Image shows a man wearing coat and tie standing in a furniture showroom
Darvin Furniture and Mattress President Will Harris is leading the Chicago-area retailer in its 100th anniversary year.

At 100, Darvin sees a bright future

If you’ve been in business for a century, you’ve pushed through some hard times.

“In the same spirit of overcoming past challenges, we’ve overcome this one,” Darvin Furniture & Mattress President Will Harris said in a recent conversation.

Strict stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus crisis kept Darvin’s store in Orland Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, closed for more than two months. But it never stopped doing business – good business, in fact. The company already had a successful website and strong digital engagement with customers, but that “dramatically increased” through April and May, Harris said.

One idea: Darvin set up a “Critical Needs Call Center” staffed seven days a week. This invited customers to define for themselves what home furnishings products they found to be essential for living through lockdowns or working-at-home requirements and order them for delivery. And many did – enough “to keep the lights on,” Harris said.

The store reopened May 30 to good traffic, but it kept up its Critical Needs Call Center and other new ways that designers and sales associates interact with customers. These innovations were already underway, but the pandemic accelerated the trend.

“We recognize the importance of offering a robust digital marketplace for our customers to shop online at darvin.com and we have been offering a successful e-commerce model for many years,” third-generation co-owner Steve Darvin said. “While we see the digital component as an important part of our business, we still believe our customers get the most from shopping with us by engaging with our staff’s expert associates in person.”

[Furniture retailers think outside the box]

‘The future of retail is bright for great stores’

Home Furnishings Association member Darvin is an unusual Top 100 furniture retailer in that it operates a single store. That store offers more than 200,000 square feet of showroom space, so it invests a lot to bring in customers. But, increasingly, those customers have shopped online and know what they want to buy before they visit the store, Harris said. But the in-person experience is still important.

“Great stores are a commodity that are worth visiting,” Harris said. “The future of retail is bright and getting brighter for great stores.”

Harris only joined Darvin in January, arriving from his family business, Harris Family Furniture, in New Hampshire. Steve Darvin, and his brother Marty, remain as directors of the company. Harris has brought lots of energy and creativity to his role, appearing in social media videos, hiring influencers and spearheading other innovations. During the shutdown, staff produced in-house ads, which made up with sincerity what they lacked in polish, according to Harris.

Darvin also launched a Community Heroes program, which solicits nominations for the professionals who have worked to protect the public during the crisis. Weekly winners are recognized and given $250 rewards cards.

The Darvin family takes pride in the strong bond it’s built with “Chicagoland” communities since 1920, when Louis Darvin sold furniture door to door from a catalog. It wasn’t until 20 years later that he and his son, David, finally opened a store. The first major challenge, as factories returned to civilian manufacturing after World War II, was making sure Darvin would actually get its full allotment of merchandise. It did, Steve Darvin said, because “we always paid our bills on time.”

Over the decades since, the business has grown and grown.

Willing to assess, pivot and change

“Probably the most important thing to accept when it comes to running a business is that there will always be challenges,” Darvin said. “Being willing to pivot, to make changes, and to regularly reassess the competitive landscape ensures that your business can stay relevant and valued by your customers. For Darvin Furniture, past challenges have always been met head-on with hard work and a willingness to bend – but not break.”

Image shows three men during an award presentation
Orland Park, Ill., Mayor Dan McLaughlin, center, presented the city’s Community Pride award to Marty and Steve Darvin in 2016.

In its ad messaging, the company stresses generational relationships. The social media influencer it hired early this year, Gianna Cosentino, was not only already a customer, but her parents were Darvin customers when she was growing up. In another ad, a shopper declares her parents and grandparents purchased from Darvin.

Darvin’s reputation extends through the generations because of hard work “and a commitment to providing high-quality furniture at the very best prices,” Steve Darvin said. “By doing that for 100 years, we have shown our customers we are committed to providing them with value. That kind of commitment resonates with someone whether it’s 1920, 1970 or 2020.”

Darvin said the store’s single location “gives us the opportunity to ensure a consistent high-quality experience for our customers every day.” But Harris declined to say that Darvin will never open a second store. Perhaps that is unlikely, given the steady migration to e-commerce. In fact, Harris said his focus is more on process than physical expansion – integrating interdepartmental operations and the digital and in-store experiences.

All those commitments were worth it

This furniture success story isn’t marking its 100th anniversary exactly the way it planned. The formal celebration was postponed from March to sometime in the fall, Harris said. It did hold a hugely popular promotion to add excitement to the occasion, giving away a Ford Explorer and other prizes this summer.

But, in some ways, the recent disruptions have underscored the point that home and how it’s furnished matters to people. And Darvin has been committed for a century to giving its customers the kinds of experiences that make them turn to the trusted furniture store again and again to meet their household needs.

“At its very essence, celebrating 100 years means that those commitments to the business, our employees and our customers were worth it,” Steve Darvin said.

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