COLUMBUS, Ohio (COLUMBUS BUSINESS FIRST)–Customers go to Big Lots looking for a deal, but its CEO said giving shoppers something they weren’t looking for is what keeps them coming back.

“We’re the home of the hunt – for bargains, for treasure,” CEO Bruce Thorn said in a recent interview with Columbus Business First.

While the Columbus-based retailer spent much of the past decade making itself more predictable, Thorn has sought to bring back that element of surprise to the more than 1,400 stores.

“We needed to own the treasure hunt more, give people more reasons to visit,” he said.

One way Big Lots is doing that is with The Lot, a 500-square-foot space carved out inside 1,200 Big Lots stores, including the 4870 Morse Road location that had its grand opening this past weekend.

The Lot is the company’s in-store learning lab, a way to highlight and test new products and deals.

“It’s the (fear of missing out) section,” Thorn said. “Limited inventory. If it works well we can expand it through the store. Customers give us the permission to try things.”

That’s how apparel made its way back into Big Lots stores. Several years ago, Big Lots eliminated apparel from its mix, but after a successful test in The Lot space, more clothes have found their way back into stores.

Thorn, previously of Tailored Brands, and CFO Jonathan Ramsden, formerly of New Albany-based Abercrombie & Fitch Co., both have apparel backgrounds and saw an opportunity to bring that back in stores with new name-brand vendors such as Dearfoams and Reebok.  

Thorn said items like comfortable apparel and graphic T-shirts have been performing well.

Other recent tests in The Lot include a camping theme with the Coleman brand and a retro set that highlighted arcade games and other throwback items.

Upcoming plans include a Disney section with Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars licensed items including bedding and fixtures. A holiday setup will include some quirky gifts such as a bacon toaster. A Mario Lopez fitness assortment will be featured starting in January.

Big Lots also is seeing its customer base get younger. Though product selection plays a part in that, the company also is seeing returns on a shift in marketing.

Its current “Bigionaire” advertising campaign stars the actress Retta of the shows Parks & Recreation and Good Girls. Upcoming ads will feature Eric Stonestreet, best known from Modern Family and Molly Shannon of Saturday Night Live and countless other shows and movies.

Once heavy in print marketing, Big Lots shifted efforts to digital channels – it spent three times more on digital than print in the second quarter.

That’s also growing e-commerce. One might not think of Big Lots as a business for online ordering, but that’s changing.

When Thorn started in 2018, e-commerce made up just 0.6% of sales. That’s grown to nearly 6% now with a goal of making it a $1 billion sales channel in time.

Buy-online-pickup-in-store was added in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic led to curbside pickup and third-party delivery. Ship-from-store is being tested in 65 Big Lots locations,

“The majority of the store can be found online,” he said.

Year-over-year results declined in its most recent quarter, but that had more to do with last year’s record demand and less to do with any loss of focus on customers. Two-year trends remain favorable and Thorn said he is confident the initiatives in place are resonating.

For more business headlines, go to ColumbusBusinessFirst.com.