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From Home Furnishing Business


Evolution Theory

By: Powell Slaughter

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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