Home Furnishings Association member Kim Pellett sells antiques, but please don’t call her an antiques dealer – she’s so much more. Pellett sells furniture, too, but resist the temptation to call her a furniture retailer. That label seems unfairly constraining and doesn’t do her justice. Not with her sense of business skills acquired through trial and error these past 40 years.
Maybe it’s best to just get out of the way and let Pellett describe Pellett.
“That’s a good question,” she says. “I like to think I’m a little bit of a lot of things, but mostly I think I’m someone who has a good sense of business who knows what works and what doesn’t. I’m someone who likes to have fun every day. You have to be inspired to get up every day or else you’re in trouble.”
OK, maybe it’s not best to let Pellett speak for herself because, in addition to everything she’s accomplished in the furniture industry, Pellett is humble. The fact is, Pellett is one of those rare people born to live differently, leaving behind the safe and mediocre path of certainty for the wild ride of entrepreneurialism. It takes a certain type of person to go on that ride, and it is absolutely not for everyone.
Pellett is the owner of City Home, two home furnishings stores in and around Portland, Ore., as well as a pop-up store. A second pop-up store opens next month in Vancouver, Wash. Every City Home is unique unto itself. And like Pellett herself, the brand is hard to define. Is it a furniture store? An antiques store? Something more?
The answer is yes.
Walking through City Home affirms that, much like its owner, the company is not easily defined by one description, which is exactly what Pellett aspires for each day. At every turn, shoppers are likely to come across a mix of modern and nostalgic. Over there, against the wall? That’s a vintage walnut sideboard next to a sleek mid-century modern dinette set. And that industrial metal rolling cart from the 1970s with a second life as a storage unit somehow pairs well with the tufted section sofa across from it.
That’s the whole idea behind City Home, the blending of old and new. “We want people to be surprised,” says Pellett. “We want them to see a piece in a whole different life – especially the older pieces that get repurposed. The industrial rack can have a second life as a storage piece. That sideboard, in the right hands, can be the home to a flat-screen television. We use a lot of imagination here, and hopefully that inspires others, too.”
That imagination takes a lot of work. Pellett says her showroom floors are changed daily to keep things fresh. Retailers like TJ Maxx and Costco have done well in recent years by creating a treasure hunt for shoppers. It’s a strategy Pellett employs in her own stores. On any given day, Portland shoppers drop by their nearest City Home in hopes of scoring a treasure or three.
That treasure hunt strategy has helped City Home in two ways, says Pellett. Shoppers are more likely to spend impulsively when they know that century-old sideboard might not be there tomorrow. They’re also compelled to come back and see what new discoveries are in the store.
Pellett also takes advantage of Portland’s affinity for anything artisan – from food and drink to jewelry and clothes. On a recent Thursday at the store, a local artist hosted a how-to class for creating a botanical wreath. More than two dozen people showed up. Pellett is just as forward thinking in her social media, which is where 90 percent of her marketing starts. “I can’t remember the last time I used the newspaper,” she says. “Almost all of my customers live online and rely on social media.”
Pellett relies heavily on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook to get out the word on new products and antiques in the store. Yet one of her best social media campaigns had nothing to do with furniture or antiques.
The animals and their saliva taught Pellett a valuable lesson, or two, actually: 1) social media, in the right hands and used correctly, is a powerful tool for retailers, and 2) never underestimate how important the experience is to today’s customers.
Pellett read about a llama and alpaca that visited schools and nursing homes in the Portland area and thought it would be nice to have them drop by City Home. Her social media campaign centered on “carrot kisses.” Customers stick a carrot halfway in their mouths and Rojo the llama and Napoleon the alpaca remove it. “I know,” says Pellett. “It sounds weird and it is.” Indeed, it might not be the most romantic kiss customers ever received, but they loved it. In fact, after a huge social media campaign, Pellett showed up to work the morning of the smooch fest to find customers lined up before the store opened. “It was a huge hit,” she says. “I never would have thought people would be so interested in having a llama lick their faces trying to get a carrot, but it worked.”
“The old way of shopping doesn’t work – especially where furniture is concerned,” says Pellett. “There’s too many options for people to not shop your store.”
Pellett knows this all too well. She opened her first store – an antiques shop – in 1978, bringing in 30 containers a year from Europe. Soon she was mixing Amish solid wood furniture and new accessories in her 40,000-square-foot showroom, and business was taking off – even during the recession of the early 1980s.
That worked well for 28 years before the internet caught up with City Home and passed it by.
“It was hard for a specialty store like mine to compete with technology and e-commerce,” she says. “Others might have figured it out, but it wasn’t feasible for me.”
She closed her store in 2012. Having learned a few lessons, she opened a small (as in 1,000 square feet) co-op vintage store. Within months, her business was the little store that could. Sales were chugging along, and soon Pellett says she was bringing in as much revenue as her former 40,000-square-foot store did. “Business was fun again,” she says, so she moved and expanded City Home to a 10,000-square-foot space. She added a second 10,000-square-foot store in Portland’s Pearl District, across the Willamette River.
Pellett says the goal for every store is the same: be different. “This is not your same old furniture store. That’s the message we want people to get. That every day something new is happening here. We’re never static. In the store or at work. That’s what makes my job so fun.”