Mary Liz Curtin of Leon & Lulu is one of the most creative entrepreneurs in retail furniture but always draws inspiration from market. She’s seen in the Three Cats restaurant inside her Clawson, Mich., store.
Mary Liz Curtin of Leon & Lulu is one of the most creative entrepreneurs in retail furniture but always draws inspiration from market. She’s seen in the Three Cats restaurant inside her Clawson, Mich., store.

HFA members look for new products, fresh ideas in High Point

As one of the most creative entrepreneurs in retail furniture, Mary Liz Curtin generates plenty of ideas. But never enough. Which is why she loves trade shows.

“I absolutely get ideas, and I wouldn’t go if I didn’t,” the owner of Home Furnishings Association member Leon & Lulu in Clawson, Mich., says.

She’ll be at the High Point Market this month, where all the key players and new products in the home furnishings industry will come together for a few days.

“I don’t think a serious retailer can afford not to go to High Point,” she says.

Even if the outcome is less than serious.

“To me, it’s worth it if I come home with a fabulous new item, or particularly something silly that gets people laughing,” she says. “If people are happy, they buy more.”

[See the association’s events & seminars at high point market]

Curtin and her husband, Stephen Scannell, opened Leon & Lulu in 2006 in an old roller rink. A decade later, they expanded into a former movie theater. Later in 2016, they added the Three Cats Café inside a side street entrance, and they have just upgraded it into a fine restaurant and bar. All told, their collection of gifts, clothing, antiques, home furnishings, food and drink within a 23,000-square-foot space is making their business 18 miles north of Detroit an all-day destination. What’s more, it gives Curtin a reason to attend all sorts of trade shows across the country.

She goes with purpose. For High Point, she says, it’s important to make a detailed plan “or we could miss a whole block.” They draw a “hit list of key vendors” that they must see. Scannell makes notes of exciting new vendors and emerging talent to check out. There’s little time for attending events, but Curtin has found moments of serendipity – people she’s met over a glass of wine in a showroom or standing in line outside a ladies’ room have offered terrific ideas. She picks up “ideas for everything,” from information about employee compensation and benefits to decorating.

The best? She saw a gurgle pot at a trade show a few years ago and bought some on a whim or a hunch. She lost count after selling 2,000 of them, and they’re still selling at her store, she says.

Some furniture retailers say they’re too busy to attend markets. They can’t afford to leave their store, or there’s no one they can trust to run the place while they’re gone.

Curtin takes a different view. First, every store owner should have someone who’s capable of taking over for a few days or longer. Alternatively, the owner can groom employees who understand the owner’s vision for the store to attend markets and bring back the right items and ideas to refresh the business. Leon & Lulu has both, Curtin says, which is the best way to keep from growing stale.

Inspiration is everywhere at market

When Tifanie Smith attends the High Point Market, as she will in October, she puts herself in the place of very specific customers. What style will appeal to them? What artwork will catch their eye? What’s the right quality and price?

Smith married into the family business, HFA member Saratoga Signature Interiors in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The business was started in 1992 by her mother-in-law, Nancy Moultrie Smith. Earlier this year, Tifanie and her husband, Colby, brought the next generation, a daughter, into the world.

Saratoga Springs, 35 miles north of Albany, is known for horses, and the store offers “all things equine.” So “equine-type artwork” is on the Smiths’ market shopping list, Tifanie says. They also look around, talk with sales representatives and try to get a feel for what’s trending. “We definitely go to as many of our manufacturers as possible and are always on the look-out for new manufacturers.”

Nancy Smith finds inspiration everywhere at market, her daughter-in-law says.

“Her mind is always going. She’ll say, ‘Take a picture of this, we’ll put it in the showroom.’” Tifanie handles the website and social media for Saratoga Interior Designs, so she’s looking for tips in that area, too.

“I really like to go to the different workshops that HFA offers, anything to do with marketing,” she says.

Holley wants to touch and feel it for himself

Whether to attend the High Point Market was going to be a late decision for Ralph Holley of HFA member Holley’s Home Furnishings in Montgomery and Alexander City, Ala.

“I need to go and try to work it out,” he says. He’s found over the years it’s important “to keep up with the trends in the business.”

In furniture, “Mid-century modern is going to be a big deal for us in the future,” he says. And, “the way the bedding industry is changing, there’s always something new. … Brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be.”

Holley knows that if he doesn’t get to market, his reps eventually will bring new product information to him, but he’s like customers who still prefer buying in the store. He wants to “touch and feel and have a conversation” about it.

Holley has attended the Las Vegas Market, which he finds easier to navigate than High Point. “I don’t know the most efficient way to work the (High Point) Market,” he admits.

New retailers aim for first market

Lorrie and Dennis Brewer have been in the furniture business for years but will attend their first High Point Market this month. They made the decision to go after finally opening a retail store in July.

Silverhammer Design, in Wilmington, N.C.’s, Cotton Exchange, features Dennis’ handmade furniture, Lorrie’s artwork and works by other local artists and craftsmen.

They’re going to High Point to make contacts in the industry and find new items to sell in their store, depending on style and price, Lorrie says. A few weeks out, they had not yet mapped out an itinerary.

“We’ll be at the mercy of others who have gone before us,” Lorrie says. “The plan is to make a plan.”

The Brewers joined the Home Furnishings Association in June and planned to take advantage of its benefits at market, using the concierge service to help introduce them to the market and spending time in HFA’s Resource Center on the first floor of Plaza Suites to meet vendors and other retailers, as well as to attend educational seminars.

Guynn team makes the most of market time

Steve Williams guesses he’s been to the High Point Market 50 times in the last 30 years.

“It’s gotten better, I think,” says the owner of HFA member Guynn Furniture and Mattress Co. in Galax, Independence and Hillsville, Va.

How so? The transportation services. Buses from remote lots eliminate the need to find parking in the busy downtown district. And go-anywhere vans replace long walks with rides from one showroom building to the next. It saves time and money.

Here’s the part that High Point’s hospitality industry doesn’t want to hear: “It changed us from being a company that stayed to one that commutes,” Williams says.

Guynn’s six-person market team drives two hours to High Point in the morning and two hours home in the evening. They can spend a full day at the market without missing a night’s sleep in their own beds.

Their market lasts just two days anyway, Williams says, and every bit of it is carefully scheduled ahead of time. “We work off appointments and shop building by building.”

They see their regular suppliers, whom they already know very well – especially Vaughan-Bassett, which has a manufacturing plant in Galax. That’s not only convenient, it allows Guynn to minimize its Vaughan-Bassett inventory. “They stock it all for us,” Williams says.

To see new vendors, Williams prefers pre-market.

The goal for market is simple, Williams says. “Normally, we try to set our floor for the next six months.” But the selections aren’t the same for each store. The company’s three store managers can each choose 40 percent of the products displayed in his store. There’s enough variety so that “we have customers who shop all three stores,” Williams said.

He has one accessory buyer but doesn’t accompany her on her rounds. “They’ll walk your legs off,” he says. But he knows her work is critical. He might not sell all the accessories, “but you’ve got to dress your stores.”

Market usually offers good ideas for decorating a showroom. “Here in the mountains we say if we can’t borrow it, we’ll steal it,” Williams says. “You’ve heard of copywrite. We try to copy it right.”

There’s little or no time for attending seminars or other market events, but when Guynn needed to upgrade its point-of-sale system, Williams says his chief financial officer found a solution in the HFA’s Resource Center.

With everyone on a mission, Williams defines his role like this: “I go to ride herd.”

For more retail stories like these subscribe to HFA Insights, the industry’s only magazine dedicated to furniture retailers.

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