Ignore Rumors of the Death of Brick-and-Mortar

“Designer Martin Roberts walked attendees through his biggest project this year, the Furniture Mall of Kansas in Olathe, Kansas.”

While some are proclaiming the death of brick-and-mortar furniture stores, designer Martin Roberts remains unconvinced.

Just this year “Nebraska Furniture Mart built the largest store in the western hemisphere, which is all about furniture.”

Published first in Furniture Today

“How can you say that when Restoration Hardware has bumped its stores up from 7,500 square feet to 75,000 square feet with multiple terraces and patio areas built into the store for a real shopping experience?” he asked.

Roberts, of Martin Roberts Design, told attendees of Furniture Today’s Leadership Conference that, if anything, furniture stores are actually getting bigger, not fading. His job, he said, has nothing to do with the Internet or driving customers to the store. It’s about improving sales once the customer arrives and designing “a selling machine for home furnishings.”

Roberts, who has been designing stores since he arrived in the United States in 1975 — including projects for 30 furniture clients this year — walked attendees through his biggest project this year, the 150,000 square foot Furniture Mall of Kansas in Olathe, Kan., owned by the Winter family. To do the job, Roberts said he used all the tools at his disposal — from psychological to merchandising to materials, color, lighting and architecture.

When he first saw the location that the Winters had chosen for their new concept furniture mall — to feature five stores in one, and a good-better-best merchandising strategy — it was in terrible shape. The former home of the failed Benchmark Home Furnishings had fallen into disrepair in the years since Benchmark closed, he said. The floors were peeling; water was dripping through the ceiling. The few positive assets the building did have going for it — track lighting and some concrete floors — were in the wrong places, and the partition walls were obstructing views so visitors “couldn’t get a sense of the wonderful space.”

Also on the exterior, the front flared out on each end of the building for an odd effect that Roberts labeled “bat wings,” and an exterior rotunda for what had been a Thomasville store looked miniature and misplaced. Roberts set out to correct the problems on a budget and remake the space.

Among other things, he created a taller storefront by building it in front of the existing one, making Furniture Mall of Kansas easier to see from the road. The faux front of steel, wire and stucco covered the old Benchmark signage and was made as large as building codes allowed. And by pushing the front out with the faux front, he also created a shelter at the entrance during bad weather, as well as a place for the retailer to display outdoor furniture.

Inside, Roberts did away with view blocking partitions and the previous traffic pattern, which he described as a “gigantic worm,” but stuck to a curved path throughout. To define the various brands — Discovery Furniture, RoomMaker’s Furniture (the company’s version of an Ashley Furniture HomeStore), Marling’s Furniture, Mattress Headquarters and Abbey Flooring Headquarters — he used large color-coded rings, suspended from the ceiling over each category department or brand.

The rings serve as a navigation tool, helping consumers keep track of where they are and where they want to go, and Roberts said at least five rings are visible from just about any vantage point in the store.

At the entrance, Roberts added an Angelo Home boutique area because, he said, the company is one of the few suppliers and marketers that put together “a real package of accessories for the home” that can be changed out for seasonal emphasis, something that often goes missing in furniture stores.

“Why aren’t furniture store more seasonally oriented?” he asked his audience.

“Why insist on putting the same old boring stuff out for the year and just leaving it there?”

In another area, he built the framework of an Amish barn for the retailer’s offering of Amish furniture and to reflect high-end, solid-wood story.

Under the Mattress Headquarters ring, Roberts and Furniture Mall co-owner Jamie Winters created a two-level “virtual aquarium” featuring 12 curved screens that can project anything the retailer wants, from sharks to Mediterranean fish. And in the front, Roberts built a café, a feature he has been preaching about and is well known for sine he developed it years ago for some 700 Barnes & Noble bookstores.

“Having a space where (consumers) can socialize and interact with one another is an important piece of what a furniture store is about,” he said.