Sunday Spotlight: the Raneri family, proprietors of Katonah's Charles Department Store
The customer would like a Le Creuset pan.
It’s nearly a year into the pandemic, and the demand for high quality cookware among those fortunate enough to be able to stay home and save the disposable income they would have otherwise spent on a nice dinner out is still high. The Le Creuset brand is cultishly popular – there are nearly one million #lecreuset tagged posts on Instagram. Even before the pandemic, The Atlantic wrote about how influencers are driving demand among novice home cooks for cast iron pans that cost around $300. A Le Creuset would be an easy sale in Katonah. But Jim Raneri has reservations.
“They started cutting corners,” Raneri tells the customer, explaining how the brand’s manufacturing processes of late have resulted in slightly less durable cast iron. Raneri suggests that the customer consider Staub, another European cookware brand, but one that better meets his exacting—what he calls ‘fussy’—standards.
This is the kind of customer service one gets at Charles Department store, the iconic Katonah Village store that first opened in 1924 by Raneri’s grandfather, Charles Raneri, a Sicilian immigrant. It’s personal, hands-on and attentive. The store has been, and remains, a beloved institution for generations of customers. It also represents the life’s work of four generations of Raneris.
Ninety-seven years ago, when Charles Raneri founded the Charles Dry Goods Store, Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States. Eggs cost $.25 per dozen and only about half of American families owned an automobile. Travel by horseback was still a common mode of transportation. Raneri took orders from customers in Northern Westchester and traveled by rail to New York City to fulfill them.
In the 1940’s, Charles’ son Phillip took over the business. It was the Golden Age of Radio. Phillip established an electronics repair service within the store, a place where customers could drop off their radios and other electronics for him to fix.
When Phillip decided it was time to retire, his sons David and Jim were ready to step up. It was the late 1970’s, and America had suffered through an economic recession. Still, David and Jim kept the Charles Department Store thriving—even growing—adding a second floor of retail space and expanding into clothing.
Now, nearly one year into a global pandemic, David’s daughter Kelly Raneri is transitioning into the role of sole proprietor of the Charles Department Store. She will be the first woman to hold the title and she’ll bring with her the learned history of four generations of Raneri business acumen, mixed with her own vision for a 21st century department store.
According to data from the Small Business Association, only one third of new establishments survive ten years or more. The Charles Department Store, by contrast, has survived for ninety-seven years. Each generation has put their own spin on the store, but all have maintained an obsessive focus on customer service. That, and a few other basic principles of good business are what the Raneris say have been a proven, timeless formula for them.
“Be nice to your customers, and they’ll come back over and over again,” David recalled his father Phillip teaching him and his brother Jim. “Greeting people when they walk in your door, thanking them for coming. These are classic things, but it’s a philosophy that works,” David said. The Raneris take it a step further, though; listening closely to each customer’s needs and wants and making suggestions that specifically suit them.
“Maybe a year or so ago, I was talking about the fact that my boots were slippery, especially in the city on crossings in the snow,” said Cora Cahan Gersten, a Charles customer since the early 1970’s. “Dave said, ‘you’ve got to get these Merrells that have this non-slip material inserted into the bottom treads of the shoe.’ Well, they’re fantastic!” Much of what Gersten buys at Charles Department Store she acknowledged she could buy online. “But surely I choose not to,” she said. “It’s too pleasant to go in.”
While customer service has been Charles Department Store’s core currency since its earliest days, the pandemic has spurred David, Jim and Kelly to take it to a new level. “When we were closed for two months, I was holding up pots and pans through the window to show people,” Kelly said. “I set up a chair outside the store so that people could try on shoes. Today, I had a customer who needed jeans, so I put together a bag for her to take home, try on and bring back tomorrow. It’s got us connecting with our customer in every way possible.”
As Kelly takes over as head of Charles Department Store, she’s focused on curating the in-store product selection while simultaneously expanding the store’s online presence. She has already grown the online shop from a dozen items to a couple hundred in less than a year. With a single owner, the store is downsizing to a single floor, too. “If I’m going to be the face of the store, I want to be the face you see when you walk in,” Kelly said.
With half the square footage to work with, Kelly will need to figure out which combination of shoes, clothing and housewares to feature in store while still making sure customers know that anything they’re looking for, she can help them procure.
“I think there’s something really touching and moving about [Kelly] wanting, in this day and age, to carry on and move [the store] into the 21st century without losing its sense of community,” Gersten said. “She has that aspiration.”
“The passion that every owner has had, loving what you do, is how they’ve been able to succeed over generations and generations,” said Kelly. She is still working out how she’ll put her own mark on the store and said she has a vision of one day establishing her own Charles brand clothing line.
“My mind is constantly dreaming,” she said, After all, she’s a Raneri.