A Perfect Fit
When Dan Griffin decided to open a furniture store in Clearlake, Calif., 21 years ago, he didn’t study the town’s demographics or conduct any market research.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he recalls.
But he knew one thing: “I fell in love with the real estate.”
No wonder. Clearlake, population 15,000, sits on the southeast shore of Clear Lake, the largest body of water located entirely within California. A two-hour drive northeast of San Francisco, the area is in the heart of wine country. It’s a mecca for outdoor recreation, offering golf and swimming, hunting and fishing, hiking and camping, boating and bicycling.
A relative in the real-estate business pointed Griffin to a foreclosed business property on Lakeshore Drive, Clearlake’s shoreline-hugging main street. It included a commercial building and a residence out back. The bank that held the mortgage was eager to unload it, Griffin says.
He also liked the “small-town vibe,” the music venues, all the activities. “What was nice was, as soon as I got here, I felt like I was part of the community. It’s an easy place to get drawn into.”
Griffin, a native of Oregon, wasn’t exactly new to the furniture business. Six years earlier, he and his brother, Tom, had started Griffin’s Furniture Outlet in Crescent City, a town on the California coast just south of the Oregon state line. They sold used furniture and J.C. Penney’s catalog returns until “sales reps knocked on the door asking if I wanted to sell new furniture.”
Today, Tom’s wife, Kris, runs the Crescent City business and Tom works as a prison guard. “He didn’t have the passion I do for the business,” Dan says.
Dan has plenty. It starts with family.
Griffin married his wife, Roz, soon after moving to Clearlake. She helps with decorating the store and creating hand-made price tags – as well as tending to their four daughters, teaching yoga, working with the local Rotary Club and “signing me up for coaching,” he says.
He has coached youth and high school soccer for years and advertises his commitment to helping kids in the community. “With four kids in our local schools and a continually decreasing school budget, we focus on helping students achieve their goals, so they can become a better member of society,” the store’s website says. “We welcome requests for any area student pursuing their dreams.”
A recent example is sponsoring a local girl who competed in a national rodeo championship. The business supports basketball and soccer events, helps purchase sporting equipment and considers other requests. In January, Griffin was raising money to send the Lower Lake High School competitive cheer squad to the state championships in Bakersfield Feb. 9. The team happens to include Griffin’s ninth-grade daughter Ruby.
This outreach forms strong and enduring connections.
“We’ve employed any number of former athletes on my soccer teams,”Dan Griffin
Griffin cares deeply about his adopted community, which hasn’t been economically thriving despite its natural attractions. Unemployment is higher and average incomes and home prices are much lower in Lake County than in California as a whole. There are some empty storefronts on Lakeshore Drive, and a large tourist attraction nearby, the Konocti Harbor Resort, closed in 2009, Griffin says. Those realities require retailers to “provide great value” for the customer’s dollar and keep Griffin focused on medium-priced furniture rather than higher-end pieces.
“But things are finally changing for the better,” he adds. “We’ve been rebuilding our community.” And last year, the abandoned Konocti facility “was finally purchased with promising plans to reopen.”
Selling furniture over the years has always demanded change, and Griffin responds in various ways. One is by understanding his customers. He may not have begun with market research, but he learned quickly.
“People are active here,” he says. “They use their stuff, they love casual.” He says the same about himself. “It was fortuitous that local purchasing habits were similar to mine,” he says. “Comfortable and casual. I have always shopped for the best deal, so applying those buying habits to the business has always come naturally to me.”
Clearlake is a town where kids run into the house still wet from swimming, or parents hit the recliner after getting home from a hike. Furniture gets dirty. “Cleanability in fabrics is big here,” Griffin says. “People will go on comfort more than tailoring.”
There’s no question, he says, that he runs a much different kind of furniture store in Clearlake than he would if he were in a bigger city.
But it takes more than the right products to survive in business when customers can find the same items by cyber shopping. One challenge is “how easy it is to price-check online,” Griffin says. The competitor isn’t another store down the street but a retailer across the country. “You have to show customers why they should buy from you.”
Price is important, and Griffin says he can match or beat almost any deal because, as often as possible, he purchases entire truckloads and shipping containers of furniture directly from manufacturers in the U.S. and overseas, minimizing handling and damages. Rather than additional storefront, he’s invested in three warehouses.
Just as critically, he seeks to provide the best customer service possible.
“You have to separate yourself (from the competition),” Griffin asserts. That’s why he offers delivery at no extra charge to homes anywhere in Lake County, including set-up to the customer’s satisfaction. “When we’re done, it’s the way you want it,” he promises.
And after-sale service means years after the sale. When problems arise, Griffin aims to fix them, he says. “We really do. I like to make sure everybody’s taken care of. We’re here to help.”
So, when a customer quotes an apparently lower price somewhere else, “I just help them process it,” Griffin says. “Usually I can make sure they get the same deal here.” Then he explains the service.
“You know you’re really in good hands,” he says. “It’s not something you can find online.”
It all adds up to years of repeat customers.
Meanwhile, little innovations interest some shoppers. Griffin installed a kiosk in his showroom for people who prefer making transactions through a machine or just “don’t want to deal with me.”
The kiosk really is helpful to customers and the staff when the store is busy, but it seems unlikely that anyone would try to avoid Griffin. He’s personable, engaged and acquainted with just about everyone in town. “I still totally look forward to coming to work every day,” he says.
But his point is this: “If your store is not continually evolving, that’s where you run into trouble.”
Even on some of the best real estate in Clearlake, Calif.
Dan Griffin and Griffin’s Furniture Outlet are proud members of the Home Furnishings Association. To learn more about the HFA, click here.