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Bigger stores struggle to buy goods, but Marden’s has too much merchandise

Valerie Royzman
Mark Hutchins, a Marden's family member and assistant manager at the Waterville store, points out the plethora of furniture in stock. Furniture wrapped in plastic came in recently and is new on the sales floor, he said.

WATERVILLE, Maine — Iconic off-price empire Marden’s Surplus and Salvage is seeing more inventory than ever despite supply chain disruptions hurting retailers nationwide.

The family-run business hit its highest level of inventory three months ago, said President Ham Marden, whose father, Harold “Mickey” Marden, founded the company in 1964.

“Crazy high,” he said, “to the point that we are struggling to find room to unload more trailers. In our small world of Marden’s, there is not by any stretch a drought of inventory.”

The store’s glut stands out in a retail landscape where businesses struggle to find merchandise. But it’s also a function of Marden’s unique business model — what others might see as bad news could be an opportunity for the Maine-based retailer.

Marden’s has 14 discount stores across the state and about 670 employees. It sells everything from clothing and shoes to flooring and furniture.

It acquires inventory through store overstocks and closeouts, bankruptcies, natural disasters and a number of other deals. For instance, Mark Hutchins, an assistant manager at the Waterville store and Marden’s nephew, spent two weeks packing up items from four stores in Louisiana after a hurricane hit the area.

A trailer carrying merchandise to a big-box retailer tipped over, and the company refused the damaged load, Hutchins said. “So we bought the whole trailer,” he said, noting that usually only the boxes are damaged.

Although Marden’s functions differently from discount stores such as Burlington Stores Inc. and T.J. Maxx, supply-chain bottlenecks proved to be a boon for those apparel sellers as well, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“We continue to answer the phone,” Marden said. “There is always a glitch or bubble or disaster somewhere in the economy. We need to be able to react. That’s what we do. We react to situations, and we can buy a major deal with a Zoom meeting or phone call.”

While Marden’s is faring well with inventory, the company is not immune to supply chain issues that make the logistics of operating a business difficult.

Marden’s struggled to buy furniture, for example, for about 10 months. Then it slowly became easier to acquire it. And suddenly, about three months ago, the business had more furniture than it knew what to do with, Marden said.

While buying merchandise from a department store in the Maryland area, there was a shortage of pallets. Marden’s had to ship empty pallets from Maine to pack up the store. Pre-pandemic, this was never an issue, and a plan could be lined up within hours, Marden said.

“Now, nothing is easy,” he said. “Moving stuff is a horror show.”

Like businesses everywhere, big and small, Marden’s is operating with about 150 fewer employees, many of whom left for various reasons during the pandemic. Waterville’s store has 78 workers, including staff and management, Hutchins said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.