By MAUREEN WALLENFANG
GRAND CHUTE, Wis. (AP) — In an age when brick-and-mortar shops are closing left and right and online shopping is becoming ever more popular, why would one man decide to tear down an old factory and put up his own 100,000-square-foot store?
Moreover, why would he spend $45 million and three years on planning to develop a 29-acre retail complex around that store?
Just ask Jim Greene, owner of WG&R Furniture.
“It’s nice to be able to control your destiny and co-tenants, and leave a positive legacy,” he told the Appleton Post-Crescent .
His land is at the northeast corner of Interstate 41 and West Wisconsin Avenue, the site of the former National Envelope/Fox Tractor factory.
The new WG&R store, the first and largest store on the site, will be opened up for his mailing-list customers later this month.
A large crew of contractors and employees showed up at the store recently to finish working on lighting, signs and displays. Some pulled all-nighters to get the store ready.
The WG&R store and related site-preparation work, which Greene calls “phase one” of a much larger project, cost him $20 million. Along work related ot the store, that phase had a bridge built over an unnamed tributary of Mud Creek, a job for which had to get approvals from the Department of Transportation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
An “Idle Sites” grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. helped Greene pay to have asbestos removed from the old factory. The development is also benefiting from a tax-incremental-financing district, which will provide $1.4 million over the course of five years.
Grand Chute separately spent $1.1 million worth of public money, Buckingham said, to make traffic and road improvements at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Westhill Boulevard, the new entrance to the development.
There’s no doubt the project will be a benefit to the town, he said.
“Greene Development took a thoughtful and strategic approach in creating a world-class commercial center that will bring some new stores and brands to this marketplace,” Buckingham said.
The remaining $25 million of the development’s $45 million cost will be for building more stores on the site, although no plans have been publicly confirmed.
Greene said he’s in discussions with two retailers about having medium- and large-box buildings on the site. He expects that construction will start on his first tenants’ stores in the spring and continue into 2021.
For Greene, the biggest benefit of owning a WG&R store rather than leasing one will be the ability it will give him to choose his neighbors.
His previous store in Appleton was in a largely vacant shopping strip, a place he thought never left customers with a favorable impression. That store recently closed.
In building a brick-and-mortar store, Greene is taking a step that many people might be hesitant to follow. Greene, though, believes that shopping on the Internet still lacks many of the advantages that come live, in-person shopping, especially for furniture. Shoppers, he said, still like to lie on a bed or sit in a chair before buying it.
“It’s hard to convey scale, comfort, texture and quality on the internet,” he said.
National statistics suggest physical stores are still a formidable presence. And although e-commerce sales are increasing steadily, they statistically still account for just 9.6 percent of total sales, according to Census Bureau figures for the second quarter of 2018.
The Internet hasn’t harmed physical furniture stores, Greene said, to the extent that it has clothing and toy retailers.
WG&R is the largest furniture business in northeast Wisconsin. It sells $55 million worth of furniture a year through its nine full-line furniture stores and three separate sleep shops.
“We sell three times more than our closest competitor,” he said.
Greene doesn’t appear concerned about online furniture and mattress sources like Wayfair or Casper.
“The amount being sold online is overstated,” he said. “And they won’t last if they don’t become profitable.”
Other types of retailers can benefit from having well-placed physical stores, he said.
“Even stores with an online presence still have flagship stores in visual places. It impacts their brand perception,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the environment is different now. Lenders view it differently. It’s rapidly evolving and that increases the risk.”