Economic uncertainty and the burst housing bubble have left furniture stores feeling wobblier than a chair with three legs, with flat sales and a number of bankruptcies and store closings across the country.
But despite the difficult conditions, many stores are still investing in their businesses with an eye on the future – including Furnitureland South.
Located in Jamestown, near High Point, the store bills itself as the world's largest home furnishings showplace. Indeed, it's larger than ever, with 1.3 million square feet of showroom space and more in an advanced 475,000-square-foot distribution center that opened this summer after a $15 million expansion. It also has the world's first Starbucks inside of a furniture store.
Still run by CEO Darrell Harris, 65, who founded the store in 1969, Furnitureland is also working to collaborate more with customers and interior decorators on design projects, to go beyond simply buying a piece of furniture. It's also boosting its selection of value-priced offerings and is doubling the size of its outlet center.
With sales of $164 million last year, down from nearly $169 million in 2006, Furnitureland ranks 47th on Furniture Today magazine's list of top 100 U.S. furniture stores. An estimated 5 percent to 7 percent of its business comes from Charlotte, a figure that officials say is growing because the housing downturn has been comparatively mild locally.
Darrell Harris and his son Jason Harris, 36, an executive vice president of the company, spoke with the Observer about their business. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. What's the state of furniture retail today?
Darrell Harris: We compare the retail furniture business to going hunting, and I don't think the birds are flying right now, if you know what I'm saying. We work very hard to make the very best presentation to the customers out there… . It's just a matter of getting them here.
Q. How is the economy affecting your business?
Jason Harris: The economy is topsy-turvy, and I don't think buying new furniture is really top-of-mind for a lot of folks. It's something that can be delayed. We're pretty tied in with the housing industry, as well, and so many people are holding tight right now because they want to sell their home and buy a new home, but they can't afford to take a 30, 40 percent loss.
On the flip side of that, we see some opportunities right now with the weak dollar with our international business. (It's) really flourishing with folks coming in from Canada, the Middle East, different islands in the Caribbean….Even England and Ireland are growing areas for us. There's no doubt about it, our traffic is way down…but we're taking this opportunity to really become better as a retailer.
Q. What do customers want now?
JH: It's very rare for us to see somebody come in and say, “I want the cheapest bedroom set that you have.” They have a budget, and some have more to spend than others, but we try to find that intersection of style, quality and value. Everyone wants the best quality they can get for the dollar. People want a sense of individuality in their environment – they want their own personal style.
DH: People are looking at a great value and they want service to go along with it. We try to be honest with our customers and try to have integrity. We're frugal people, so consequently, we can guide the customer. We try to show them the difference between a $500 sofa and a $1,000 sofa.
Q. How have gas prices shaped your business lately?
JH: We do about 70 percent of our business outside of North Carolina, 80 percent in 10 states on the East Coast. Obviously, it costs more to come here. There's a number of factors that are hurting us. I will say, furniture is a better value than it's ever been before – a $5,000 bedroom suite four years ago is $3,000 today. There have been a lot more players that have come into the market, also, with all the offshore manufacturing that's going on….That has really increased competition on a manufacturing side and brought prices down.
DH: Our industry is still really very vibrant and strong in this country, and you've got greater choices than you've ever had. You've got some beautiful upholstered pieces right now. People come from all over the world to get the great fabrics we have in this country.
Q. Where do you go from here?
DH: This is our livelihood. I've invested my whole life in this little corner of 135 acres and 2 million square feet. We've worked hard for our consumers and we want to leave them with a great value….There's no great big secret. It's just hard work.
JH: We can't misread or mishandle our customers. They're our biggest advertising force out there. So I think it's just been, maintaining those relationships, making sure we stick with core things we know people want: Value, service and selection. Every conversation we have around here is focused on “How can we do those things better?” Our customer service is the best, and I think that's what's kept us viable as others have faltered.