Special report: Furniture stores
Susan Dickenson -- Home Accents Today, January 17, 2014
Last year was a rebound year for furniture store sales. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, total sales reached $51.5 billion, a rise of 6.5% from 2011 levels of $48.3 billion. However, sister publication Furniture Today's annual performance report, published in October, found that as a portion of furniture store sales, decorative accessories, area rugs and home textiles lost a percentage point of those sales, falling from 4% to 3%.
A 400-foot-long skywalk connects Furnitureland South’s Mart and Showroom buildings. Called the Eco-Link, it also serves as a gallery of sustainable home furnishings vignettes.
For this special report Home Accents Today interviewed several multi-store furniture retailers, including a few from Furniture Today's Top 100 U.S. Furniture Stores list, about their home accents sales - what's trending, what's working and what's not.
The furniture retailers, representing a variety of price points, styles, sizes and demographics, include:
Bobby Berk, owner, Bobby Berk Home - Bobby Berk Home offers contemporary furniture, bedding and accessories that reflect Berk's high energy, colorful, modern aesthetic, with stores in New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles and online. The Bobby Berk Home brand got its start in 2006 with an online launch of furniture, bedding, bath products and home accessories for the urban lifestyle.
Richard Sexton, founder and president, Carolina Rustica - Carolina Rustica is a Concord, N.C.-based multichannel retailer of mid-to high-end furniture, lighting, bedding and accessories. The 20,000-sq.-ft. shopping destination showcases product in three showrooms within historic Gibson Mill, a century-old former textile factory.
Richard Marquard, owner, Paysage Home - Paysage, started by Richard and Jane Marquard in 1986, is a high-end home furnishings retailer and interior design studio with three locations in Ohio and North Carolina. In addition to furniture and home accents, the stores carry tabletop, bed and bath, and a selection of seasonal decor.
Jackie Hill, accessories buyer, Bernie & Phyl's Furniture - Based in Norton, Mass., this New-England based furniture retailer was started by the Rubin family in 1983. Ranked number 52 on Furniture Today's Top 100 U.S. Furniture Stores list, Bernie & Phyl's has seven stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Joanne Neff, accessories buyer, Wolf Furniture - Ranked number 62 on Furniture Today's Top 100 U.S. Furniture Stores list, family-owned Wolf Furniture has been doing business since 1902. Originally started in Altoona, Pa., today the company is led by fourth generation family member Doug Wolf. With 12 stores and a clearance center across three states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia), Wolf's showroom floor space totals more than 410,000 square feet.
Machiko Penny, merchandise manager, Walter E. Smithe Furniture Company - Ranked number 66 on Furniture Today's Top 100 U.S. Furniture Stores list, Walter E. Smithe Furniture Company started out in 1945 as an appliance and furniture store on the northwest side of Chicago. In the late seventies, the company phased out of the appliance business. Today, the company is owned and operated by Walter E. Smithe's grandchildren, with 11 locations throughout the greater Chicago area.
Meredith Smothers, director of merchandising, Furnitureland South - Number 51 on Furniture Today's Top 100 U.S. Furniture Stores list, Furniture land South was founded in 1969 by Stella and Darrell Harris and remains owned and operated by the Harris family. This mid-priced to high-end retailer operates a 1.7 million sq.-ft. complex on a 135-acre campus in Jamestown, N.C.
Bobby Berk Home, Atlanta
IN GENERAL, HOW'S BUSINESS?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: Business has been great. We have seen double-digit growth.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: We have been experiencing modest growth, but with increased volatility of sales within each year. The unpredictability of the business cycle has become a challenge. It used to be easy, predicting sales based on seasonality and holidays. Now, international and national events seem to have a much bigger impact on our business, since we are upper-end and more of a "considered" purchase. For example, Q1 2012 was one of our strongest quarters ever, while Q1 2013 this year was slower. Yet sales this year have gotten stronger throughout this year, while last year they slowed down in the second half.
Marquard, Paysage: Rapidly growing.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: I don't want to say it too loud but business has been pretty decent lately. Bernie & Phyl's jumped up two places on Furniture Today's 2013 Top 100 retailers list and my delivered accessory business is up 3% from 2012 thus far.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: Some months are good and other months you struggle to meet the goals. We put forth a real effort in October - divided the stores into groups and had a contest - and it worked well, but it took a lot of work and effort.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: For 2013 we have seen a big increase - continual growth every month, across the board. We are tracking to do 16% up from the year before and we see no letups. We had a busy October and November is doing well also, and we're thrilled with that.
WHAT HOME ACCENTS CATEGORIES ARE MOVING WELL FOR YOUR STORE?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: Pillows, rugs and decorative accessories.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: Tabletop and wall.
Penny, Walter E. Smithe Furniture: Lamps, throws, artwork and rugs.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: We sell a ton of portable lamps but my accent chair lineup, which consists of a dozen American-made chairs available in a variety of different fabrics at no additional charge, is producing phenomenal results.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: Area rugs, lamps and wall décor.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: We continue to sell a lot of rugs and lamps. We have seen a lot of interest in chandeliers. We're selling everything from expensive traditional chandeliers to more fun and casual overhead lighting.
What home accents voids do you see in the marketplace right now, in terms of products, styles, price points?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: There's a huge hole in the market for bedding and lighting.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: I don't think there are any voids ... The range of home accent options has never been greater. Of course price points could be lower, and we should not have to consider minimum quantities due to drop-shipping requirements (by customers).
Neff, Wolf Furniture: One of the things we have difficulty with is finding really well-priced florals and trees. I try and have well-made things but when you're looking at things that don't look artificial, you're getting into higher-priced categories. Some of our vendors are working on helping us find better-priced product for our stores.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: We feel it's covered. Every time we go to market we see something new and different; there's so much color coming out and we're glad because that always adds to our galleries and vignettes.
HOW ABOUT YOUR FURNITURE SALES - WHAT'S POPULAR WITH CUSTOMERS?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: Our custom upholstery line is rockin. Bright colors and mid-century designs are very hot right now.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: Contemporary is a very strong style category, and smaller scale. In fabrics, bright accents (pillows, trim, etc.) but muted overall. The customer isn't buying entire suites but rather, selecting pieces.
Marquard, Paysage: We've been challenged to fill the niche of the prestige, quality, value and style we've all grown accustomed to over the years, but at a lower price point. It sounds like a mission impossible but we succeeded with the help of our best brand partners.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: In the past, our New England customers have been slow to release the days of brass lamps with pleated shades and overstuffed brown marshmallow sofas. However, recently our customers have really embraced modern, colorful and eclectic styles - which is exciting. I am finding that unique accents and customizable furniture are really in demand. Today's consumer does not want what "The Joneses" have; they want something unique and one of-a-kind in a style all their own.
Furnitureland South cut the ribbon on a new 17,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art design center this summer. Located on the third floor of the Showroom building, the center features dozens of interactive display screens, peninsula workstations and private work areas in a spacious, well-lit environment.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: Our furniture sales are going well, and our company is constantly evolving. Stella and Darrell Harris, who started Furnitureland South from the ground up, are still very involved in the store. Their sons, Jeff and Jason, share their passion for the furniture business. So not only do we have the experience of Mr. and Mrs. Harris, we have a second generation who is enthusiastic, very progressive and are making their own mark. (Earlier this year, Jeff and Jason Harris launched The Design Network.com, a new broadband television network featuring entertainment, inspiration and instruction for the home, followed by the unveiling, in August, of a new 17,000-sq.-ft. design center incorporating state of the art technology.)
ARE YOU TRYING ANYTHING NEW TO DRIVE SALES?
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: Social media contests, and using original content for our website.
Marquard, Paysage: We have embarked on a campaign where we are mixing three elements of style - natural, modern and classic. With this, less can be more only if the quality and style can be proportioned to the home while catering to the needs of the people it serves. This takes personal attention (service) to each client/customer's needs. It is these relationships that are the loyalty strands that lead to the ultimate success of business. Of course, customer relations are what it really is all about in the beginning as well as the end. Do a great job of listening and then take action.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: Our advertising geniuses are always coming up with new promotion ideas to drive business. We are just beginning a fundraising contest for a chance to win a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle with all proceeds going to research a cure for multiple sclerosis.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: We have a great marketing team that is really getting our message out. Our website is constantly being improved and our customers are coming into the store already knowing a lot about who we are and what we offer. We are very involved with social media ... Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. Our design consultants are writing their own blogs and this has had great response.
ARE RUGS A KEY PRODUCT CATEGORY FOR YOU?
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: We carry a few rug lines but they are not a primary product group for us.
Penny, Walter E. Smithe Furniture: Yes, they complete the room and create a sense of defined space within our showrooms.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: Rugs are merchandised as more of a home accent than a serious purchase. We have one 20-arm rack in four of our eight locations and an 18x18-inch sample rack from Surya in all locations. Rugs are typically not "sold" as much as they are "bought," if you catch my drift.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: They have become a key category in the past year-and-a-half. This was a department that didn't really have a buyer and it kind of landed in my lap. We have seen a continual increase in our area rug sales... Rugs have probably inched up more than any other product for us. And rug manufacturers have stepped up to the plate also, with selling and display tools the sample racks, handles, compatibles. Surya has put out a booklet that talks all about the different rugs, tells how to clean the rugs, how to size a rug, etc. We're getting them for all of our sales associates to study and have as a resource for when a customer asks those kinds of questions. It's a really good reference guide.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: Rugs are vital to our business. We do so many complete homes and second homes, and we always like to sell the rugs to complete the project.
Natural, modern and classic elements blend beautifully at Paysage, in Wilmington, N.C.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY CRITERIA YOU USE WHEN EVALUATING A RUG AND/OR HOME ACCENTS VENDOR?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: Quality, price and consistency in stock.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: Value and quality, originality, inventory availability, images and product data availability, communications.
Penny, Walter E. Smithe Furniture: Style, perceived value, creativity and trends. I avoid home accents that can be found anywhere - like big box discount stores.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: There are so many vendors that have similar, if not the same (is everyone sourcing from the same factory?!) product. I like to keep it simple when I evaluate my vendors: Unique product, stock situation, delivery, retail sales, gross margin percentage.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: What I started looking for when I took on the (rug) category was someone that would partner with us. I didn't want to spend a couple thousand dollars for samples when I didn't know how it was going to work, so I basically decided to partner with companies that would give us some samples to sell from. It's also important to have good reps that are going to come into your stores and train your sales associates. It's difficult shopping for rugs and narrowing it down because everybody has something that's different and fantastic. But you have to basically decide who is best for your company - who you think will give you the best, and who you think you can do the most business with. There are some companies that I don't use right now that have some terrific rugs, but I can't spread myself that thin. It's basically a two-way street - if I expect a company to make a commitment to me then I have to make a commitment to them.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: Our main rug buyer says availability. We can't wait month to month to month for a rug. Also, she wants a rug vendor that offers a large selection. She looks for color, and it's got to be a rug vendor that is current. Even our traditional rugs are selected to go with the colors that are being shown in our upholstery. We sell both man-made and machine made rugs, with an emphasis on the man-made.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MARKETING OR MERCHANDISING STRATEGY FOR RUGS AND/OR HOME ACCENTS?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: We really utilize social media to market our products. It's for sure the best dollars spent.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: They are a complementary business to our core furniture business. We use social media to the fullest extent that our resources allow. We just shot video for all of our major manufacturers and will be uploading this to our updated YouTube site in the next few weeks
Penny, Walter E. Smithe Furniture: Sometimes rugs are the most difficult items to purchase for the consumer. Having a rug tie in with the furniture display can make the task a little less daunting. Rugs and accessories can also be conversation starters for our designers and that can lead to bigger projects. A well-accessorized store can be eye candy for those consumers on the hunt and keep them in the store.
With whole room or whole house projects, our designers are motivated to sell the complete room as they take pride in the finished look and to the satisfaction of the client. A room without accessories and a rug is, after all, just a room full of furniture. The accessories are the jewelry that enhance and personalizes the room.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: We try to keep our rug displays and samples near the design center. Then, when a customer is looking at fabric, they can just go right to a rug and match up colors.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: As you can see we have accessories in vignettes and in galleries. This building is called the Mart. The Mart is designated mainly by categories - rugs, youth, leather, outdoor, and beds/the mattress gallery (Sleepland). In the other building, which we call the Showroom, we group more by manufacturer, like Century, Lexington, Stanley, etc., and in the rotunda is where the new Design Center is located. The glass skywalk between the two buildings showcases our eco-friendly vignettes. We really do have more than a million square feet of displays!
HOW DO YOU DIFFERENTIATE YOUR RUGS AND/OR HOME ACCENTS PROGRAMS FROM YOUR COMPETITORS?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: We're launching young, hip designs and a great price point, without sacrificing quality.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: We hope customers see our home accents in the context in which we place them, which then allows them to envision them in their own home.
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: The New England furniture retail market isn't easy on factories and factory representatives when it comes to distribution. With more than a handful of pretty big players in a small geographic location it can be understandably trying at times to be "different." I occasionally request that my vendors keep more unique product exclusive, but not often. I believe that home accents are truly an impulse purchase by the consumer. If you show her a beautifully displayed and well merchandised vignette, nine times out of 10 she will want it all and want it yesterday.
This Halo vignette in Furnitureland South’s Mart building is located adjacent to an entrance to the retailer’s 12,000-sq.-ft. rug gallery.
Neff, Wolf Furniture: In order to stay current and really keep our displays up to date I find I need to attend probably at least four markets a year - two High Point Markets, two Vegas markets and periodically I do the Dallas market. I feel it's important because it rejuvenates us and keeps us on top of what is current and what is out there.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: One of our vendors does rugs exclusively just for us. We feel that sets us apart - they work closely with us on what we, and our customers, want. And we have a lot of talent and knowledge. Our rug gallery manager has over 30 years of experience and both the manager and assistant manager have design training. When somebody comes in with their design consultant and their fabrics, they're able to coordinate. We often sell multiple rugs to the same client - help them find what works for their dining room, living room - make it a continuous flow. At over 12,000 square feet, our rug gallery has the largest number of hanging racks of rugs possibly anywhere. And we are staffed six days a week. We've just got a top-notch rug department.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES WHEN IT COMES TO SELLING RUGS AND/OR HOME ACCENTS?
Berk, Bobby Berk Home: Space! Customers want to be able to see and feel every single design. Sometimes that's hard in the cities we're in where our store spaces are smaller.
Sexton, Carolina Rustica: Competition from products that may look similar but not be of the same quality. Also, flash sale sites, closeout stores (TJ Maxx, Homegoods, etc) and Amazon all present tough competition. Flash sale sites are troublesome because they don't always abide by the guidelines enforced by our manufacturers, and by the time you report them, the offer is gone.
Marquard, Paysage: Our biggest challenge is the impulse buyer (consumer) who is not fully aware of the possibilities that are available - those that don't realize they can have "all the chic without the check."
Hill, Bernie & Phyl's: My biggest challenge when selling home accents is the retail salesperson. Not all of them, but most. In my experience, sales people tend to shy away from the "add-on" accessory sale and I cannot for the life of me figure it out. It's simple to plant the seed in the consumer's head. Simply ask! "Mrs. Jones, now that you have purchased your beautiful new bedroom set, wouldn't you like a new bedding ensemble to complete the look in your own home?"
Neff, Wolf Furniture: I think our challenge at Wolf Furniture is to get the sales associates to feel comfortable to complete the picture - to do the add-on instead of just settling for the big sale of a living room, bedroom or dining room suite. We need to get them to realize that they have done the customer an injustice by not suggesting to them, "Can I help you with a lamp, artwork, area rug to complete the picture?" Our designers are pretty good at it, but when you have sales associates that aren't used to doing design or putting some colors together, it's difficult.
Paysage owner Richard Marquard credits successful vendor partnerships for enabling him to provide the prestige and style his customers have grown accustomed to — such as high-quality Belgian linen upholstery — at a lower price point.
Smothers, Furnitureland South: With a store this large, one of our biggest challenges is trying to marry the right price point. In a high-end bedroom vignette, we want the lamps, linens, rugs and accessories to be in the right price range. We don't want a $1,000 lamp on a $300 nightstand. And we don't bring anything into this store that we don't think is of real value. If it's a very expensive chair or accessory, we want to be able to prove that it's worth that - educate the consumer. I think a lot of times they get online and buy things from catalogs and are disappointed. We want to make sure they aren't disappointed with their purchases from here.
When our customers come in, if they're doing a whole house and they've been here a couple of days, we want to make sure they do the add-ons. That is a key focus. So we do a lot of training here. Every Monday morning we have a sales meeting with the entire sales force, and every other week I do a merchandising update with photos of new things. With a store this size it's not like you see it immediately. Then they can say, "Oh, we've got these beautiful new lamps from John-Richard," or we talk about the restoration vintage and how it's just not that blah beige anymore, there's a lot of color in it now. Our people realize that accessories are vital - it's the jewelry for the home. Once you've got a customer excited about their house, you need to finish it. We want to have it finished here.