Gibsons Discount Center – Part 4- The Trade Show & Stores

Where You Buy The Best for Less

Gibson Trade Shows & The Stores

by Greg Riley

READ PART 1 HERE: The Story of Gibsons

READ PART 2 HERE: Herb git's the big head

READ PART 3 HERE: This Man Gibson

An integral part of the Gibson marketing scheme was the Gibson Trade Shows. Initially held on several floors of the old Baker Hotel in Dallas, the show quickly outgrew this venue. The Dallas Market Hall opened in 1960 and it seems likely the wiley Herb Gibson quickly realized the potential of this thoroughly modern venue.

Baker Hotel, downtown Dallas, Texas

By design the trade shows were part carnival, part party, but mostly serious business. Herb's carnival barker background was given full reign at the trade shows, with many celebrities in attendance, and a festive atmosphere. 'Ol Herb always loved to put on a good show. It was all designed to make the franchise owners comfortable, and mostly to move lots and lots of merchandise, all sourced factory direct.

This is the 1968 Gibson Trade Show at Dallas Market Hall. The featured celebrity that year was Cary Grant, seen here giving Belva Gibson a kiss at the opening ceremony.

Cary Grant, Belva Gibson, and Herb with company executives taking a tour of the 1968 Gibson Trade Show.

Herb developed relationships with various manufacturers starting in the 1930's that lasted decades. Here he is seen with the President of Garcia Fishing Tackle. I can't think of any modern retailing executive with the same sort of personal relationship with their vendors as Herb Gibson.

The trade shows always featured a dinner to promote camaraderie and the sharing of ideas between the franchise owners, factories and, company Execs. I attended my first trade show in 1980 when things had begun to change dramatically from earlier years due to new competition, mostly from Sam Walton and Wal-Mart.

Stores could buy via several different methods.  Warehouse orders, pool shipments, and DSD or "direct store delivered" depending on the volumes involved. The lowest cost was obtained by shipping full car-loads directly to a given stores. The most expensive way of supplying merchandise to the stores was a warehouse order. Warehouse orders came weekly from the Gibson's warehouse in Seagoville, Texas on company trucks and were usually smaller sundry items that moved well, but not necessarily in huge volumes.

Even today a manufacturer generally ships in a carton configuration that is known in the industry as an inner/master. An example would be 12/144, which means 12 pieces to an inner carton of which their are 12 inner cartons packed within the master carton for a total of 144 pieces to each shipping carton. These are broken down in the warehouse to the inner packs, which are then shipped to the store. This works well for many items that require constant restocking to maintain inventory levels and peak profitability. Today many retailers are mandating that inner packs are sometimes as few as three pieces.

Pool items were items that shipped from the manufacturers to the Gibson's warehouse, generally of mixed merchandise palletized for a specific store. Today this is called a cross-dock shipment and is still employed by many resellers. At Gibsons Pool items were only shipped to the stores in full case quantities i.e. a full case of 144. Today's cross-dock shipments can be of any quantity.

For large volume merchandise orders were placed at the trade show, and full car loads of merchandise would be delivered directly to the stores. i.e. DSD. This would include full pallets of a single item of things like paper goods, antifreeze, pet food, paint, and other high velocity or sale items. Sometimes it would be truck loads of mixed merchandise from a given manufacturer, and other times a full load of identical items. The phrase "car load" was an old school term meaning a rail car load. Later this we changed to "trailer loads" as over the road trucking became deregulated and more common during the late 1960's and 1970's and it was possible to ship from the manufacturer for delivery directly to the individual store.

This system served Gibson's well for many years until Sam Walton of Wal-Mart found a way to improve upon it. Gibson's had one centralized warehouse near Dallas, Texas that served stores all over the south and central United States. Early on Sam Walton mandated that no Wal-Mart store would be more than 250 miles from a distribution center. This gave much faster delivery of merchandise to stores, further increasing service, efficiency and, profitability.

By the early 1980's all Wal-Mart stores were also using a primitive point-of-sale system that allowed the Wal-Mart home office in Bentonville to constantly monitor sales and inventory levels at individual stores. Gibson's franchise model didn't allow it to mandate that stores install POS systems, or the ability to monitor and dictate inventory concerns to  individual store franchisees. Today we would call this disruptive technology in much the same way that Amazon is now eclipsing scores of brick and mortar stores.

The Gibson Stores

When you walked into any Gibson store the first thing you noticed was the smell of hot buttered popcorn. Popped fresh all day, 20 cents a bag, on a Manley "Stadium Pop" popcorn machine. Part of the secret was the popcorn machine had a blower in the top to spread that delicious smell throughout the store. There were always long lines of customers at the service desk queued up for a hot buttery bag.

There was no universal format to Gibson franchise locations, unlike the manner of an early McDonald's which were all identical. Most stores were built from the ground up under general guidelines, but many (particularly in smaller communities) leased whatever space could be found. As business grew many later constructed purpose-built stores.

The stores tended to be fluorescent lit barns that carried a bit of everything. Hardware, Automotive, Housewares, Sporting Good, Softlines, Shoes, Dry Groceries, Housewares, Health & Beauty Aids, Radio & Records, Paint, Pet Supplies, and so much more could all be found at your local Gibson's stores. The merchandise was selected by human's based on gut feel and experience. Scientific merchandise selection, and point-of-sale systems  were pipe dreams of the future.

I think we are a bit poorer as consumers by the homogenization of merchandise assortments at your local Wal-Mart, Target, Dollar General, or Walgreen's. It may seem that the concept behind these stores are very different, but when you look closely at the basic merchandise assortments you will see more similarities than differences.

The late Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus said this decades ago, "As goods become more standardized - and mass production has that effect, standardizing product - the distinguishing factor between one store and another is going to be how skillful stores are in satisfying customers and making it a pleasant experience instead of a hostile experience." As a consumer when was the last time your truly had a pleasant experience at a retail store?

The two photos below show the Gibson store in Beaumont, Texas 25 years apart. Many stores were expanded several times, and remodeled to look more contemporary. If you squint closely at the second photo (taken in 1989) you can see me in the back right. I'm the one with all the hair and glasses.

Shown blow is me in my office behind the Gibson's Radio & Records department in 1989. The office accommodations were basic, but we had lots of vendor meetings there and sold lots of merchandise.

Working at Gibson's taught me merchandising and distribution concepts that started me on a career path that has now lasted 40 years and counting. I met my wife of over 30 years at Gibson's. I formed friendships at Gibson's that have lasted decades, and I will fondly remember my years with the company as some of the best of my life.

Herb Gibson was a cantankerous know-it-all who took outdated Pre-WWII merchandising and distribution concepts and stood them on their head. For about twenty years his Gibson's Discount Centers seemed an unstoppable juggernaut, only to ultimately be outdone by a more nimble and innovative competitor (Wal-Mart) who itself is now being outdone by an even more nimble and innovative competitor ( Who know what might have been if Gibson had granted an audience to the audacious young Sam Walton in 1962? A one hour meeting had the potential to permanently alter the face of retailing in America.

And so it goes in the world of retail merchandising; companies come and go, merchandising and sales concepts change. Regardless H.R. Gibson deserves to be remembered among the giants of American retail merchandising. Names such as Samuel Lord, George Washington Taylor, J.C. Penney, Alvah Curtis Roebuck, Richard Warren Sears, Stanley Marcus, Frank Winfield Woolworth, Sam Walton, and today's Jeff Bezos.

READ PART 1 HERE: The Story of Gibsons

READ PART 2 HERE: Herb git's the big head

READ PART 3 HERE: This Man Gibson


4 thoughts on “Gibsons Discount Center – Part 4- The Trade Show & Stores”

  1. What a treat to read about the Trade Shows. I worked at the Gibson’s in Beaumont while going to Lamar and was invited to go to the 1968 Trade Show where I actually met Cary Grant, He was the consummate gentleman. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand and called me by my name as though he was truly pleased to have met me. The show allowed me to know more of how the purchasing worked since I dealt with that portion of the business up in the office. As for the popcorn, when I started at Gibson’s I started at the Service Desk – as did everyone else. We were allowed to eat as much of the popcorn and warm nuts as we wanted. The psychology worked. After a week or so, we were sick of all of it and didn’t eat another nut or sesame stick or bag of popcorn… but man did we sell a lot of it. I enjoyed working at Gibson’s. I learned a lot about working with others, serving the customer and just business in general.

  2. Had heard that Polly(Pauline?) Gibson’s husband(Bill) had passed away. After reading his obituary, I came across this article. My dad was the store manager for the Boulder, Colorado Gibson’s store for one year. Our family had many great memories with that family. They were go getters and had great people skills.

    1. John,
      Thank you for sharing. I talked to one of my old Gibson co-workers today. We both have great memories.

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