From Home Furnishing Business
Larry Norris reopened Norris Home Furnishings during dark days for furniture retailing. He hasn’t looked back since.
By Powell Slaughter
March 2009. The U.S. economy is a shambles. The housing market is practically non-existent after its overinflated balloon burst the previous fall. Layoffs, tight-fisted lenders and frightened consumers are leading to an unprecedented number of furniture store closings, and the grimmest outlook our industry has seen since the Great Depression. Open a furniture store? Why the heck not?
After Hendricks Furniture Group—the company that bought Ft. Myers, Fla.-based Norris Furniture & Interiors in 1998—withdrew from the Florida market four years ago this past March prior to declaring bankruptcy, Larry Norris, then 67, decided to make lemonade from what were then some particularly bitter lemons. He and his wife, Renee Norris, sat down in High Point with Home Furnishings Business during September’s Premarket to talk about the rebirth of the Norris retail brand.
Norris had founded the business in 1983 and had grown it into an important player in Southwest Florida’s home furnishings retail scene. By 1998, He and Renee had both survived cancer and felt good about an early retirement, hence the sale to Hendricks. He still owned the Ft. Myers showroom and warehouse—he’d been leasing it to Hendricks— and was not optimistic about his prospects for filling it.
He didn’t want it sitting idle, and he still felt the furniture itch. “I didn’t think we’d find a buyer or tenant for those buildings in this market the way it was then,” said Norris, president and owner of Norris Home Furnishings. “I told the Realtor ‘If we haven’t found a tenant by September, we’re going to the October High Point Market, and we’ll be back in the business ourselves.’
“Some of the salespeople called and told me customers were crying because the store was closing,” he said. “I have a passion for the industry, and I love it. I’d opened my first store in 1983, so that’s 30 years we’d been serving Southwest Florida.” The move was no surprise to Renee Morris, vice president and accessory buyer for the business. “I’ve always said that what makes an entrepreneur successful doesn’t go away just because you sell the business,” she noted, adding that Larry had been staying busy with development and other ventures. “We did not have a quiet retirement.”
When the Norrises came back to High Point that fall, they found a warm welcome—and vendors glad to see Norris back in the business willing to support his efforts. That welcome has been one of the keys to Norris Home Furnishings’ growth.
“First, we had a very good reputation in the community,” Norris said. Along with his own reputation, it helped that the closings didn’t hurt the Norris name—all customers in Florida received their merchandise.
“Second, we were able to acquire very good lines, and we could get credit when many others couldn’t. Credit managers who’d known me from years ago came out and said, ‘We know your character.’ We paid for inventory, and vendors gave us nice terms up front. I also was able to hire some people and put together a good team,” he said. “I like to think I ‘plant the seed,’ but other people are out there watering, fertilizing and making it grow.”
Renee Norris noted that the Ft. Myers store includes many of their original employees.
Norris originally planned to keep the new operation, which had opened as Norris Home Furnishings that December, fairly small.
“When we sold to Hendricks we had 110 employees, and
I told Renee I never wanted to have that many again, but we’re headed that way now,” Norris said.
Staying “small” didn’t last long. After re-opening at its original location, Norris Home Furnishings began opening stores during a period when many furniture retailers were closing. The 17,000-square-foot Sanibel store opened in January 2011. When the original Robb & Stucky liquidated a month later, Norris looked to fill a gap, and reopened Norris’ old showroom in Naples, the company’s largest footprint with 46,000 square feet. Current employment stands at 84 people, and the retailer expects to hit $20 million in sales next year.
“I’m humbled I have as many employees, customers and vendors as I have, and I try to keep them all happy,” Norris said.
A COMFORTABLE PLACE
Norris Home Furnishings leans toward the high-end, and it works to create a non-intimidating, low-pressure atmosphere. “Our employees are like family, and we like to think of our customers as extended family,” Norris said. “Even though we’re higher end, we bring a lot of value, and we have great customer service.”
A greeter welcomes customers, who are allowed to browse on their own for a while before the greeter passes their description to the next salesperson up.
“One of the comments we get is that our customers feel very comfortable in the stores,” Renee Norris said. “I might walk by the design center at 10:30 in the morning, and see a couple that still might be there at 2:00.”
The Naples store, being bigger, can show more products, but the merchandising is similar in all stores. Norris merchandises by lifestyle, not by manufacturer. Themes include Coastal, Island, Soft Contemporary and Traditional, with a heavy emphasis on full design.
“We have 15 licensed designers on staff, and all our salespeople are designer-oriented,” Norris said.
The company makes full use of those skills by offering a soup-to-nuts assortment of products beyond furniture and accessories.
“We also sell any kind of window treatment, wall coverings, drapery, bedding, and we have a rug gallery in the Naples store,” Norris said. “If a customer buys a new home or condominium, we can help them with everything they need to furnish it.
“We have contractors we work with,” he said. “If a customer’s buying an older home and wants to remodel a bathroom, we can help with that.”
PLAYING IN A TOUGH LEAGUE
When it comes to the high end, there are some pretty big names playing the furniture retail game in Norris’ market—high-profile brands such as the new Robb & Stucky; and Clive Daniel, the furnishings retail kicked off by former Robb & Stucky execs Clive and Daniel Lubner.
All are vying for a slice of the $692 million pie. That’s the total furniture sales volume for the combined Cape Coral-Fort
Myers-Naples-Marco Island, Fla., market last year. This year is on target to be about the same. For the first half of 2013, total furniture sales for the combined markets was $343 million.
“We have a lot of good competition, and I like good competition,” Norris said. “It helps our industry. The more people you have out there advertising, the better it is for retail.”
As far as advertising goes, Norris Home Furnishings runs around a third newspaper, a third television, plus magazines and direct mail.
“Half of it’s wasted, but I can’t figure out which half,” Norris joked. “We’re in a market where newspaper still works—it’s an older demographic, people who still read one every day.”
Charity and community activity is important in getting the name out and building reputation. Take the “Writer’s Domain.”
“We invited writers, New York Times best-selling authors with homes in Naples, to the store,” he said. “We tied it in with Barnes & Noble” for cross-marketing, as well as with local literacy groups.
“We sent the writers a questionnaire about what their writing environment is like, and we re-created those in the store,”
Norris said. “That was a fun event, and we got all kinds of press.
We’ll do that again in January. Most of those events are invitation- only, in the evening in the store.”
The store also cross-markets with builders and developers.
“Building’s coming back in our market,” Norris said. “We’re eager to do model homes for builders, because that’s an extension of our showroom.”
When Norris got back into business, he did find a new world of names such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
“When I was here before, we didn’t have social media— that’s all new to me,” he said. “We’re just getting into it—we recently hired a marketing firm who’s going to help us with that.”
Teaming with the right vendors also helps Norris stand out in
a competitive environment.
“We’re the only Stickley dealer in Southwest Florida, and they are a great resource,” he said by way of example. “We just had four people up there in Manlius (N.Y.) in August. My goal is to have all our salespeople go through the factory. It’s a great education on the line and on how furniture should be made.”
With a goal of hitting $20 million next year, Norris Home Furnishings continues to explore new possibilities for business.
“Right now we’re looking at the Internet, and we’re researching that now,” Norris said. “On our marketing plan, by the end of the year, we’ll come up with some kind of “Look Book” about Norris, telling customers about the store and the lines we represent. We hope it’s something people will want on their coffee table.”
Contract is another area with potential.
“Renee and I went to Neocon this year to see if we want to get involved to some extent with the contract market,” he said.
“That’s something we’d go into very slowly. I wouldn’t want to do a 300-room hotel.”
Renee Norris noted that while there’s been fast growth for the business, the couple wants to make sure it’s “responsible growth.”
“We’re tweaking a lot of what we’ve done and are working on infrastructure, because we have had that rapid growth,” she said. For instance, “our computer system is capable of so much more than we’ve utilized so far. … We’ve been working the last three months to link images to products in the system so it’s easily printable for the customer.” So, don’t look for another retirement in the immediate future.
There’s too much going on. “It’s still going to snow up North, and people will still want to move to Florida,” Norris said. “There’s always enough business, and if not, somebody goes away. I hope never to be that one.” HFB
C.R. Laine, Century, Drexel Heritage, Fine Furniture Design, Henredon, Hooker, Lexington, Schnadig, Sherrill, Stanley and Stickley are key vendors among a total of around 300.
Larry Norris, Owner and President; Renee Norris, Vice President and Accessories Buyer Doug Ulrich, General Manager Gary Klann, Naples Store Manager Luanza Maitland, Interior Designer and Buyer
"We have a lot of good competition, and I like good competition. It helps our industry. The more people you have out there advertising, the better it is for retail".
- LARRY NORRIS
Norris Home Furnishings at a Glance
Upper-middle to high-end, design-oriented home furnishings retailer with three Southwest Florida stores: 20,000 square feet in Ft. Myers; 46,000 square feet in Naples; and 17,000 square feet on Sanibel Island. 36,000-square-foot warehouse/distribution center in Ft. Myers. Originally opened in 1983, sold to Hendricks Furniture Group in 1998. Re-opened in 2009 in Ft. Myers.
Annual revenue: $15-20 million
Web site: NorrisHomeFurnishings.com