Home Furnishings Business
By Powell Slaughter
80-YEAR-OLD RETAILER DISCOVERY FURNITURE RE-INVENTED ITS BRAND AS FURNITURE MALL OF KANSAS.
Re-invention is a tradition at the Topeka, Kan., Furniture Mall of Kansas, which opened this past Labor Day weekend. The destination concept arose from Discovery Furniture, which itself is an umbrella brand established in 2000 by Winter Furniture, a family owned retailer with roots going back to 1933. The thought process that led to the mall began when another area retailer, Marling Furniture, had closed in November 2012. Discovery believed the Marling name still had cache and acquired rights to the brand, but already operated several stores carrying multiple brands, including Discovery and Roommakers for furniture; Mattress Headquarters for bedding; Abbey for flooring; and a separate Ashley Furniture Homestore. Furniture Mall of Kansas opened in Topeka’s Westridge Mall this past Labor Day weekend in an 180,000-square-foot space that was formerly a Macy’s location.
FULFILLING A VISION
The site, which Discovery bought, was a good fit for the Furniture Mall destination concept, designed by Martin Roberts, with two floors and five entrances that helped define the various brands with different entrances for different brands. The mall grew from Discovery’s vision to be the best at answering three questions:
What do customers want?
How can we give it to them?
How can we make it better?
“This line of questioning is what led us to open competing stores and what has led us to combining all our store brands into one easy to shop furniture mall,” said Co-Owner, Jeff Winter. “The vision is translated into all areas of our company through constantly asking those three questions and putting the answers into our best actions—and then doing it over and over.” Examples include the retailer’s move to iPads in the store so that sales associates—called “home specialists” at Furniture Mall of Kansas—don’t have to leave the customer making them wait.
“One thing customers want is speed—quick answers or not to be left waiting to write a sale or get a special order price,”
THRIVING ON COMPETITION
Furniture Mall of Kansas isn’t the only furniture “destination” in its region—Nebraska Furniture Mart has a location not far down the road in Kansas City. “Of course we have competition, but if our focus is on competitors our customers lose,” Winter said. “Our focus must be on customers and what we can do to be the best at giving them what they want—and that is more than a full time job.” Winter pointed to several keys in how Furniture Mall of Kansas differentiates itself.
“We do lots of training for our home specialists so they can truly be their best at helping customers,” he said. “Most customers appreciate genuine help from a knowledgeable specialist in making the best decisions for their home, but none like to be sold.” The store also belongs to the Furniture First buying group. “That helps us buy like we are a billion-dollar store, while still allowing us to individually pick items that are fashion right for our customers,” Winter said. “They also provide many learning opportunities and relationships with other furniture retailers that keep us at the cutting edge of retail and how to give customers more of what they want.”
It’s a given that a good retailer must put a lot of effort into display and accessorizing room groups so customers can better visualize how things can look in their homes, but Furniture Mall of Kansas didn’t stop there. “This led us to help fill the need of our customers to better accessorize their home by offering seasonal design classes,” Winter said. “The attendance continues to grow, and our three “Holiday” classes had an attendance of 990 women.”
Finally, the furniture mall blends five individual stores in one easy to shop location with a hands on, family based approach to the business. “Our customers want a large selection to choose from, but don’t want it to be overwhelming, while still wanting personalized attention and service,” Winter said.
Winter believes a big part of creating a friendly shopping atmosphere was Discovery’s decision in January 2008 to move from commission to non-commission compensation for its sales force of “home specialists.” “Our focus on the customer is what drove the change,” he said. “Pros are better customer experience, willingness of specialists to work together as a team including training new specialists; and better staffing to traffic by using part time specialists on the weekends.” The challenges of non-commission demands are closer management, better measures and feedback to help grow the customer experience.
“Sales cost as percent of sales is not fixed but a variable expense, and therefore has to be managed,” Winter added. “We determine pay rates and raises in annual reviews based on the specialists performance in three areas: happy customers, team work and contribution level.”
LONG FAMILY TRADITION
What’s now Furniture Mall of Kansas had its beginnings in 1933, when Ben and Eva Winter opened the “Howdy Come In” lunchroom, gas station and frozen homemade custard shop west of Emporia, Kan., on Highway 50.
The furniture operation began the day a hitchhiker stopped at “Howdy Come In.” One of his two suitcases carried the man’s cabinet-making tools; and the Winters hired him to build a chifferobe for their new son, Bobby (who still works in the business as a co-owner), and a partnership was born.
The Winters soon converted a dairy barn to Winter Furniture, where they sold new and refurbished furniture; and moved the store into Emporia several years later.
Bob Winter and his wife, Joyce, moved to Denver, Colo., where Bob worked as a furniture buyer. The couple returned to Emporia as partners in Winter Furniture and moved the business to Topeka in 1995. Jeff Winter, grandson of the founders, and son of Bob and Joyce, came in as a third-generation owner along with his wife, June, in 2000. Jeff had worked as an engineer and manufacturing executive at Maytag for 16 years before returning to help open Discovery Furniture by Winter that year.
Discovery opened a 40,000-square-foot sister store, RoomMakers, carrying Ashley goods in 2003 in Topeka; and a 30,000-square-foot Ashley Furniture Homestore in Salina a year later.
After Bob and Joyce’s youngest son, Jamie, joined the business in 2010, the Winters opened a fourth, 45,000-square-foot location that included Discovery Furniture and Roommakers, along with a new Mattress Headquarters store, in Lawrence in 2010. Jamie had spent 16 years as an engineer and manufacturing executive for Motorola. That included living in China for four years with his family while starting and growing an automotive electronics factory.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
The Furniture Mall of Kansas represents the fulfillment of a brand promise that started with Winter Furniture and continued with Discovery Furniture: friendly, trustworthy and expert assistance on the floor; and a big range of reasonably priced goods and categories. The closing of Marling’s Home Furnishings, which had served Kansas for 75-plus years, and Discovery’s acquisition of the name created an opportunity to pull its spreading brand position under one roof. Rather than open yet another store, the retailer pooled its assets.
“We know people are busier than ever, and we want to make shopping easier and more convenient,” Winter said. “We created the Furniture Mall of Kansas to do just that.” The concept blended trusted regional furniture retailing names with a small-store comfortable feel and attention to customers; with the convenience of broad selection in one location. “Our desire is for our customers to have a legendary shopping experience—where they are wowed by the big selection, guaranteed low prices, and personalized high service,” Winter said. HFB
Furniture Mall of Kansas at a Glance
Headquarters: Topeka, Kan.
Six brands in three retail locations: 180,000-square-foot Furniture Mall of Kansas with Discovery Furniture, RoomMakers, Mattress Headquarters and Marling’s Furniture brands; a 45,000-square-foot “mini-Furniture Mall” with Discovery, RoomMakers and Mattress Headquarters brands; and a 30,000 square-foot Ashley Furniture Homestore in Salina.
Warehouses: 50,000 square feet in Topeka; 6,000 square feet in Salina.
Employment: 130 full- and part-time employees.
Key management: Co-Owners: Bob Winter, Joyce Winter, Jamie Winter, Jeff Winter, June Winter, and Jeanne Winter.
Revenue: $15-25 million
Web Site: FurnitureMallofKansas.com
– See more here.