The way Irwin Danto sees things, in these fast-changing days of retail there are two ways to run a furniture store: Wring your hands and hope your ship comes in or dive head-first into uncharted waters, and pull your ship to shore. Danto Furniture, a neighborhood fixture in Southwest Detroit for nearly 80 years, wasn’t exactly struggling when Irwin decided to take the plunge, but the store wasn’t exactly thriving either.
Danto Furniture has seen its share of transformation ever since founder Julius Danto and his three brothers immigrated to Michigan in 1919 from a small town on the Russian-Polish border. At the time, more than one million people called Detroit home and new houses were going up as quickly as automobiles were rolling out of the factories.
The Danto brothers were entrepreneurs and collectively tried their hand at various businesses including a hat shop, clothing store and drug store. In 1940, Julius found his niche and opened Danto Furniture.
Julius’ oldest son, Charles, took over as store manager in the 1960s. Under Charles the business endured Detroit’s challenging economic conditions and stood strong until 1992 when a fire burned the store to the ground. This is when Charles’ son Irwin stepped in and they relocated the store down the street, to its current location. In 2014 Irwin’s daughter, Ashley, joined the team and helped rebrand the company.
While it’s not uncommon to find a fourth-generation retailer in the furniture industry, it is a bit rare for three of those four generations to still work together under the same roof.
Charles, Irwin and Ashley are eager to push Danto Furniture into the 21st century while still holding fast to their roots. Sensibilities and strategies might get bruised when father, son and granddaughter collide during a 10-hour workday—and they do. But for the most part, the three make it work. Besides, says Charles, “we have to make it work. It’s not just because we’re family that we need to get along. We work things out because we have a business together.”
And so, every day, three generations and three very different perspectives show up at the corner of Central Avenue and Vernor Highway for work. Charles is still the top salesperson. Irwin handles the office work and internet and Ashley oversees advertising and community relations.
Danto still holds its own paper in terms of financing and has several employees on hand who speak Spanish, Polish, Arabic and even a little Russian—all to cater to the diverse community Danto Furniture serves.
And it works. On any given day, Ashley says the company will sell a sofa and loveseat online to a family 50 miles away in the morning and by the afternoon they’re helping a recent immigrant family from Mexico furnish their two-bedroom apartment.
No credit? No problem. The Dantos learned long ago that they needed to change with their community. Once this slice of Detroit was home to upper-middle class families but with all the changes the past 30 years, the neighborhood, affectionately called Mexico City, is now home to many immigrants.
Ashley says her father and grandfather knew they needed to change their store to mirror the needs of their community.
“Dad’s pretty savvy,” says Ashley, who is expecting (the fifth generation of Dantos is due in May). “After Amazon and all those bed-in-the-box companies, we realized if we wanted to stay around we needed to up our presence, and that’s what we did with our website and displays, but you can’t turn your back or ignore your community. People come for our price and our credit. That’s still our main attraction. The whole city used to be full of furniture stores, but not anymore. I think we’re still around because we’ve been able to remember where we came from while still moving forward. That’s easy for a retailer to say, but it’s a lot harder to do.”
For years Irwin watched too many cost-conscious customers come into his store shopping for a sofa only to walk out empty-handed and eventually buy their furniture online.
“I could see the industry shift,” Irwin says. “Every retail business is moving online. That doesn’t mean your old brick-and-mortar store is obsolete, but we recognized the need to change. I think furniture stores need to be part of the change or be left behind, but first you need to want to change.”
In 2015 Irwin decided to evolve, much like the neighborhood his business served, once more. He wanted to meld the showroom experience with the internet. He wanted to give his customers an experience unlike anything they’d ever seen. He started a company, Showroom Technologies.
Three years and more than a million dollars later, Irwin’s vision comes to life every morning on dozens of display panels throughout the store.
Product Display Panel, as it’s called, is an-eleven panel display that shows 282 product images in multiple sizes and configurations. Irwin says the display panels take up 265-square feet and that a traditional brick-and-mortar store would require 23,000 square feet if it wanted to display the same amount of product on the floor.
Showroom Technologies’ Product Display Panels seamlessly integrate with the internet or can operate independently. The displays can also interact with a store’s website and point of sale system. At Danto Furniture, rows and rows of flat-screen displays show off thousands of pieces of furniture that the store couldn’t show otherwise—and it works.
“We can show off more product—maybe four or five times more—with the technology we have,” Irwin says, “and the panels get as much attention as the actual furniture on the floor. I think people, especially the younger shoppers, are drawn to the technology. They want to see what it’s all about.”
Irwin showed off the technology at High Point market last year at the Ashley showroom. He says the finished project will make its debut this spring in High Point. “It’s a little exciting and a lot nervous,” he says. “It’s done very well for us in our own store because people are surprised by it. This is something you don’t expect to see when you walk into a furniture store.”
And doing the unexpected has kept this family in business.
What HFA Means to Me
“When I look at my fellow retailers, we’ve all got the same challenges. We’re in a world ruled by huge operations who continue to grow and grow and eat away at the market at our expense. I think to myself ‘How in the world are we supposed to compete?’ The only way to do that is as a collective group where we work together by learning and helping each other. That’s what the HFA does best.”
Danto Furniture, Detroit, Mich.
Years in business: 78
Furniture Lines: Ashley Furniture, Coaster Furniture, Englander, Frigidaire, Crosley
Store size: 11,000 sq. ft.