Counterculture capitalist Larry Farb likes to think of his Whole Earth Access stores as "Bloomingdale's without the frills."
His brother and partner Gene sees them as "the Nordstrom of hard goods."
A more apt description might be "K marts for yuppies."
Whatever they're likened to, the three Whole Earth Access stores in the San Francisco Bay Area constitute one of the fastest growing--and most unusual--retailing phenomena in the nation. Sales this year are expected to top $35 million, up from $25 million in 1985 and just $15 million in 1984. That's not bad for an outfit that began by peddling wood stoves, grain mills and other gear for "alternative life styles" from a 1,000-square-foot store that the Farbs took over in 1978.
Packed floor to ceiling with everything from IBM PCs to Jockey underwear at bargain-basement prices, the cavernous warehouses are one-stop shopping emporiums for the yup-and-coming set. Young professionals with a passion for quality pack the stores on weekends, picking and choosing from a dazzling array of discounted name-brand merchandise. There are Sony video cameras and Wolf ranges, Vuarnet sunglasses and Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls. There are Krups espresso makers and Maytag washers, Adidas, Nikes and Reeboks. There are books and bookshelves, TVs and stereos, power tools and kitchen gadgets, trendy furniture and natural fiber clothing.
"We've grown up with our customers," explains Larry Farb. "The person who bought wood stoves in the '70s is buying cappuccino makers today."
Customers say they seek out the stores--despite their remote locations--for their reasonable prices and knowledgeable, low-key salespeople. "The products are comparable to the big department stores, but the prices are much better," says Yolando Polanco, a technician who assists animal researchers.
Polanco ventured to Whole Earth Access in Berkeley--tucked away in the city's industrial district--one recent weekday to buy an Olympia typewriter for $200, "the exact same model Macy's had for $300," she says. She promptly turned around and invested her savings on a vacuum cleaner and a citrus juicer.
The stores' attractive displays and their remote locations seem to encourage such impulse buying. "Once you come down here, you aren't likely to go somewhere else," notes Gene Farb, who points out that the Berkeley store and its sisters in San Francisco and Marin County are all located in industrial areas. Partly as a result, he says, the average store sale exceeds $100.
Expansion of the stores' merchandise base has followed their clientele's buying habits, says Gene Farb. "If our customers are going to buy computers, why shouldn't we sell computers?"
Earlier this year, Whole Earth opened a 10,000-square-foot annex dedicated to computers and electronics equipment across the street from its main 30,000-square-foot store in Berkeley. As in the main store, Whole Earth's unobtrusive salespeople keep customers coming back.
"I like the prices and the attitude of the people on the floor," says Dennis Dillon, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley who is shopping around for a new television and came to Whole Earth after being turned off by the high-pressure sales tactics of the big electronics chains. "They're here if you need help, but they're not constantly hassling you."
Manufacturers--including those who usually shy away from discounters because they worry about cheapening their image--share the customers' enthusiasm. IBM selected Whole Earth as an authorized outlet for its personal computers just before the company froze its number of authorized dealers.
"I wish all my accounts were as good as Whole Earth," says Sean O'Brien, a sales representative for Sony's hi-fi and audio division. "They do a phenomenal job for me.
"Their salespeople are sharp. Unlike a lot of audio dealers, they take the time to read product manuals. They work hard to make their customers come back. They don't bait and switch like a lot of other retailers. They depend on good word of mouth."
The strategy has allowed the company to pare advertising expenses and pass the savings along to customers. The company also keeps overhead down with its out-of-the way locations and lack of fancy store fixtures.
Despite the company's growth, Whole Earth Access remains very much a family affair. Management duties are split among the Brooklyn-born Farb brothers and their wives. Gene, 40, handles electronics and photographic merchandise, while Larry, 37, oversees hardware and appliances.
Laura Katz, 35, who is married to Larry, runs the housewares and clothing departments, and Gene's wife, Toni Garrett, 39, handles book sales and mail order.
The mail-order department puts out the 458-page Whole Earth Access catalogue, which is published by Berkeley's Ten Speed Press and sells in bookstores nationwide for $14.95. The catalogue sold 20,000 copies last year "and is used as a reference book as well as a mail-order source," Garrett says.
The catalogue, which can be purchased at the stores for $5 or through the mail for $7, is often confused with Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Quarterly and his Whole Earth Catalog, which first appeared in 1968. Though Brand's Whole Earth Catalog provided the inspiration for the name Whole Earth Access, and the stores stock books mentioned in Brand's publications, there is no financial relationship between the two organizations.
The Farbs are modest about the success of their stores. "It was an organically developed concept," says Larry Farb. "We never had a grand plan. We just tried to spot trends and grabbed them by the tail."
Only in Northern California
Growth of the first warehouse store in Berkeley allowed them to open a second store in Marin County in 1982 and a third in San Francisco last year. Further growth could come "anywhere in Northern California," adds Larry Farb, who singles out San Jose, Santa Clara and Sacramento as candidates for new stores.
He's reluctant to go much further away from his home base. "We want to keep a good handle on things," he says.
And, though the family has been approached about taking the company public, the Farbs have politely demurred.
"Macy's just went private. Levi Strauss just went private. We're already private," Larry Farb says.
But, despite Whole Earth's relatively modest ambitions, some die-hard customers from its old days feel betrayed by what they see as a withering of the company's counterculture spirit.
"They've sold out to the max," complains Michelle Frame, an Oakland potter. Adds her friend, student Ranan Burstein: "It's just another mega-merchandising outlet. It's moved from groove to yup."