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Dunk & Bright builds on its long-storied foundation to secure its future.
By Daniel Beaird
When Bill Dunk and Bill Bright founded Dunk & Bright in 1927 on South Salina Street in the Brighton neighborhood of Syracuse, N.Y., they likely didn’t imagine the furniture showroom growing into New York State’s largest 88 years later. But today it’s considered just that at nearly 100,000 square feet, according to Jim Bright, grandson of Bill Bright and current owner of Dunk & Bright.
A furniture salesman from Bridgeport, Conn., co-founder Bill Bright moved to Syracuse with the dream of opening his own business. That’s where he met and served co-founder Bill Dunk and his wife on the floor of Brown, Curtis & Brown, a furniture store in downtown Syracuse.
Dunk, an Englishman who moved to the United States as a teenager and worked up to production manager at H.H. Franklin, a car company in Syracuse, was so impressed with Bright that he encouraged him to go into business for himself and agreed to back the furniture store.
And Dunk & Bright was born.
Bright ultimately paid Dunk $5,000 for his share of the business, and owned and operated the store until his death in 1939. Bright’s brother-in-law John Monahan took over the business until his death in 1952, and Bright’s son, Pat Bright, then became president, running the store for 41 years.
A New Generation
Pat’s son, Jim Bright, returned from a successful business career in Washington, D.C., and New York City, worked for his father for three years and in 1993, purchased Dunk & Bright from him. He still operates the store today.
“I went to the bank, borrowed money and purchased it from him,” Bright said. “There are four other siblings, and he wanted it to be a fair transaction for the rest of the family.”
The store now encompasses the entire corner of South Salina Street and Brighton Avenue in Syracuse after a total of 50,000 square feet of additions from 1991 to 2006. Dunk & Bright also operates a 1 million-cubic-foot distribution center in Liverpool, N.Y.
The South Side Innovation Center (SSIC) was also born and sponsored by Syracuse University in 2006 in Dunk & Bright’s building across the parking lot from its main store.
“It is supporting an entrepreneurial renaissance in a neighborhood with untapped potential,” Bright said. “It holds more than 13,000 square feet of usable space for shared business services, the WISE Center and a large classroom for training and teaching.”
SSIC was created by the nationally ranked Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises (EEE) Program at the Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, and it aims to accomplish its mission through its resident programs.
Access to these programs include the Entrepreneurial Assistance Program (EAP), supporting clients and tenants of SSIC; the WISE Women’s Business Center for women seeking to start or grow a business; the Syracuse Community Test Kitchen (COMTEK) to help food entrepreneurs launch businesses; and the Start-Up NY/Program for Investment in Micro-entrepreneurs (PRIME) supporting disabled and low-income entrepreneurs with training and assistance.
Dunk & Bright’s space accommodating SSIC includes reception and administration; 27 offices with furniture, computers, Internet and telephone access; two conference rooms with whiteboards and audio-visual setups; a large meeting event area; a 30-seat classroom and training room; a 500-square-foot kitchen; a resource room for mail, fax and copies; mail receipt; free parking; 24-hour availability and access; and 24-hour security and surveillance.
Dunk & Bright’s involvement in the Syracuse community helps it reach the 75-mile radius it uses to promote the store.
“We continue to use most media channels, deploying traditional media as well as digital advertising and social media,” Bright said. “Offline seems to drive online.”
Bright added that the furniture store’s new e-commerce division has contributed to its sales growth this year.
“We are willing to try any and all digital platforms to test their effectiveness,” Bright said. “These are changes that help us run our business better and reach new customers and geo-target and target certain demographics in a less expensive way. You can try things to create a new advertising campaign, and in the digital age it’s much less expensive than television where you have the cost of production.
“We want customers to know about us, even if they’re more than 10 to 15 miles away,” Bright said. “We can market to Ithaca (N.Y.), for example, with Google AdWords and it’s a pittance to opening a second store there.”
Bright says they want to enhance what it does without disturbing their core, however, which lies in its selection and interior design services.
Building on Bedding
Dunk & Bright has recently expanded that core in its bedding department. Its new, in-store Mattress Shoppe has its own identity, its own entrance, its own advertising and a stronger focus on the mattress category, working with key vendor Serta to feature iComfort, iSeries, and Perfect Sleeper.
Jim Bright was recognized for his leadership in supporting the creation of the Mattress Shoppe with an award from an industry publication earlier this year. Erin Donaghy, Dunk & Bright’s marketing director, was also honored at the conference for a music video saluting Serta’s adjustable bedding.
“Opening the Mattress Shoppe in store [this past] January has been a success,” Bright said. “Our market has been solid and stable the last few years, and this year we are enjoying a nice double-digit percentage growth bump.”
Bright added that the store’s breadth of product selection, both in store and online, and its in-home interior design and custom order expertise sets it apart from other home furnishings retailers in its market.
“Our large display and selection gives us the opportunity to merchandise ‘good, better, best,’ and generally, we have a goal of stocking everything that we display,” Bright said. “We have one store with a lot of selection.”
Dunk & Bright’s management team talks about its cost of inventory regularly given such a large store.
“There’s been an evolution in the furniture industry of imported furniture,” Bright said. “Because of our selection, we carry domestically made furniture that you can custom order. There’s a starting price point in furniture. There’s a median price point and there’s expensive. We try to have that range.”
The trend toward offshore sourcing during the past decade means buying containers of furniture for Dunk & Bright.
“They’re very good value,” Bright said. “But we need to purchase a whole container of bedrooms, for example. We give the consumer choices of super-value container imports and of domestically made furniture. So, that leads to very high inventory.”
Design at Your Service
Meanwhile, half of Dunk & Bright’s sales staff is comprised of experienced interior designers.
“We offer this complimentary service,” Bright said. “We go to the home. We do a floor plan. We help put fabrics and finishes together. We have the ancillary categories that complement a completed room, like window and wall treatments, blinds and floor coverings. It doesn’t cost the customer anything. The customer doesn’t have to purchase everything, or anything for that matter.”
Bright thinks the decision to focus the retailer’s attention and investment on interior design services approximately five years ago was a big one.
“A lot of furniture stores have abandoned those aspects of the business,” Bright said. “They might have had a carpet department and got out of it because it’s a different selling process. You need installers, and you need to go to the home and measure carpet. You can’t just sell it like a sofa in the store.”
Bright says the same thing happens with window treatments.
“Hiring interior designers and encouraging them to do in-home floor plans for customers,” Bright said. “There’s an investment associated with that. For one thing, they’re out of your store and you have staffing issues. You need to think of that. When designers are out of the store, you have to have coverage.”
But Bright adds that his management team is under one roof, so when there is a problem or an opportunity, they can bring in their buyer or their specific manager.
“We’re all on the floor,” Bright said. “We’re all communicating constantly with customers. It’s very important to make sure the customer has had a good experience, especially in today’s social media environment. It’s more important what your customer says about your business than what you say about your business.”
Dunk & Bright
Headquarters: Syracuse, N.Y.
Year Founded: 1927
Footprint: A nearly 100,000-square-foot store in Syracuse, N.Y., and a 1 million-cubic-foot, high-bay modern distribution center in Liverpool, N.Y.
Key Vendors: Ashley Furniture, England, Flexsteel, Harden Furniture, Serta and Smith Brothers
Retail Revenue Range: $10 to $15 million
Key Management Personnel: Jim Bright, owner; Bill Flansburg, merchandising manager; Erin Donaghy, marketing director; Gary Cleveland, sales manager; and John Beaudry, distribution center manager
When you think of major U.S. markets, your eye might gravitate toward the seaboards. The Minneapolis region, home base for HOM Furniture, might be a familiar name across the country, but it remains among the nation’s metropolitan areas second tier.
That doesn’t mean it’s a dull market for home furnishings retailers.
“I am not going to lie—business has been challenging and it always will be,” said Kyle Johansen, merchandising manager at Coon Rapids, Minn.-based HOM. “No one is going to just lay down and let us take their market share. We have a lot of very tough competitors who keep us on our toes every day. Everyone is here and Minneapolis is only the 16th-largest market in the U.S.”
The region’s home furnishings retailers include Ashley, Slumberland, Schneidermans, Becker Furniture World, Macys, Mattress Firm and Ethan Allen—as well as lifestyle retailers such as Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Room and Board, Crate and Barrel. Don’t forget the big box guys in the game now such as Menards, Costco, Target, Big Lots and Ikea.
“Did I mention the online retailers like Wayfair and Hayneedle?” Johansen said. “We are always looking to keep our showrooms unique with fresh assortments and staffed with great, engaged people to compete with all those other outlets for furniture.
“Since we offer sofas from $267 to $20,000, everyone is our competitor. We do not have the luxury of being a niche store who only has to beat others selling, for example, high-end contemporary or low-end RTA.”
You might not have been there, but you’ve heard of Minneapolis—you’ve probably heard of HOM Furniture, too. The retailer has prospered in the upper Midwest through developing its namesake stores for appealing to the specific markets they serve; spreading its reach into upper price points through acquisition (Gabberts); and acting on retail trends that scream “value” to consumers (Dock86).
Now, HOM operates 15 namesake showrooms; three Gabberts Design Studio & Fine Furniture showrooms; and two Dock86 showrooms in Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin. Those combined for 2013 revenue approaching $216 million.
Starting Small, Ending Big
HOM Furniture’s roots go back more than 40 years to 1973, with the founding of JC Imports. Wayne Johansen (Kyle’s uncle) opened a small wholesale and retail import gift business in partnership with his uncle and mentor, Bill Christensen, who’d been paralyzed in an accident at age 19.
The two would drive down to Mexico, where Christensen found affordable treatment and his nephew found affordable merchandise and jewelry
In 1979, a friend convinced Wayne to convert one of his retail gift shops into a waterbed retail outlet, The Waterbed Room, which soon became the largest retailer of flotation sleep products in the upper Midwest.
Recognizing the need to expand product lines to capture greater market share, two HOM Oak & Leather showrooms opened in 1990. In 1993, to expand customer reach, all Waterbed Room showrooms were converted to Total Bedroom showrooms, along with further expansion of HOM Oak & Leather.
In 1996 HOM Oak & Leather and Total Bedroom were merged into one entity, HOM Furniture, making HOM a complete full-line furniture retailer.
The business continued to grow, and in 2008 Wayne, his brother, CEO Rod Johansen (Kyle’s father) and COO Carl Nyberg forged a deal to purchase high-end Minneapolis retailer Gabberts Furniture.
“The aspiration was to open Gabberts gallery stores across the upper mid-west to expand the brand in multiple markets,” Kyle Johansen said. “Today there is a Gabbert's gallery in Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Fargo, and opening in 2015 a second Minneapolis location.”
In 2009 HOM was on the move again and acquired Seasonal Concepts, one of the largest specialty outdoor and Christmas businesses in the country; merged the concept into HOM’s full line furniture stores and branded the department "HOM Seasonal Concepts" in every HOM Store.
2010 brought another year of brand extension as HOM opened a new concept showroom called "Dock86," playing off the "weekends only" and "The Dump" approach of offering high value with no frills and only open four days a week. A second location was opened in 2013 in Minneapolis adjacent to a new HOM showroom.
Filling the Floor, Selling the Product
HOM includes multiple brands (see Sidebar: Brand Extensions), but it seeks to tell distinct stories even on its namesake floors.
“Merchandising is a key component of any furniture showroom and we put a lot of time, money, and thought into how our showrooms layout from a sense of product flow as well as how vignettes are created and where our galleries are located throughout the store,” Kyle Johansen said. “We don't want every HOM Showroom to look exactly the same, so each HOM store will provide a different, yet similar, experience.
Each HOM showroom has its own design team of visual merchandisers, who get full authority to put whatever lamp, rug, cocktail table, and accessories in each vignette they choose.
“Even though all the product is the same it's offered in a different way in each showroom,” Johansen said. “These teams often meet together to share best practices and bring ideas to their stores.”
How would you like customers to cross-shop your floors if you have multiple storefronts?
“We often hear from customers they have a ‘favorite’ showroom they like to shop as well as customers who will shop multiple HOM locations,” Johansen said. “Our merchandising team consists of over 30 designers between all the stores and our corporate team. The HOM Stores are unique in the sense that we do a combination of gallery plus departmental sales.
Those galleries include "Fine Furniture" (higher-end lifestyle), "Seasonal Concepts" (outdoor and seasonal), "Uptown" (reclaimed, vintage, eclectic), "Amish Craftsman" (all Amish-made furniture), "Sleep Express" (mattresses), "Lodge" (rustic lodge cabin-style furniture made in Minnesota), and "Bargain Shop" (entry level price points such as $267 Sofa),
“We have a great group of buyers and merchandisers that make the showrooms pop and look fantastic,” Johansen said. “Our corporate merchandising teams visit the stores weekly to ensure everything is in perfection. They often ask us what the standard is. and we always say you need to look like the "Best HOM Store" you cannot compare yourself to a local competitor that perhaps has a low standard for merchandising or a low standard for store cleanliness.
“Our experienced buyers travel all over the world to get the best products at the best prices to give our customers the best value. Besides the U.S., we buy from Europe, Mexico, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan.
Beyond product, HOM emphasizes training for the people encountering the shoppers.
“We have a very talented group of stores sales associates that make a huge difference,” Johansen said. “No one wants to buy furniture from someone who says ‘Ya, this is a good brown couch and its cheap.’ We do extensive training with our sales teams before they even see the retail floor.
“Then they get further support training several times a year from our corporate sales trainer as well as buyer training, sales managers, and of course training by our mfg representatives. We even have a ‘HOM University’ online that everyone must enroll and pass.”
Telling Several Stories
Each HOM store has its own identity, logos, music, color scheme, and marketing approach based on the customers it targets.
“So, between the big three (brands) we are creating three different marketing campaigns each month,” Johansen said. “To make matters more confusing, each brand has sub-galleries, such as in Gabberts case Stickley; in HOMs case Uptown, Sleep Express, Amish, Fine Furniture, and Seasonal Concepts.”
He praised the efforts of Marketing Director Jerry Underwood and HOM’s internal marketing team for handling that array of messages.
“We shoot a lot of our own photography as well as TV commercials; and we do that internally, along with all the post production and editing work,” Johansen said. “We also do our own Web sites internally which is a huge undertaking by our buyers, and marketing and IT Teams. We have a social media manager who works solely on our Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Houzz accounts.
“We even have our own media buyer who negotiates our TV commercial rates and placements in all of our markets.”
Full, 24-page Sunday go into local newspapers; and HOM also incorporates electronic bill boards, radio, magazine, and other forms of online marketing into its messaging.
“When we launched Dock86 we even wrapped the Minneapolis Light Rail transits and buses with our logos,” Johansen said. “Due to the huge amount of marketing we do its hard to put your finger on the most effective tool. We believe it’s a combination of everything that gets the word out about our brands and what is going on and why they should come in to buy today.”
Johansen believes HOM in a great position to grow all its brands into current markets and expand into new ones.
“We are very fortunate to be in a strong financial position to make moves when they present themselves, and our ownership has the vision to see around the corner,” he said.
Look for the Internet to play a greater role in the business.
“Whether its Amazon, Ashley, Wayfair, or Target.com they are all investing very heavy into their online capabilities and as consumers get more comfortable shopping (and buying) online that medium will continue to play a critical role in our industry,” Johansen said. “I do not think the Internet will take the same market share in furniture that it has in electronics but it will continue to grow at a much higher pace then the rest of the industry.“The Internet is absolutely critical to the future of our business. We’ve hired a whole team of Web designers and programmers who know the systems and the language.”
In late November, the store launched a new version of HOMFurniture.com that looks to optimize online customer service and e-commerce capabilities.
“Our long-term strategy is to do more nationwide selling and shipping, but our goal today is to support our existing customers who might want to purchase online,” Johansen said. “They can schedule a delivery or store pickup, too.”
While HOM’s delivery routes extend across multiple states, Johansen said the retailer is in no hurry to build out its e-commerce efforts further afield.
“If someone want’s a lamp in California, we can do that, but we aren’t ready yet for national shipment of a bedroom set,” he noted. “For now, we mainly want to give the (e-commerce) convenience to our local customer.”
By: Powell Slaughter
John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon are bringing design chops honed during two decades in New York to bear in a home furnishings retail concept in High Point that looks to blend a distinct style aesthetic with a whole lot of fun.
Madcap Cottage Design Laboratory held its grand opening during October High Point Furniture Market in a former pharmacy off North Main Street. The store might be new, but the partners have developed a strong resumé not only in interior design, but also in curated vintage and antique finds available through e-commerce sites such as One Kings Lane and 1stDibs.com; and a line of bedding, window treatments and pillows at HSN.com.
Loecke and Nixon also appear regularly as design experts in print and on television.
The two chose High Point for its proximity to a huge array of showrooms that give Madcap customers access to lines not on the floor; and the abundance of skilled craftsmen—many of the accessories in the 2,000-square-foot storefront are produced locally.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Loecke and Nixon founded their interior design firm, Madcap Cottage, 10 years ago. The online partnerships, and now Madcap Cottage Design Laboratory, grew from the partners’ reaction to the recession’s impact on any business related to the home.
“In 2008, we looked at what was what was going on and realized we needed to diversify into multiple revenue streams,” Nixon said. “As the landscape was changing and the economy was slowing, we wanted to make sure revenue was coming in and not be reliant on a single source.”
The team “got in early” he said, at One Kings Lane, where they’re on their 15th curated collection with the flash-sale site. Those efforts reflect the style sense and atmosphere Loecke and Nixon aim to bring to their retail storefront.
“These were products we found all over the world that we tweaked to our style with new fabrics and finishes,” Nixon said. “It’s sophisticated fun, traditional with a twist.”
Here’s how the Madcap Web site describes it: “Imagine a British country house that pairs Granny’s antiques and a spirited dash of Chinoiserie chic with a soupçon of Morocco-meets-India élan. Shake, stir, then pour.”
HAVING FUN, TELLING STORIES
Loecke and Nixon have a lot of fun in their work, and that’s the atmosphere their store projects.
“Decorating shouldn’t be stuffy and serious,” Nixon said. “It’s for rooms you live in—we emphasize pattern, color and a sense of whimsy.
“We’re creating our ideal of interior design, and why can’t it be retail? That’s where we’re moving.”
The store also reflects the experience of curating collections at sites such as One Kings Lane. Ninety percent of the furnishings in the High Point store are “tweaked” vintage pieces.
“These are one-offs,” Nixon noted. “Nothing is mass produced.”
There’s plenty of local talent to help with that tweaking, and also produce accessories such as dog leashes (the partners own three rescue dogs) for the store—all one of a kind items.
“You’re buying our view of the world—we’re storytellers,” Nixon said.
Telling those stories is where Madcap differentiates itself.
“What makes us different is that from years of working with design clients, we’ve found that people want a story,” Loecke said. “They want something more than ‘Oh, this is pretty.’ They want to be able to tell people ‘This piece came from Turkey.’ They want the background behind the pieces. … We’ll show them how they can work it into an existing setting.”
While the store is full of one-of-a-kind pieces, Madcap Cottage has long partnered with companies such as Century and Baker on projects. The partners’ access to vendors’ showrooms was a driving factor for setting up their retail operation in High Point.
“While we don’t necessarily stock those furniture lines on the floor, we have access to them through our design arm,” Loecke said. “We take people through the process of mixing in a piece from Baker with other lines—we don’t do a home in a single collection. A home shouldn’t look like a furniture showroom or a Restoration Hardware catalog.”
For a day rate, the partners will take customers shopping in High Point showrooms.
“Those are such amazing resources,” Nixon said. “You’ll see more Baker furniture in High Point than you’ll see in any showroom around the country.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Madcap Cottage Design Laboratory’s advertising strategy also is unique—it doesn’t.
“We’re lucky enough to get a lot of exposure through our book publishings and being referred to as design experts in magazines and on television,” Loecke said. “I’m on a local segment every Friday on WGHP Fox-8 (the High Point Fox affiliate). We’ve had a lot of international press as far away as China. We have a strong following in High Point, but also in Europe and the U.K.
“This is a High Point business, and we’re delivering to customers here. But this week we also shipped to Tennessee.”
Madcap’s approach is a natural for social media, and the partners have developed strong followings on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. While they don’t advertise they are constantly thinking about marketing.
“We’re all about engagement, and we’ve developed regional, national and international relationships,” Loecke said.
Domino magazine, for instance, hosted Madcap Cottage Design Laboratory’s grand opening party the Sunday evening of October Market.
“Sunday turned out to be a night that it seemed everyone was doing something, but we had a great turnout,” Loecke said. “We were supposed to run 5 to 7 p.m., but ended up open till 11:30. We had around 250 people.”
In late November, Madcap Cottage launched its own e-commerce platform in addition to the business it’s done for years at other sites.
“On our site, you’ll find all the things that round out the design experience in the store,” Loecke said. “We’ve been selling on One Kings Lane and 1stDibs now for the past for years, and customers can access those lines through our site as well.”
That e-commerce site will reflect the High Point store’s merchandising approach and will change constantly.
“We call the High Point location a ‘design laboratory’ because there’s always something happening,” Nixon said. “The store changes completely every month. You’re always walking into a space where something is new and different.
“Retail often reaches the lowest common denominator, where there’s nothing aspirational. Ours is an idea of surprise and discovery—give the lady what she doesn’t know she wants.”
Loecke and Nixon are working right now on their fourth book, which focuses on bringing the “fun factor” back into decorating. Along with national and international press exposure as design experts, the books and social media activities should continue to raise the partners’ profile.
They’ll also look to new partnerships for growing the business.
“I see a fabric line for sure in the next year,” Nixon said. “We’ll be announcing that not too long from now.
“I also see a furniture license happening with a national retailer that has a brick-and-mortar presence.”
Loecke said partnerships with furniture and fabric companies will give Madcap a presence in other retail spaces.
“We won’t be opening stores coast to coast, and that’s part of our vision for retail,” he said. “One problem with a lot of retailers is that it isn’t special anymore—you have a Pottery Barn everywhere, and it’s a lot different than when there were only a couple of locations.
“We don’t want to lose that quality of being special. People can shop us online without coming to High Point, but if they come to High Point, we’ll be a destination.”
Sometimes retailers are surprised at what strikes a chord with customers in the communities they serve—the sort of thing that makes a business a local institution.
In Knight Furniture’s case, it was a scale—an antique in front of the retailer’s main store in Sherman, Texas.
“We had a scale in front of our store that’s apparently become a community fixture,” said Joey Gunn, director of advertising and buyer at Knight, who represents the company’s fourth generation of family management. “It’s an old scale from the 1920s or ‘30s. It broke, so we pulled it inside until we could get the part.
“It’s so old that you can’t just go out and find parts for it anywhere, so we had it in back for a while until we could get it replaced.”
Gunn found himself inundated with messages asking where the scale was—apparently a lot of folks liked to stop and check their weight.
“I flirted with the idea of running a ‘save the scale’ sale,” he joked.
It might not have been a bad idea. Knight Furniture indeed is a local institution—dating back to 1912, when the store was founded. Knight operates two namesake stores in Sherman and Gainesville, Texas, on the outer fringe of the greater Dallas area; and an Ashley Furniture HomeStore it opened in Sherman two years ago.
CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING MARKET
Knight Furniture was founded 112 years ago by Joey Gunn’s great uncle, J.B. Knight. Back then Dallas was a lot farther away than it is now. While Knight Furniture competes today in a bigger world—metro Dallas—than its founder did, the store still has a “hometown” approach to dealing with customers that works.
“We’re about quality and value, and while that sounds old, you have to remember we’ve been serving this area for over a hundred years,” Gunn said. “We hear about customers buying things here that have become family heirlooms. We’re not going to be the place that sells the $100 sofa they’ll throw away in a year.”
Pretty soon, Knight and every other furniture retailer in metro Dallas will face a well-financed competitor that’s about to make a cannonball into the local pool—Nebraska Furniture Mart’s half-million-plus-square-foot showroom set to open next year.
Gunn actually looks forward to that challenge, since it will put a spotlight on furniture for miles around.
“They have a great organization, and I’ve been to their Kansas City store,” Gunn said. “They will make furniture popular in Dallas, and that’s a good thing, they’re going to make furniture cool—but if furniture’s going to be cool again, you have to be relevant and be part of the conversation.”
That kind of completion had better make retailers in the area pay attention to what they’re doing.
“You can’t get lazy—no matter what you’re telling your customer, they deserve more than that,” Gunn said. “Competition brings everyone up.”
Not only that, Gunn doesn’t think other furniture stores are Knight’s real competition as long as it takes care of its own business.
“The home furnishings industry competes with movie theaters, with maybe buying another car or a boat,” he said.
It’s all about what people have to spend, and with all the options out there, Gunn welcomes anything that puts furniture front-and-center in consumers’ minds.
All of which is not to say Knight Furniture is just waiting for a rising tide of furniture awareness. The retailer is in the midst of a remerchandising effort at the main Sherman store that will put key categories front and center in the three-story facility.
While bedding sales have run a respectable 18 to 21 percent of revenue, Knight was worried it was losing sales in the category. Right now, it’s moving its bedding department from the third to the first floor in an area designed by Connie Post.
“There were customers who came in here, purchased product and loved us, but never made it to the third floor,” Gunn said. “One of my worst fears is that people buy their furniture here but don’t even know we have bedding. And the Mattress Firm fraternity makes sure those people know they can get it at their stores.”
The Sherman store is on a square in town that gets a lot of foot traffic—and attention, remember the scale?—and Knight is big on window merchandising.
“We’re always changing what’s in our front window,” Gunn said. “Since we’re on a square, we have a lot of people walking by, so we pay a lot of attention to those front windows.
“We create what we call ‘lifestyle pods’ where we offer a complete look. We change a lot, because all of a sudden that look can get stale, and we aren’t relevant.”
Knight Furniture’s window clings also capitalize on the retailer’s foot-traffic curb appeal.
“We have those themed along lifestyles like ‘Relax’ or ‘Comfort,’” Gunn said. “One of our tag lines for advertising is ‘We’ll make you feel at home,’ so we play to that.”
REACHING THE AUDIENCE
Figuring out the new advertising landscape is a challenge.
“Before 2008, you could get your advertising on TV and make sure the whole region saw you,” Gunn said. “Now, a lot of people have Dallas channels, Sherman channels, then you throw in cable and U-Verse.
“We’re still promoting a family feeling, and that it’s about the relationship and not necessarily making the sale. Sometimes we’re so busy selling something that we forgot to make a friend.”
Knight also is latching onto the days that get shoppers shopping. An event like Black Friday wasn’t important to Knight Furniture even a couple of years ago.
“I don’t know if it was because we didn’t have our message out there or that we’re just now catching up with what shoppers are doing in other categories,” Gunn said. “The amount of business we do on non-holidays versus holidays? There’s a lot of water flowing downhill out there, and you can tell when you’re hot and when you’re not.”
UP AND COMERS
Joey Gunn, 31, is heavily involved in an industry effort to build bridges among the rising generation of retail and vendor leaders—Next Generation Now.
After working in his family’s business since his warehouse days at age 14, he was very glad to encounter other young folk that wanted to carry on a tradition.
“Five or six years ago, that kind of thing wasn’t important to me, and I wasn’t important to them, but then I got to where I was making decisions here,” Gunn said. “I walked into a room and found a bunch of people with the same problems.”
By dint of age, Gunn and his fellow generation members find their elders looking to them for answers to breaking ground in areas such as e-commerce and social media as it relates to furniture retailing.
“They want us to solve the ‘technology crisis,’ and we’re front and center on that,” Gunn said. “That’s good, but even though I started working in our warehouse when I was 14, as far as being in a decision making role, it’s only been about five years.”
He said his focus is finding out who Knight’s customers are and who’ll they be in the next few decades.
“We’re at a very tricky stage,” Gunn said. “We want new customers, but we can’t lose our base. If we don’t get hold of the ones who are coming, we won’t do well.”
A focus on full design service, strong partnerships—social and businesswise—in the community and a search for products nobody else carries have Contents Interiors primed to reap the benefits of a rebounding economy.
Owners Carol Bell, president, and Tamara Scott-Anderson, vice president, built on a strong foundation after acquiring the store 13 years ago, and developed it from a furniture store into a soup-to-nuts design center for contemporary and traditional southwest home owners.
Bell had worked as store manager for Contents furniture 10 years, when the previous owners, Linda and Ken Smalley, decided they were ready to retire. The decision was unexpected, because construction on a new showroom for the store was well under way.
In October 2001, the Smalleys made an offer to Carol to buy the business. Carol was faced with looking for a new job or taking over a business that she new well and loved.
BUILDING ON STRENGTH Her choice to accept the offer was a no-brainer—the challenge was pulling together the resources and talent she needed on short notice. Bell called a previous employee of Contents, Tamara Scott-Anderson, and offered a partnership in the business. Scott-Anderson had worked for the company eight years as an interior designer and home furnishing sales associate before leaving on good terms in 1995. An ASID member, she had moved on to expand her expertise in the construction side of interior design.
Scott-Anderson was ready for the change and the challenge. The new owners formed a business plan, found financing and started building their staff in a very short amount of time. The new showroom opened with new owners in March 2002.
“We were fortunate to buy an established business with a good reputation,” Bell said. “When people ask what the best decision we’ve made is, I said it was to say ‘yes’ to the offer.”
In addition to a good name locally, Bell and Scott-Anderson benefited from years of networking in the Contemporary Design Group, of which Contents Interiors was an early member.
The partners have divvied up responsibilities: Bell is chief buyer and runs the business side of the operation; Scott-Anderson is lead designer and manages the showroom floor and a staff of five design professionals.
A NEW SPIN While Bell and Scott-Anderson bought an established business, they had their own ideas of where they wanted to take it. They expanded on selling quality home furnishing to include more interior design services. Contents Interiors is one of the few local retail interior design/furniture showrooms in Tucson to hold an Arizona Contractors license; and is licensed and bonded to do non-structural interior design work both residentially and commercially.
“When I was working for (the Smalleys) we were a furniture store with accessories,” Scott-Anderson said. “When Carol and I took over we decided we wanted to offer more services and products—window coverings, wall-to-wall carpeting or tile.
“We got our contractors license. … That’s one of the things that makes us different from a lot of other stores. … I can help pick out lighting, plumbing and other fixtures, and work with another licensed contractor (for installation).”
The partners also set aside part of the showroom to showcase resources and work on projects in a 400-square-foot design resource center.
“Selling furniture is still what pays the bills for us,” Bell said, “but a lot of the people who buy furniture come back to us when they have a design project; and we have a nice relationship with several builders.”
MAXIMUM MERCHANDISING When it comes to the floor, Contents creates a lot to look at.
“People tell us we don’t look like a lot of furniture stores,” Bell said. “We’ll change things out: One year we focused on ‘contemporary Southwest.’
“We have what we call our ‘Tucson traditional,’ It’s a hacienda feel with a touch of Tuscan. The front of the store is where we keep the contemporary and softer traditional looks. We do a lot of what we call ‘organic contemporary’ with reclaimed woods.”
Contents doesn’t sell on the Internet, but it’s Web site is very useful in giving shoppers a sense of what they need to look for in the showroom through an online “style test.” The detailed quiz helps customers drill down to which lifestyle sections in the store are most simpatico with their sensibilities. From general styles of casual, contemporary, traditional, eclectic and southwestern, the shopper’s responses steer her toward the store’s “contemporary,” “comfortable desert living” or “Tucson traditional” settings.
“People can go to the Web site and pick their look,” Bell said. “They can take the test and feel confident saying ‘I’m Tucson traditional.’”
The key is creating an impressive visual display of products customers might not see anywhere else in the market while avoiding clutter.
“It’s packed full of accessories and artwork,” Scott-Anderson said. “We have at least three items on each table; and we showcase local artists on a regular basis. We have an art show of Arizona artists, and the ones who sell, we’ll show year round.”
“It’s our way of staying in touch with the local arts scene, and it’s good business,” Bell added. “The showroom always looks fresh. If something doesn’t move, the artist always is ready to trade out for a different work. We also have a strong stock in production art work as well.”
“People say there’s so much to see that you have to walk around two or three times to take it all in,” Scott-Anderson said. “We like to be on the cutting edge, even if Tucson is sometimes a little behind the latest colors and trends.
“We carry lines that offer a lot of customization for special ordering, and we blend that in with container lines. Those always look better mixed in with the (customizable) furniture.”
MIXED AD CHANNELS When it comes to promoting the store, a mix of advertising and promotional vehicles is working best at Contents Interiors.
“Direct mail has been most popular,” Bell said. “Because we’re more design-oriented than some stores, we do the local shelter magazines. We do newspaper ads for sales events.
“We have a great community of retirees here, and they still read the newspapers. We also have several publications targeted at high-end neighborhoods, and this year we’re back on television with ads.”
For added personality, Scott-Anderson’s dog, Freeway, is an important element of the store’s Facebook persona.
Other new advertising vehicles are under consideration: “Someone should create a new magazine for iPad,” Bell said. “Digital is becoming more important, and we’re figuring out how we want to handle that.”
New this year is a custom-published magalog through Contemporary Design Group that Contents Interiors will send out as a direct-mail piece.
“In addition to this opportunity, there are lots of other benefits” to CDG membership, Scott-Anderson noted. “The previous owners were among the original members. Over the last few years, (CDG) has been more like a performance group.”
THE CONTENTS DIFFERENCE What else makes Contents Interiors different from other home furnishings retailers in the Tucson market?
Contents Interiors’ “master plan,” sort of a house call on steroids, is big differentiator for the store.
“It’s not just a house call, we do an extensive interview to pin down likes and dislikes, the customer’s goals for the home,” Scott-Anderson said. “We have a graphic artist who produces floor plans to scale with rugs and furniture included, and we deliver that in a formal presentation.
“We’re about being professional designers and giving people a program they’ll be happy with, that fits their home, and avoids buying mistakes.”
That tailored approach has the partners feeling good about a rebounding market for home furnishings, especially at better price points.
The store didn’t have any debt going into the recession, and during slow times, events such as art shows and design seminars kept people coming through the doors even if their buying appetites weren’t as strong as before the real estate bubble burst back in 2008.
“We’re on Fort Lowell street, where there were eight furniture stores,” before the recession, Scott-Anderson recalled. “We’d advertise together as the Fort Lowell Furniture District. There are three left.”
For the past 11 months, business has been very good, Bell said.
“We held our breath for five years, but now homes and subdivisions are building again—Tucson had a huge housing bubble,” she noted. “We’ve initiated a realtor program where we sign up realtors and give them a gift certificate for new home owners to come shop with us. Who sees a homeowner sooner than the realtor? That is proving very successful in getting new customers, and we include it as part of our advertising program.”
The program really took off after the partners hired Lee Goodrum as realtor program director.
“He goes to open houses and realtor meetings for presentations,” Scott Anderson said. “The fact we have someone managing that program is what made it successful. Carol and I had been doing it in our spare time, but there’s too much going on in the market for us to get the most out of it and run the store at the same time.”
CRYSTAL BALLING Looking ahead, the partners believe technology will have the biggest impact on how furniture retailers operate. They are exploring ways to utilize technology to enhance brick-and-mortar stores’ competitive position vis à vis online retailers.
“I’m not an Internet shopper yet, but I find myself going online a lot because it’s so easy,” Bell said. “When I see some of the Web sites like Joss & Main, they’re doing a fabulous job with room presentations. Brick-and-mortar stores need to do more to bring technology into our environment.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean selling online.
“It’s not who we are,” Scott-Anderson said. “Our business model is having a professional designer help people outfit their homes.”
One of the vendors with which Contents Interiors’ has an exclusive in Tucson, Lee Inds., has partnered with an online magazine, RestyleSource.com. It’s an example of the sort of technology the store wants to pursue.
“If you like something in one of the articles there, you can find out who carries it,” Bell said. “If you click on our store, it shows the Lee product we carry and a presentation of what we do. This is a Web site that’s all about getting people into brick-and-mortar stores.”
Along with market exclusives from the likes of Lee and American Leather, Contents also focuses on private labeling in order to combat showrooming.
“And when they say they saw an item in the store online, we coach our staff to explain the service level we offer,” Bell said. “We tell them to read the fine print on shipping, ask if the (online dealer) handles warranty problems or damage in transit. They might not bring the furniture inside the home, un-box it and set it up.
“What if there’s a problem down the road? We come to the house to make sure it’s right.”
GENDER GAP For the most part, Bell and Scott-Anderson, find advantages in running a women-owned business. Still, furniture remains a boys’ club in some ways.
“The one thing that comes up to this day is if we walk into a new showroom at market, they want to know if we’re independent designers or have a showroom,” Bell said. “I guarantee you a husband-and-wife team doesn’t get that question.”
That’s why the Contents partners put a photograph of their store on the back of their business cards: “It gets us past that quickly,” Bell said.
Scott-Anderson believes that two women bosses create a different—in many ways better—culture in the store.
“I believe we’ve built a company that’s like a family,” she said. “Of our 10 employees, half have been with us for eight years or longer.
“I believe it’s helped create a nurturing environment for our employees.”
“We knew she was wonderful, just not how wonderful,” Bell said. “We’re on our fourth bookkeeper so far this year. Losing a person, especially in bookkeeping, has been a challenge.”
Unreasonable customers—fortunately a rarity at Contents—account for most of Vice President Tamara Scott-Anderson’s sleep deprivation.
“The customer is not always right,” she said. “I can deal with angry customers who are reasonable. It’s the ones who have unrealistic expectations that are hard to handle.”
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