Alaska retailer goes to great lengths to save on freight

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Five years ago, Home Furnishings Association member Donny Dean could see the writing on the wall. His home electronics store was getting hammered by e-commerce sites, so he pulled the plug and started selling furniture. Image Home Furnishings of Wasilla, Alaska, was born.

In 2017, he saw a different writing on the wall. Two bigger furniture chain stores in Wasilla that sold on volume were killing him on price. Instead of getting out of the furniture business, Dean found another solution.

He bought a truck. A pretty big one, too.

And that, says Dean, made all the difference. These days, Image Home Furnishings isn’t just surviving against its bigger, leaner competitors, it’s thriving.

A year ago, Dean started an advertising campaign centered on no freight charges. Customers have come to expect free shipping on items in the continental United States, but Alaska and Hawaii are different. Even Amazon won’t offer free shipping to Wasilla, a logging and agricultural city about 30 miles east of Anchorage.

Dean was paying about $18,000 a month for a single truckload of furniture from England Furniture in Tennessee. Last year, Dean and his fiancé, Beth Halligan, enrolled in a three-day truck-driving class in Arizona and earned their commercial driver’s licenses. Then they bought a new 2018 Freightliner Cascadia truck along with a 53-foot trailer.

Learning on the road

To say Dean was a novice truck driver is an understatement. “We didn’t know anything beyond how to drive the truck,” he says. “When we bought the trailer, they had to show us how to hook it up. We didn’t know how to park at a rest stop. It was a huge learning curve.”

Dean and Halligan learned on the road. They spent about 150 days traveling between Wasilla and New Tazewell, Tenn., where England’s plant is located. Before you rush off to Google, we’ll do the math for you: That’s 4,052 miles each way.

But the number Dean is most obsessed with is the $14,000 he estimates he saves with each shipment. Since Dean introduced his “no freight charges” program more than a year ago, sales at Image Home Furnishings are up 25 percent. “We’re just moving furniture every day,” he says. “I wish I’d thought of this a lot sooner.”

Dean has a strong core of workers to run the store while he’s away, but the question remains: Does he ever get tired of life on the road? “Are you kidding?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “I spent my entire life behind a desk in retail. I’m having a blast!”

1,000+ miles a day

Because Dean shares the driving with Halligan, the couple can avoid the federal government’s strict hours-of-service regulations. With two drivers sharing the work, Dean says they only need to take 30-minute breaks every eight hours. It takes the couple four days to drive from Wasilla to Tennessee.

The savings are passed on to customers. Dean says an England sofa that he once sold for $1,450 now sells for about $800. He says his competition, Bailey’s Furniture and Furniture Enterprises of Alaska, which rely heavily on outside freight carriers, are finding it difficult to compete. “They can’t go much lower than what they already have in them because they sell on volume. The margins won’t allow them to come down much more.”

He says bigger furniture stores are starting to take control of their own shipping like fellow HFA members Jordan’s, American Furniture Warehouse and Jerome’s. “I really think it’s the future of the industry,” says Dean. “More and more stores are wanting more control of their orders and getting them in a timely way and being able to control costs.”

Customers welcome them home

Dean says furniture stores are no strangers to sales and promotions. What makes his story unique is that he is transparent in passing on the savings. “People want to believe they’re getting a deal, and our narrative, the way we tell it, shows them what they’re getting,” he says.

The couple will leverage social media on a road trip, chronicling their journey and letting residents in and around Wasilla know when they’ll be back in town with a new shipment.

“When we’re back in town you absolutely see a pickup in traffic and business,” he says. “It’s like people are waiting for us to get back.”  

Read the Shop Talk blog at https://myhfa.org/category/shop-talk/ .

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