says Coven. “And when I see the opportunity to buy more I’m grabbing it because I don’t want to wait until three months before I open the store. After BiWay closed anybody could have picked up (acquired the rights to) the name, but no one did. I did just that a couple of years ago, and now I’m glad I did.”
“I have good connections in the industry, so when I go to a supplier and say the word “BiWay” I get a welcome you wouldn’t believe. My firm $10 price simplifies the whole buying process. Suppliers control certain brands, and if they want to sell to you — and some are very good to me — you don’t have to argue the price.
“With BiWay I had one rule. Never sell anything I’d be embarrassed to bring home to my family. We built BiWay on brands: Van Heusen; Lee; Levis; North Star; our own brands and others too. People react to name brands and that’s the strategy of the BiWay $10 Store.”
He’s convinced people will respond to the $10 store concept, as it’s a price point occupying a sweet spot between what stores like Dollarama and Walmart are able to sell their stock for.
“If I have $28 brand name shoes for $10, do you think people will buy them? You bet they will. The same goes for $38 fleece jackets. For $10, people will break the door down for them. At $10, people get meaningful savings. They don’t want the really cheap stuff. They want better quality, and $10 really is the magic price right now,” he says.
With no backers and overseers, his project is uncomplicated, basically a one-man business operation, Coven explains.
“Just me and someone who is helping me out right now. I’m only focusing on one store — which is how BiWay began in the first place — and we’ll see where it goes from there. I don’t want to give away all the details. I want to save that for opening day.
“But like the saying goes: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Henry Stancu is a Toronto-based business reporter. Reach him on email: [email protected]
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