As is Their Custom: How Retailers Meet the Demand for Personalized Design

Retailers across the country address the challenge of consumers’ growing appetite for personalized design.

Kimberley Wray
08/31/2018
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Consumers are starting to discover what those in the industry have long known: Furniture and fashion can make an equally powerful statement, and a look that exemplifies your unique aesthetic and lifestyle is increasingly important. Now, with consumers demanding more options — especially when making their upholstery decisions — these retailers are meeting them where they are. 

The Showroom @ Furniture Row - Denver, CO

For a number of years following the Recession, luxury consumers in the Denver market had a tough time satisfying their yen for great design at the brick-and-mortar level. Even as the Mountain West market continued to grow demographically with some 100,000 people moving to the region in the last seven years, several reputable dealers had been forced to close their doors.

The owners of Furniture Row, a group of specialty home furnishings and mattress stores, saw a developing niche on the horizon. They filled it with a new concept called The Showroom @Furniture Row, a one-of-a-kind, 170,000-square-foot shopping experience featuring some 30 branded environments showcasing better-end and luxury goods with names like Century, Baker, Bernhardt, Theodore Alexander and Christopher Guy. Designed by retail strategist Connie Post, The Showroom, celebrating its first anniversary this month, has by all accounts reset the bar for full-line furniture stores — reimagining and reinvigorating the all-but-dead gallery concept along the way.

“Connie’s vision for The Showroom was that consumers rarely get to see the level of excitement and creative output that furniture manufacturers show retail buyers in High Point,” says The Showroom’s lead buyer Amy Foster. “Her idea was to translate the High Point Market experience for our shoppers. She understood that consumers are becoming more and more bold when it comes to design and that they need access, not only to great, inspirational, high-fashion product, but to education and interior design assistance.”

For this reason, The Showroom @Furniture Row is staffed not only with well-educated salespeople in the more value-focused front-end of the store’s layout, but also with a team of highly experienced interior design professionals who work with style-conscious homeowners, designers, builders and architects in its high-end gallery areas, and a showstopping Design Center flooded with natural light. A large distribution center supports the store and, Foster notes, has helped The Showroom become a resource for designers in need of quick delivery on products for their projects. 

Brown Squirrel - Knoxville, TN

Like Denver, Knoxville, TN is a growing metropolitan area and the populace of young, tech-savvy consumers there are gravitating toward the clean lines of Mid-Century Modern style according to Preston Matthews, owner of Brown Squirrel, a full-line furniture store located a stone’s throw from HGTV headquarters. 

“About five years ago, we started asking ourselves how we were going to survive in the modern world,” Matthews says of his store, in business now for nearly five decades. “We turned to Connie Post to help us rebrand with a physical transformation divided into three stages.” He began the rebranding process by partnering with Vaughan-Bassett to take a stand in American-made product. 

“We have to compete against really big stores like Rooms To Go,” he says, “but basically everything those billion-dollar companies offer is imported. So we moved into the American-made category to be different, to do something that no one else had done, complete with an Amish-built barn as part of our in-store display.”

Brown Squirrel showroom
Brown Squirrel has shifted focus to custom-order upholstery, but has realized that growing this segment is dependent on quick lead times. 

 

With the latest stage nearing completion at press time, Brown Squirrel will be 90,000-square-feet in size. Its newest additions focus on specific lifestyles like modern farmhouse, industrial vintage and, of course, modern. 

“That’s something that is close to my heart,” the executive relates, “because my Dad’s first furniture store launched in 1951 was called Modern Day Furniture. We’ve seen tremendous growth in Knoxville’s downtown district with lots of lofts and condos being built, so we’re tackling Mid-Century Modern as a category, and small-space living.”

Like The Showroom @Furniture Row, which augments its furniture offerings with areas for dining and lounging, as well as boutique shops featuring designer jewelry, clothing and accessories, the newly revamped Brown Squirrel will feature a hospitality café and boutique aimed squarely at female shoppers. “It’s going to be really colorful and happy, the vision of my wife and business partner Irene (Rini) Matthews.”

When finalized, the store will encompass 185 upholstery slots. In the new modern farmhouse area, that translates into mixing relaxed slipcovered pieces covered in performance fabrics from Synergy with casegoods and occasional. In vintage industrial, the look leans toward more traditional chesterfields.

Matthews is also making plans to augment his upper-end special order offerings with bench-made upholstered goods Smith Brothers, which offers, he says, “tailoring and attention to detail like I’ve never seen before. They provide some 1,000 fabrics and 100 colors of leather from which to choose, and when you sit on one of their sofas you can definitely feel the difference.” The custom-made furniture will deliver to customers in 28 days.

Currently, the bulk of the upholstery business at Brown Squirrel is comprised of a more mid-priced custom-order program by England, with numerous silhouettes and some 600 fabrics and leathers available to deliver to the customer’s home in 14 days or less. “We don’t stock anything, and we’re getting $450 a square foot out of our England space,” he relates. “The concept has really opened us up to people that want to special order, but don’t want to wait four to six or even eight to 10 weeks to get their furniture.” 

The England area has been so successful, in fact, that it is currently growing in size, melding into the new urban lifestyle department where the upholstered silhouettes are mixed with small-scale occasional and casual dining. The effort targets all those new lofts and condos and aims to satisfy younger customers’ interest in fast delivery. “People want their own personal style today, a look that no one else has, and this program enables us to give it to them,” Matthews says. 

Kasby’s By The Lake - Charlotte, NC

Mark Henderson had been in the furniture business since 2002 selling mattresses and bedroom furniture. 

“One day I walked into a showroom called Capris Furniture at the High Point Market and saw some of the most vibrant, beautiful colors that I had ever seen and I heard the name Sunbrella,” he relates. Two years later, his 6,000-square-foot showroom, Kasby’s by the Lake, located about a half of a mile from Lake Wylie in Charlotte, NC, features nothing but Sunbrella, with some 30 indoor upholstery and 30 outdoor upholstery groups on display, all available in a whopping 3,500 fabric combinations. “I ended up being solely Sunbrella, and I won’t carry any other fabric, because I believe in the product and its performance,” he says.

Even so, Henderson says new customers are continually surprised to find indoor furniture when they enter his store. “We’re really an exclusive Sunbrella location with signage plastered all over the building, but a lot of people still think that Sunbrella has marine-grade fabric for umbrellas, awnings and patio furniture. They are wowed to learn about the benefits of covering indoor furniture with it.” 

All of the custom-made upholstered goods are produced in Ocala, FL, and typically deliver to customers’ homes in about four weeks. Of course, Henderson admits the huge fabric selection can be daunting for some customers. When that happens, the store’s sales associates will be more than happy to visit a home to work with the customer.  

Enjolé Interiors - Evansville, IN

Interior design expertise is also integral to the success of Enjolé Interiors, located inside a beautifully renovated 5,000-square-foot, 1860s building in Evansville, IN. Enjolé is a French-Cajun word meaning enticing or enchanting, “which is just the way we want our customers to feel about their living spaces,” says Sharon Lemond, President.

Enjole Interiors
Personalized design is growing: Enjolé Interiors does a huge business in versatile performance fabrics.

Lemond was herself a client of local designer Tammy Stallings, before the women decided to partner on creating a retail venue two years ago. They pride themselves on “creating experiences” for their customers, and most recently that meant hosting a two-day special event for customers and the local interior design community promoting Sunbrella. It featured none other than designer Joe Ruggiero. 

With customers typically spending $4,000 to $5,000 on custom sofas, “we are big into performance fabrics,” Stallings says. “People today are looking for simplicity. They want their homes to be beautiful, but they don’t want to have to fuss anymore. We believe it’s up to us help them make their homes look fabulous, but still livable.”

The Decorator’s Edge - Thomasville, NC

Diane Lackey, co-owner of single-store operation and design firm The Decorator’s Edge in Thomasville, NC, has focused on creating homes that reflect her clients’ lifestyle for nearly 40 years. With design clients across the country in addition to their local clientele, Lackey attributes the store’s success to their focus on satisfying every customer’s unique needs. 

“I don’t know how many friends I have gained over the years from people coming to us looking for design help,” she comments. “You find out what their needs are, what kind of big dog they have or don’t have and the number of grandkids in their family. You learn about them and their lifestyles, and as the years go by you find yourself doing projects for their grown kids.” 

Decorators Edge Diane Lackey
Diane Lackey of The Decorator’s Edge 
and her furbaby Miss Blue sell the performance fabric story on looks alone.

The vibe at The Decorator’s Edge is laidback luxury, with customers often recognizing Lackey from local TV commercials. The ads typically promote performance fabrics from Sunbrella and Krypton, and Lackey stars alongside her large dog Miss Blue. In the spots, she introduces Miss Blue as the fur-baby-friendly company’s “very own fabric tester, who thinks no means yes.” The ads run on the local ABC affiliate during news programs like “Good Morning America.” New customers are often disappointed not to find the dog on the sales floor when they arrive.

“People love their pets and so performance fabrics are taking over,” she relates. “You should see how people perk up when I point to the most beautiful white sofa on our floor and tell them that their dog can sit on it and they can pour wine on it and it will clean right up.” 

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