John Sanchez reckons he downs 12 cases of bubbly a month.
“I don’t drink pop, or juice, or anything diet, so I usually come here for the bubbly,” he shouted. “It’s cheaper.” We were struggling to hear each other in a sun-beaten Clearing parking lot on a recent morning while he loaded two-liter bottles of Poland Spring Sparkling Water into his trunk. Every few minutes a Southwest Airlines 737 roared up from Midway across South Cicero Avenue, but Sanchez made it as loud and clear as a mountain stream that he was a devoted regular at Continental Sales Lots-4-Less. Even if he didn’t quite make the score he expected that morning, he still cleaned the store out of bubbly.
“I usually call, and they even have my number in the office,” he said. “And they can call me when they get any bubbly. I called today and they were like, ‘Yeah we have two-liters of bubbly.’ I came in, and they were gone already. I said, ‘Well, maybe next time you give me a call.’”
Inside the automatic glass doors, customer experience lead David Solano was greeting shoppers as they entered, staging shopping carts, and unlocking the restroom door upon request when his counterpart Jackie Spychalski showed up to give him his break. Solano has worked at Continental Sales for 23 years. Spychalski has been there for 14.
“When we were closed there was so many voicemails,” she said. “Like, ‘When are you guys gonna open back up?’ For a lot of people it’s like a daily thing they do. They come here every day to see what we have.”
Her boss Ron Rojas says he was able to fully pay his 52 employees with PPP loan funds during the six weeks the 56-year-old closeout retailer shut down during the pandemic. All but three of them have returned to work at the 40,000-square-foot former Toys “R” Us (20,000 feet for merchandise display, 20,000 feet for Receiving in the basement). On that day the floor was well-stocked with short-dated cases of macaroni and cheese, six-pound cans of Chef-mate country gravy, and family-size boxes of Chrissy Teigen-John Legend-branded Chocolate Chex, complete with the former supermodel’s “Legendary Muddy Buddies” recipe.
Rojas scored 15 cases of the cereal from a broker after Teigen’s recent social media downfall and was selling it for 40 percent less than its original retail price. He got a similarly good deal on 500-some boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, discontinued after Quaker Oats “updated” its racist branding. They were nearing their sell-by date, and priced and positioned to move, near the front of the store. Any day now he was expecting the mother lode of Olympics-themed Team USA Oreos, their red, white, and blue creme filling loaded with “popping candy.”
Continental Sales Lots-4-Less
6333 S. Cicero
Liquidated and discounted grocery items make up about 40 percent of Continental Sales’s stock at any given time, most of which is sold between 40 percent and 60 percent off the listed (and blacked out) price. But there’s also a Health and Beauty department currently boasting good deals on hemp oil- or charcoal-spiked Colgate toothpaste. Apparel might have some sweet House Lannister tank tops on sale, Pulp Fiction T-shirts, or random Bulls/Bears/Cubs/Sox/Hawks swag. In Auto, there are windshield wipers, air fresheners, and antifreeze for days, and Housewares usually has cheap wine stems or maybe some oversized drinking glasses imprinted with Bible verses.
There are always rare and random finds. Rick Baker lives in the neighborhood and comes in a couple times a month, especially on Wednesdays when senior Club 60 customers enjoy a 10 percent discount. He’d grabbed a bunch of stuffed Gumby chew toys for his pit bull, and for himself a “Redneck Plunger” in the form of a pump-action shotgun that declared along the barrel, “The Poo Goes Thru.”
I noticed that the perfectly good kitchen blade I bought earlier this summer was still in stock, marked down to $1 because of the typo on the Chinese import’s package that says “BONER KNIFE.” (My store receipt says it too.)
Spychalski, at her post near the entrance, told me she loves her job, loves her boss, and her coworkers. But there was a lot more oddball product on the shelves when she first started, like anatomically correct, organ-shaped mugs (hearts, kidneys) and a whole aisle of Apprentice-era Trump dolls that “sold really well.”
“It was always the best with Ron’s dad, the owner,” she said. “He was definitely one-of-a-kind with some of the merchandise we used to get.”
The late Angelo “Mickey” Rojas was working as an architect in 1965 when a friend invited him to join him in the salvage business. They opened in the former Continental Health Spa in south suburban Burbank, excising “Health Spa” from the sign and replacing it with “Salvage.”
The business moved around in the early years, gradually transitioning from a wholesale salvage brokerage to a more retail-focused model by the time it settled into its current space in 1982, catty-corner from Midway in a relative retail desert. When Rojas first joined his dad’s business in 1996, he’d just ended a short rookie season playing second base on a Detroit Tigers minor league team, having suffered a lower back injury. He remembers on his first day his dad had a complete 1992 auto transmission on display in the back of the store. “It was true salvage,” he said. The transmission eventually sold, but the son, who’d otherwise planned to coach ball at Triton College, never left.
He helped make the transition to retail more or less complete. “I saw opportunities,” he said. “I was thinking we can buy things that customers are actually looking for as well as having those unique deals.”
Over the years the store has built relationships with hundreds of vendors, manufacturers, distributors, and salvage brokers who know how to find them if they have to unload a product that is, say, nearing its manufacturer-determined “Best if used by” date, or something that’s been mislabeled, or shipped at a couple degrees off temperature. Rojas and two other buyers monitor their e-mails and texts and pounce on good deals, which are sometimes offered to other liquidators. The early bird gets the worm.
A few weeks ago around 6 AM, after Rojas had finished his morning meditation and workout, he checked his e-mail to discover an offer he couldn’t refuse. A truck full of Rachael Ray-branded cat food and 1,500 SwissTech backpacks was up for grabs. Just as parents are starting to outfit their kids for the new school year, he marked the backpacks down to $7.99 from $28.99.
Last May he took a call from a salvage broker desperate to offload a trailer full of live tropical bromeliads rejected by a major supermarket chain because they’d arrived a day late. Rojas knocked the price down to $10 from $50, just in time for Mother’s Day, and had a staffer spend all his time replenishing the display until they sold out.
A visit to Continental Sales is a treasure hunt, and the same experience goes for the buyers making the deals. “With all of those contacts it’s enough to fill one high-volume store,” said Rojas. Continental Sales is a “true closeout” business, he says, versus national discount chains like Big Lots or Family Dollar, closeout posers that have to resort to purchasing imports directly to stock their shelves.
By the time you read this, the deeply discounted off-brand mac and cheese I saw an older woman piling into her shopping cart will probably be gone. (“Inflation,” she told me. “I’m stocking up.”) The Swedish Fish packaged in decorative plastic Easter eggs probably won’t last until April. But at $9.99, the 40-ounce bags of “probiotic” dried apricots might still be around. “That’s too much,” another woman told me. “I might not like them.”
If they’re still in stock after their April 20, 2022, expiration date, she might get a better deal. The Continental Sales crew will move them to the rear of the store to the Thrift Section, where expired items are sold at “stupid prices,” according to Rojas, 60 percent to 80 percent down. As long as seals or rims aren’t dented, and packaging isn’t otherwise breached, it’s good to go. “If somebody tastes something that didn’t sit well with them or they thought it was a little too old, or it didn’t taste the greatest, we give a hundred percent money back. But we have so little of that.”
Along with the Poland Spring and a half dozen different flavors of Kettle Brand potato chips, a pallet-load of La Lechera condensed milk was rapidly disappearing. This product was a “flyer,” so named because “it flies off the shelves.” Rojas said it would probably take a regular big-box retailer a month to move that much canned milk, but at his prices he was selling a pallet per week.
Right now Rojas is looking for an operations manager so he can focus all his time on sales and purchasing, with the idea of possibly opening a second store. But a true closeout is a delicate balance of relationships and environment that not just any abandoned toy store can provide. “If we were right next to a major store we’d have problems,” Rojas said. “Because they’d be calling those manufacturers and distributors saying, ‘How can we compete?’ But there’s no one near us. We don’t have any big competition. We’re the biggest thing on this little island.”