Image shows a man loading a chair onto a pickup truck
Doug Sanicola of Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center in LaVerne, Calif., welcomes customers to pick up at the store.

Furniture retailers ‘think outside the box’

Since halting normal operations March 19, “We’ve been trying to think outside the box a little bit,” Rob Decker, sales manager for Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center in LaVerne, Calif., says. “We can’t afford to close down with no end date in sight.”

That means doing whatever business can be done. So Outdoor Elegance invites customers to come in one at a time by appointment or to pick up orders at curbside – without having to leave their vehicle. Decker and other managers also make front-door deliveries.

“Outside the box” isn’t unusual for Outdoor Elegance, which hosts hugely popular barbecue and live-music events like its annual ThanksGrilling. But things are strangely quiet now.

Yet owner Doug Sanicola hasn’t stopped reaching out to customers. Videos posted to the store’s social media channels have garnered thousands of views with positive messages like this:

Just like a restaurant offering take-out

“We’re just like a restaurant offering take-out now. A lot of people need things. Small things, like charcoal and things for your barbecue so you can cook food. We have that available, with a special curbside service. We’ll bring it out, we’ll put it in your truck, you’ll never even have to leave your car. We have furniture, as you can see if you look around here. Furniture and fountains and statuary and things of that sort. There are ways that deliveries can be made, just as Amazon Prime and UPS and everybody else are all delivering items. Let’s enjoy the California lifestyle, and let’s do it safely.”

Another video shows Sanicola loading outdoor chairs onto the bed of a pickup truck. “At least it’s not too heavy,” he says after lifting the second.

“Loading up a couple of chairs is an easy thing for us to do,” he says. “Get ’em home and enjoy your back yard.”

Let customers define ‘critical needs’

Furniture retailers rightly argue that they sell products that are essential to their customers’ daily lives.

It helps when the customers make the argument for them.

Image shows a man in a furniture store
Will Harris

Darvin Furniture and Mattress in Orland Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, has closed its store. But it hasn’t gone away.

“Our customers have been asking for help, over the phone and with online purchases,” Darvin President Will Harris says in a video on the store’s website.

So, Darvin created a “critical needs call center,” open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. “Knowledgeable Darvin staff are available to help you find whatever you need over the phone, and to assist navigating our website,” Harris explains. That means a “live person” will answer and stay on the line as long as needed.

“We recognize that many of the items we sell are critical need items for members of the community. Mattresses, lift chairs, adjustable beds and more may be critical to an individual’s health and the safe operation of a household.”

It’s one thing for a store to say what those critical items are. It’s another when customers themselves define what’s critical for them to have. Darvin wants to be available to meet those needs.

‘We’ve been here during good times and bad’

“It’s going pretty well,” Harris told the HFA. While sales have fallen since the store closed, “We have to take victories where we can.” Part of the victory, Harris added, is that customers know that Darvin is still there to meet their needs. When the crisis passes, it will matter what customers think of how any business responded.

“The key element is that we remained active, and the actions we took were ethical,” Harris said. “We didn’t disappear. We remained active in some way and benefited the community in some way.”

Darvin, which has put on hold plans to launch its 100th anniversary celebration, is still drawing on the goodwill built over its long history.

“Darvin has been a fixture in Chicagoland for 100 years,” Harris says in the video. “We’ve been here during good times and bad, and we’re going to be here to help you now.”

Using her talent to make face masks

Jean Schwinn is “a super-talented woman,” Steve Schwinn of Ironhorse Home Furnishings in San Francisco, Benicia and Santa Cruz, Calif, says about his mother. She made drapes for the family home and even the prom dress for Steve’s girlfriend in high school.

Image shows a woman holding face masks
Jean Schwinn

But now, while the family business is essentially closed, Jean is applying her talents to the cause of public health. She’s making masks to help protect against transmission of the coronavirus. Some have gone to Ironhorse warehouse workers but most will be used in the community.

“I think anyone who knows how to run a sewing machine, who thought they knew, should dust off those old skills and let’s get to work,” she says in a video on the Ironhorse Facebook page. “We need more masks.”

Ironhorse is also touting its partnership with American Leather, which has begun producing masks and surgical gowns during the crisis.

“In life we have choices who we do business with, and we are so proud to consider American Leather one of our elite partners,” Ironhorse said in a Facebook post.

Just a little business is “trickling through,” said Steve Schwinn. “Maybe a little online.” Ironhorse isn’t delivering orders or promoting curbside pickup, but may try both those options, which are permitted. It works extensively with interior designers, who continue to develop prospects but aren’t closing many deals. Schwinn thinks the shutdown could extend into May in California.

By that time, his mother’s output of masks may run into the thousands.

Fulfilling charitable commitments

Matter Brothers Furniture and Mattress closed its five locations in Florida last week but told customers that “our virtual team is eager to assist you with your design needs.”

While e-commerce might continue to generate business, Matter Brothers began its fulfillment of an important community commitment.

Image shows three people in from of a banner for the All Star Children's Foundation
Andrea and John Matter flank Grace McGillicuddy, founder of the All Star Children’s Foundation.

“We did it! The first delivery of furniture to the All-Star Children’s Foundation. We are so proud to bring Comfort in these uncertain times!” the business proclaimed on its Facebook page April 2.

The post was accompanied by 10 photographs taken at the new residential Campus of Hope and Healing for foster children is Sarasota. Matter Brothers donated furniture for one of the residential homes.

“We are honored to partner with the All-Star Children’s Foundation,” said John Matter, president of Matter Brothers. “Their mission aligns with our passionate commitment to support and provide a stable, safe and nurturing home environment for foster children within our community.”

Business is challenging for all furniture retailers today and nearly impossible for some. So messaging, and thinking outside the box, are more important than ever. Effective statements include:

“We’re here to meet your needs.”

“Tell us what’s critical to you, your family and your home and we’ll help.”

“We’re doing our part to reduce the spread of disease.”

“We’re still supporting local charities.”

Businesses that continue to build goodwill during the crisis might be best positioned to rebound quickly once it’s over.


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