STEPHEN’S CITY – Sitting snugly on Main Street, Stephen’s City Outlet Store offers a treasure trove for the bargain shopper tired of the fluorescent-lit big-box stores or the cavernous warehouses.
Robert Luttler opened his outlet store nearly 25 years ago when his run on the auction and flea market circuits was coming to an end. At some point, he said, the high-dollar items he offered at the weekend auctions and flea markets stopped attracting customers.
“We were doing auctions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Luttler said. “When you have three a week for two years, everybody has so much of the stuff they can’t stand it anymore. Once someone has two-to-three TVs, they can’t use any more for several years. It got to where the stuff wasn’t bringing much money.”
Auctions — and stores, though Luttler refused to admit it — ran in his blood. He grew up with his dad auctioning items. When his dad died, Luttler told his mom he would pick it up to help her make some extra money.
After bouncing and middling through different scenes, Luttler set up in a shop on the corner of Main Street in Stephen’s City. He expanded from there, at one point owning two stores, and hasn’t looked back.
The operation, which now includes anywhere between 15 and 18 employees, a three-story building and a truck for picking up pallets of overstocked goods, started out small. Luttler went to auctions or online auctions to buy merchandise for his store. Times were, and are, tough in an economy that rewards chain stores over locally owned businesses.
Times are improving, and Luttler weathered the greatest recession the U.S. has seen since the Great Depression.
“When you’re in a rough economy, the high-dollar sofas, shoes, jewelry, TVs and computers, people don’t have to have it,” Luttler said. “You have to sell stuff at a really good price that people use every day.”
Finding that balance between what people need and what makes money has been a “headache,” Luttler said.
“I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a lot of headaches,” he said. “If I did it again, I’d stay down on the corner where we started out at. I made more money there renting than I do here owning the building.”
Headaches aside, Luttler said he still gets a rush from what he’s doing. What’s in stock changes by the week, he said. The only time he knows exactly what he’s getting is if he buys something from auction online, otherwise, he is like a kid on Christmas Day every week.
“It’s awesome; you never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “You send the check with your driver, he pays for the load, he brings the paperwork back, that’s the first time you see it. You have no idea what you’re getting.”
Digging into new pallets of clothes, food, furniture or home goods isn’t all that gets Luttler excited. More than anything, he said, he likes the people who come into his store.
“I like dealing with the public,” Luttler said. “Sometimes it’s really rough when you deal with the public, but there’s a lot of really awesome people out there.”
Luttler said he knows there are “awesome people out there” because he is constantly in his store working. He said he prides himself on being an owner-worker whom customers can see on a daily basis. That personal touch, Luttler said, is something you can only find at a local business and is missing from the more impersonal stores he buys his merchandise from.
Many years and many customers later, Luttler said he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
“I’m never retiring,” he said. “I’ll die here. Because I like the public.”