Cagayan de Oro`s oldest store: Onward to the next century

In the center of Wadhu's Quality Store stands a 1931 NCR cash register, bought by the store's founder by mail order from Sears & Roebuck in the United States 82 years ago. During the second world war, the owner wrapped it in grease and buried it in his backyard. After the war, he dug it up and it still serves the same store now run by his grandson Haresh.

That cash register is the living testimony of the traditions that has made Wadhu's Quality Store Cagayan de Oro's oldest surviving retail store, a tradition established by the store's patriarch and carried on by the third generation who now runs it.

Eighty two years ago, Wadhu Dharamdas Uttamchandani set up in Cagayan de Misamis (as Cagayan de Oro was then known) 'Wadhu's Home of Quality' near Plaza Divisoria, the town's social and commercial center.

Mr. Wadhu arrived in the Philippines as a 12-year old boy from India in 1924. He was employed at the Indian Bazaar owned by his uncle Nebhraj Ramchand Buhdrani in Zamboanga City for 12  years where he gained his basic knowledge and business savvy in the retail trade. In 1936, he felt he had enough seed money, contacts and experience to establish his own store in Iligan, but decided on Cagayan instead.

His thatched roof store, which featured items bought by mail order from Sears & Roebuck, was set amidst stores run by Japanese nationals near the Heroes de Cagayan monument. Divisoria was the Escolta of Cagayan in those days, and the nearby public market ensured the fledgling store flourished until World War II exploded. 

"My father survived the war by bartering his goods for food and clothing," said his son, Wadhu "Dodong" Jr. "He married my mom, Trinidad Babiera Valmores at Balingasag, Misamis Oriental in 1943 and had two children, myself and my sister Linda."

In 1946, "Mr. Wadhu" (as he was fondly called by friends and customers) reopened at a new location in Plaza Divisoria just across the public market, but moved to the next block after two years, where its present name, "Wadhu's Quality Store" was first seen. The store moved to its current site in the corner of J.R. Borja and Pabayo streets when Mayor Justiniano Borja moved the city public market to the Cogon area in 1958.

"My dad didn't want to be too close to the Cogon market where competition would be stiff but he also didn't want to be too far from the former site in Divisoria and his regular customers," Dodong explained.

In 1973, the elder Wadhu felt the younger generation was ready to take the reins of the business and turned over the store's management to Dodong.

"The idea was to help infuse faster and newer approaches towards marketing and merchandising without changing the original concepts on which we made our reputation," Dodong recalls. "We introduced new products catering to the tastes of the younger generation and terminated others which were slow moving."

And not too soon. By 1975, retails giants Ororama and Gaisano came into the picture, forcing other stores to fold up due to the intense competition.

"We took this as an opportunity, a challenge to make our strategies competitive with the giants," Dodong said. "I have always welcomed competition because it is the only way to serve the public with better service and cheaper prices."

For instance, when more people from Butuan, Surigao, Bukidnon and Iligan began coming to Cagayan de Oro, Wadhu's still multiplied its customers despite stiff competition from the bigger stores.

"Our overhead is not as large as the big ones, so we were able to adjust our prices and compete," Dodong said. "Since we were also getting the same merchandise from the same suppliers, we were able to attract more customers with our lower prices without sacrificing service and quality."

The 1990s brought even stiffer competition from malls like SM City and Limketkai Mall which featured a wide variety of stores and merchandise and attractive amenities like national food chains and cinemas all under one roof.

"We kept our loyal customers and even added more through our personalized service," Dodong said. "Most of the sales girls in the big malls are hired on a casual basis and are no match for better paid and motivated sales staff of smaller stores who have better experience and training, not to mention knowing the customers on a first name basis."

"Everyone is equally served and each person is attended to no matter how small their needs are," he adds. "We train our sales people never to look down on anyone and treat them as regular adult customers regardless of age, gender or appearance."

Some years ago, a shabbily dressed barefoot gentlemen wanted to buy an expensive watch. Sensing the sales clerk was at a loss on how to deal with him, Dodong stepped in to personally entertain him and he paid in cash.

"It was only a week later that I found out he was the owner of a big building which housed many stores in Bukidnon," Dodong wryly recalls. "He told me ours was the third store he went to and the only one who gave him any attention."

More recently, traders from Mainland China, Taiwan and Korea have swamped the city with low quality merchandise at very low prices. Together with the "ukay-ukay" vendors selling smuggled garments and shoes at rock bottom prices, they have crowded the city's sidewalks and even areas fronting regular stores.

Instead of caving in under the assault, Wadhu's opened a new branch in the Carmen market area. It carries the same merchandise for which the main store has been known for such as watches, sporting goods, and related items. Eventually, that branch moved to the Robinson’s Big R Supermarket building at Limketkai Center where it is now managed by Dodong’s younger son John-John.

The third generation of Wadhus takes all the competition and changes in stride, having been born and raised in Cagayan de Oro under the tutelage of their father and grandfather. They remain confident the "Open Door" policy of the original Wadhu's Home of Quality will see them through the new century  and beyond.

"We grew up in this store and we don't see any reason to change how it looks or operates," said the elder Haresh.  "Since my grandfather first started this store, he insisted that my Dad leave the store's doors wide open so even people from the rural areas would not be shy to come in and window shop. They don't feel pressured to buy something and can window shop as much as they like."

“We celebrated our 80th anniversary in 2016 and gave away watches as a token of our appreciation,” said Dodong with a smile.

In the center of the store, Haresh rings up another sale in the NCR cash register. If the sale totals more than the P99.00 the machine is capable of calculating, he uses a small calculator. It looks like the old machine could easily outlive a dozen or so of its modern counterparts, just like the store it serves in the corner of J.R. Borja and Pabayo streets in Cagayan de Oro has done to many of its larger competitors.

Photos by Dodong Wadhu: This was how the pioneering Wadhu's Home of Quality looked like in the 1930s at its original site in Plaza Divisoria; Mr. Wadhu Dharamdas Uttamchandani; The original 1931 NCR cash register still hard at work at Wadhu's Quality Store.