This annual list of the best miscellaneous retail franchises was revised and updated on August 5, 2021.
Not all franchises fit neatly into a category or have competitors providing a similar service. This is particularly true in retail, where some of the standout franchises featured in Entrepreneur magazine’s Franchise 500 list are the only ones serving their specialist niches, or at least the only successful ones. This eclectic list gathers some of these niche retailers.
People have been talking about the decline of retail for years, as online shopping grows in strength and convenience. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced that trend, with consumers stuck at home and relying on online retail. But consumers still enjoy the experience of bricks and mortar shopping, and they are returning to the high street as it becomes safe. A retail outlet provides things that online stores don’t, such as the chance to seek expert advice, see what products look like in person, test samples, and try items on for size. It takes the consumer beyond looking at a picture of a product and lets them engage with all their senses, which many prefer. There’s a chance to succeed in niche retail, if the experience is better than that delivered online.
To do this, shops need to hire top-notch staff who have the knowledge and skills to help customers quickly and efficiently while at the same time giving them the individual attention they need. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the experience, and retailers who are focused on improving the overall customer experience can get people to come into their stores. All the companies on this list make a point of emphasizing their customer service.
This list covers retail franchises that don’t fall neatly into one of the major retail categories, such as apparel and accessories, convenience stores, tools, and vitamins and supplements. They’re a chance for entrepreneurs to buy into a proven retail concept that’s distinctive and unusual or that lives in a small niche. This makes for a very diverse list, including hardware, rent-to-own products, wireless services and products, hobbies, cosmetics, batteries and light bulbs, mattresses, trophies and awards, metal, and more.
The Top Miscellaneous Retail Franchises of 2021
1. Ace Hardware
Ace Hardware has the distinct advantage of a widely-recognized brand identity. After all, who doesn’t remember the jingle from back in the day: “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man” (although “man” was changed to “folks” in 1989 to be more inclusive). The chain dates all the way back to the roaring 1920s when four separate independent hardware store owners in Chicago made the decision to pool resources to buy inventory in bulk to increase profits and face off against larger stores.
Ace Hardware stores carry a wide range of hardware and home improvement products, many of which are the company’s own brand.
Founded in 1924 and franchising since 1976, the number of locations has continually expanded slowly but surely in recent years from 4,440 in 2011 to the current total of 5,385 (up from the previously reported total of 5,312), of which 194 are company-owned and 821 are located outside the U.S.
Rent-A-Center is a franchise concept that allows customers to rent a wide range of products including furniture, appliances, and various electronics, such as computers, smartphones, televisions, home theater and audio systems, and video game consoles. The chain carries a variety of brand-name products, allowing customers to begin renting products without credit and without being locked into long-term contracts. Delivery, set-up, and product service is included and customers can cancel or upgrade systems and products at any time.
This is a rent-to-own concept with a “worry-free guarantee,” which means you can stop or freeze payments at any time by returning the product, and then pick it up again later right where you left off without penalties or interest.
Founded in 1980 but franchising only since 2013, the number of locations has declined in recent years from a high of 3,297 in 2013 to the current total of 2,314 (down from the previously reported total of 2,363), of which 2,012 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
3. Merle Norman Cosmetics
Merle Norman Cosmetics got its start all the way back in the 1920s when Merle Nethercutt Norman started sharing her homemade skin-care products with family and friends. She essentially pioneered the whole “try before you buy” concept with product demonstrations, and it worked. She was also one of the first to create the powerful before/after makeover demonstration that spurred more women to purchase her products.
She passed away in 1972, but her company is still family-owned and has paved the way for many women to become independent business owners with hundreds of high-quality cosmetics and skincare products that are both made and packaged by the company, all in the U.S.
Founded by Merle Norman in 1931 and franchising since 1973, the number of locations has been steadily declining in recent years from 1,386 in 2012 to the current total of 1,050 (down from the previously reported total of 1,117), of which only one is company-owned and 47 are located outside the US.
4. Batteries Plus Bulbs
Batteries Plus Bulbs has a business concept shaped in part by everyone’s dependence, in the modern world of mobile electronic devices, on batteries of all shapes and sizes. The batteries were the original concept, while replacement light bulbs is a more recent addition to the original concept. Its supply network has access to more than 45,000 different kinds of batteries and light bulbs, so if the store doesn’t have it in stock, they can get it for their customers.
Seeing that many people needing replacement batteries for a mobile device also frequently needed repair services, this was also added to its business concept in 2014. Trained technicians will accurately diagnose what’s wrong with cell phones, MP3 players, tablets, and eReaders; provide a quote; and fix them.
Founded in 1988 and franchising since 1992, the number of locations grew steadily from 493 in 2011 to 740 in 2019, but has dropped since then to the current total of 705, of which 86 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
5. Wireless Zone
Wireless Zone has been around since 1988, when Russ Weldon had the foresight to realize that mobile phones were going to be huge. His business was first called The Car Phone Store, but in 1999 the name was changed to Wireless Zone to include all cell phones as well as GPS navigation devices, wireless accessories, wireless data devices, and pre-paid cellular services.
The company’s mission, as stated on its website, is to be a leading brand “…dedicated to finding the right device for you, your family, your business and your lifestyle. Our stores offer competitive prices on today’s most popular smartphones, devices and accessories with award-winning customer service.” For wireless service, the company represents Verizon, giving franchisees a big boost with such a widely-recognized and trusted brand.
Founded in 1988 and franchising since 1989, the number of locations had declined to a recent low of 323 in 2016 but has since steadily climbed up to the current total of 430 (up from the previously reported total of 410), of which none are company-owned and all are located in the US.
6. Buddy’s Home Furnishings
Buddy’s Home Furnishings is a rent-to-own concept similar to Rent-A-Center where customers can rent all kinds of furniture, electronics (televisions, game systems, audio systems, DVD/Blu-Ray players, smartphones, etc.), appliances (washers, dryers, dishwashers, ranges, refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners), lawnmowers, and outdoor furniture. The company also recently added a selection of women’s handbags to its menu of product offerings.
It claims to be the largest independent rent-to-own company in the United States (Buddy’s main competitor, Rent-A-Center, is a publicly-traded company). The company’s “lifetime reinstatement program” means customers never lose a dollar they’ve invested in rentals from Buddy’s.
Founded in 1965 but franchising only since 2007, the number of locations has held relatively steady for the past several years and currently stands at a total of 291, of which 92 are company-owned and two are located outside the US.
7. Crown Trophy
Crown Trophy was started by Chuck Weisenfeld in Brooklyn, New York back in 1978 and focused largely on awards for local sports leagues, but soon expanded to include youth groups, clubs, schools, and organizations of all types. The company can create awards for any sport, company, or for any reason to recognize an individual or team of people for their accomplishments.
The selection of possibilities is truly immense, including trophies, medals, plaques, acrylic awards (clear), crystal awards (glass), cup trophies, ribbons, corporate awards, championship belts, badges, clocks, desk accessories, rings, frames, sculptures, and custom awards. It develops products that cannot be found anywhere else and can also produce a wide range of promotional materials or “swag” as many call it, including lapel pins, t-shirts, baseball caps, and much more.
Founded in 1978 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years from 148 in 2011 to the current total of 135 (down from the previously reported total of 138), of which none are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Slumberland was started in 1967 by a 25-year-old Ken Larson in Richfield, Minnesota. In those days, the only places where people could purchase a mattress were at furniture stores and department stores with limited options. But a new trend was on the rise: sleep stores devoted to carrying a wider range of mattress products, along with experts who could really help people find the mattress that would be right for them and their unique needs.
Slumberland capitalized on this trend and over the years began expanding into other products lines including bedroom furniture, La-Z-Boy recliners, and limited collections of furniture for the whole house, including living room and dining room furniture, chairs, area rugs, bed linens, tables, wall décor, cabinets and storage pieces, and home office furniture.
Founded in 1967 and franchising since 1974, the number of locations stood at 124 in 2019, of which 54 were company-owned and all were located in the US.
HobbyTown got its start back in 1969 when husband-and-wife team Merlin and Mary Hayes started a hobby shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. Teaming up with Thomas Walla, they bought a competitor’s store and eventually started franchising the HobbyTown concept.
Each location sells a variety of airplanes, boats, cars, trucks, rockets, helicopters, trains, and rock crawlers, some of which are build-it-yourself model kits, and many of which are fully-assembled remote-controlled vehicles. Other popular products include drones and FPV racing materials, and a wide variety of toys, games, trains, and crafts.
The hobby/game market has been growing at a healthy clip in the post-recession environment, logging in growth of as much as 15%-20% in recent years.
Founded in 1969 and franchising since 1986, the number of locations has been declining from a high of 162 in 2014 and currently stands at 115 (down from the previously reported total of 125), of which none are company-owned and all are located in the US.
10. Metal Supermarkets
Metal Supermarkets is a unique concept that can be likened to a convenience store for metal. Anyone who has ever been in need of a piece of metal for a random project or need knows exactly how hard it can be to find what is needed in regular hardware or home improvement stores, but finding the right piece of metal for any project is much easier when people can visit a shop that specializes in metal products.
Each location carries a variety of aluminum, hot-rolled steel, cold-rolled steel, stainless steel, alloy steel, galvanized steel, tool steel, brass, bronze, and copper. Stores also cut, shear, and punch the metal product to match the customer’s intended application.
There are no minimum order sizes so customers never have to buy more than they need. Customers who are unsure of what type of metal they need for a project will find the staff at each location knowledgeable and ready to help.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations has been growing in recent years from 60 in 2013 to the current total of 96 (up from the previously reported total of 91), of which 10 are company-owned and 25 are located outside the US.
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.