Man on the Move

Michael Parrish has five children to feed back home. That’s why he stays so busy at work.

Michael Parrish has a theory about furniture retailers he wants to share, but first he has a story to tell. Once upon a time—April to be exact—Parrish was heading home from another High Point furniture market when he started crunching the numbers for his store back in Jacksonville, Fla. With two weeks left in the month, Design Elements had $66,000 in sales—far off pace of the store’s monthly goal of $180,000.

Parrish is all about goals. Monthly goals, weekly goals, daily goals. There are goals on Post-It notes in his office. There are goals scribbled on note pads in his car and goals—lots of goals—swirling around in his head. So, when Parrish learned his store was more than half off his monthly sales goal, he went to work.

On his first day back in the store he looked at open purchase orders—specifically, items he knew would be arriving in a few days—and got on the phone with his clients.

He told them to check their inbox because he was emailing them pictures of lamps, accessories, end tables, credenzas—anything he thought his clients might be interested in adding to their orders. He told them he’d be calling them in 20 minutes to get their thoughts. “Let me know and we can bring everything out in one delivery,” Parrish told them.

Research, call, email, follow up. This was repeated every day during April. The result? Between in-store sales and Parrish’s pro-active, add-on selling, Design Elements exceeded its monthly sales goal by $5,000. The story ties into Parrish’s theory about many furniture retailers.

“A lot of us want the business, but are we putting in the effort?” asks Parrish. “The internet is killing retailers but what are we doing about it? Are we going after new customers or are we waiting for them to walk through our doors? I’ve got five kids to feed at home, so I can’t afford the sit-back-and-wait strategy. That’s suicide for me. I’m a retailer who has to be out there every day connecting and staying in contact with my clients.”

That’s why Parrish works six days a week. That’s why Parrish is almost impossible to get hold of. If he’s not on the phone with a manufacturer, he’s at a client’s home offering design services. That’s also why tiny Design Elements is doing big business in Florida. The store generated $2.65 million in sales last year off it’s 6,000-square-foot showroom. Back-of-napkin math puts Parrish’s sales at $441 per square foot.

Unlike a lot of furniture retailers, Parrish took a circuitous route to the business. He owned a few cell phone stores and invested in real estate in north Florida before a ride home after work one night changed everything.

Back in 2003, Parrish was passing a furniture store he and his wife shopped regularly when he felt something within him telling him to stop and go in. Parrish ignored the voice and kept driving; at least for two more lights, before making a U-turn and heading back.

Inside he found the store’s two sales associates crying. Turns out they’d just heard from the store owner the store was closing due to sagging sales.

Parrish never hesitated. “I told them not to worry because I was going to buy the business,” he recalls. That’s right. Parris made the promise right there on the spot. He didn’t need to talk to the owner, or look at the books. “I didn’t need to do any of that because I knew they were doing everything wrong. It was just cheap imports that didn’t fit in with the neighborhood,” he says.

A few weeks later, Parrish struck a deal with the owner: They would split the rent payments for the rest of the lease and Parrish bought the entire inventory for a dollar. The month before Parrish took over, the store did $8,700 in business, according to Parrish. The first full month after he took over, Parrish said Design Elements sold $84,000.

A few weeks later Parrish was in Atlanta meeting with an Uttermost sales rep at the gift and home furnishings market. “I told him I wanted a deal on my first order, but I didn’t want wholesale,” Parrish says. “I wanted off-the-book pricing and free shipping. I told him he needed to make this happen because we were going to be doing a lot of business together.”

Something about Parrish convinced the rep to make the deal. Today Design Elements is one of Uttermost’s biggest retailers in the Southeast.

If it sounds like Parrish is bragging here, he’s not. Confident? Absolutely, but then he’s certainly earned the right. Long before the furniture, the real estate and the cell phones, he learned what it was like to run a small business. First watching his grandparents run a wrecker and crane business in Bellemeade, Fla., when he was a child, and later when his mother used interior decorators to freshen up the family’s home. “I watched and learned,” Parrish says. “I saw how things came together from a decorating perspective so when this opportunity appeared, I never doubted myself.”

Parrish has a designer’s eye, but he first and foremost possesses a business head. In 2014, Parrish met Paula Deen in Atlanta, a year after the celebrity chef and television host went through a publicity crisis after a racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit alleged that Deen made derogatory remarks about African Americans. Parrish, who denounced the remarks but thought the public outcry and corporate shunning of Deen did not fit the crime, struck up a friendship that later morphed into a business deal.

He did several design projects for Deen, including renovating the set for her television program. For all that work, Parrish was paid…nothing. But as Parrish points out, it was never about money, and all about building a relationship. A few months later, Deen recommended Parrish to a developer trying to bring back a commercial district in Savannah, Ga. Parrish decorated several vacant storefronts with varying Christmas themes on the city’s famous Broughton Street. It was a nice, six-figure project.

That’s the secret to Parrish’s success. If a retailer builds a relationship with their customers and gets them to trust the brand, Parrish says they’ll return over and over. He sees the philosophy play out every week in his store. “They key for us is to get to that level where they’ll let us in their homes because if we can place it, we can sell it,” he says.

Parrish acknowledges that his clients are atypical for the average home furnishings retailer. Many are affluent homeowners with a sizeable disposable income that can easily pay cash for a new living room.

Doesn’t matter. “The strategy’s the same,” he says. “It’s about actively engaging with and building trust with them no matter who they are or how much they’re worth.”

What HFA Means to Me

Just this week we made a big sale I know we would have lost were it not for the HFA’s Synchrony program. Many of my clients don’t need or want the financing, but some do, and it’s nice to have that option available for them. The more options you can give your customers, the more likely the sale.

—Michael Parrish, Design Elements, Jacksonville, Fla.

Years in business: 15
Employees: 8
Furniture Lines: Interloop, Global Views, Lexington, Uttermost and Hooker.
Store Size: 6,000 sq. ft.

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