From Home Furnishing Business
Continuing a Tradition
Standard Furniture Keeps Moving Forward in Its Second Century of Business.
Jacob Shevin took over to represent the fourth generation of his family to serve as president of the company, which now counts 13 stores in Alabama and Tennessee, and employs 100 people. While he’s continued a tradition of customer service and budget-friendly prices passed from down from his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, Jacob is making his own mark.
Recent activities include a new customer feedback process based on Standard’s Web site, and surveys the retailer began e-mailing to customers and conducting in the store in early May; and a formal sales training process that Shevin says should constantly raise performance standards as everyone improves their skills.
FINGER ON THE PULSE
“Everyone says they try to give good customer service, but we are constantly seeking feedback now, and most of it’s very good,” Shevin said. “We have a place on our Web site now for that; and 30 days ago we started sending out surveys asking customers to give us very honest feedback— we do that in the store, too.”
The store’s overall positive rate from customers is 99 percent, and exceptions get instant attention.
“I track that daily—I have it up on my computer all day, and if we receive negative feedback, I’ll check into it immediately. We like for the manager to handle it, because they’re the one who’s in the community.”
The Web site feedback process has proved particularly useful.
“Customers don’t always want to tell you something (in person), they’d rather say it on line,” Shevin said. One store manager reconciled a customer’s problem after she complained on Standard’s feedback site, and Shevin says she’s a customer for life now.
“She was amazed that a store responded and did something about it,” he said. “She thought she was just telling the world about a problem, but we read it, too.”
RAISING THE BAR FOR SALES
After a strong year in 2007, Standard, like many furniture retailers, ran into tough times: “We hit the same wall the rest of the world did,” Shevin said. After an uptick that began in early 2010, the retailer saw steep increases in sales the next two years. The last couple of years, though, have been fairly flat, with only small sales gains.
Shevin expects that to continue, and is taking steps to offset the trend.
“I’m not seeing any reason for sales having huge increases in our business,” he said, adding that the economic recovery hasn’t reached many in Standard’s budget-conscious demographic.
“When people talk about the recovery, a lot just look at how the stock market’s doing. “People that were rich before (the recession) are rich again, but the increase in the stock market hasn’t really helped the working class shopper.”
A major focus at Standard, therefore, is expense control, but the retailer also instituted programs to earn shoppers’ business and make the most of every sales opportunity that does arise.
“We’ve instituted a formal sales training process, which has been well accepted by the staff,” Shevin said. “We’re doing daily, weekly and monthly performance measurement. We can coach the underperformers so they’re improving, and then you increase the overall averages.
“We track their performance daily—tracking average sale and closing rate its one of the most important things we can do to help the top line.”
PUTTING THE WEB TO WORK
Standard is tweaking its Web site in a number of ways—the feedback function is just one example. Standard is working on offering an online credit application to the site. That plays to a vital part of the store’s business model. “In –house financing is very important to us and something that attracts a lot of customers.”
Shevin said. “We write our own paper, and that gives us a good source of repeat business. People with an open account here are more likely to come back when they need something else.”
Another finance related tool is automatic payments on customer accounts, which Standard currently has in live testing with customers. “Pelham is our test market for that,” Shevin said.
Standard also spends a lot of time, money and effort to maintain an in-stock position for the merchandise on its floors, and fast delivery is another differentiator from much of its competition.
Standard developed its store operating system in conjunction with a local vendor and wants to integrate some of its information power into the Web site.
“We invested a lot of money in our inventory system,” Shevin noted. “We had to build the system ourselves because of the uniqueness of our installment credit system.”
Currently, Standard is working on putting that inventory information to work on the Web site, allowing customers to immediately check on whether a product is in stock. “Our Web site is a tool not only for customers browsing at home, but also a tool we’re using with shoppers in the stores for quick access to things such as materials in the furniture and product dimensions,” Shevin said. “It’s also an opportunity for special orders on something that might not be at a particular store right then.”
Standard has 13 stores, and no two are exactly alike in terms of setting and merchandising.
Locations range from its downtown Birmingham store, housed in a multi-level historic street front, to strip shopping center spaces. “We do not have a cookie-cutter format for the stores,” Shevin said. “My goal is for customers to see something new, so we change the floors up more often than others might. Even if it’s product you’ve been carrying, people see it differently.” Bedding gets a lot of attention—Standard’s target is to make bedding 20 percent of sales, which it hit last year—and Shevin credits the category with helping the retailer make it through the recession.
“That didn’t seem to get affected as much by the downturn,” he said. “We fight hard for that business. Any print advertising we do includes bedding.”
Bedding is prominent on Standard’s floors. A category display is the first thing that customers see, for example, when they walk into the Center Point, Ala., showroom and clearance center.
The downtown store features a dedicated bedding space within the showroom, the “Mattress Loft.” Right now, Standard has the concept in four other stores. The feel in the downtown store’s bedding department is cool and calm, and in addition to mattresses, displays related accessories for a complete store-within-a-store experience.
Standard’s biggest advertising spend is for television.
“It’s about item and price for the most part, or big promotions like a clearance sale,” Shevin said. “That’s what draws our customers in.”
Standard has a social media presence, but Shevin says that doesn’t play a major role at this point.
“We use (Facebook) to do things like post new items, but we haven’t figured out how to place a value on it yet,” he noted.
Advertising’s one thing, but a key part of Standard’s mind share with consumers is involvement in the communities it serves. Birmingham is a large metropolitan area, but the retailer also serves small, close-knit towns.
Shevin has a lot of outside activities (see accompanying story “Free Time”) and he likes store managers to do the same.
“Each store has its own community—I’m active in the Birmingham community, and I encourage store managers to do the same,” he said. “Some have been city council members, and it runs all the way down to buying the logos on T-ball shirts. We contribute to organizations like United Way, Red Cross and Salvation Army that help in those communities.
“We don’t want to be perceived as a furniture chain in a small town, so the managers choose where they’ll help in that town. Someone in Moulton, Ala., doesn’t relate to what we’re doing in Birmingham.”
In his spare time Standard Furniture President Jacob Shevin enjoys getting outdoors.
“I love to go to Lake Martin,” he said. “Me and some buddies have a cabin down there, and it’s just a great place to get away and relax. “I also like to get out and play golf when I get the time.”
Shevin also is involved in the community and industry. That includes serving on the Alabama Retail Association board of directors; the Next Generation Now networking group for up-and-coming home furnishings executives; and membership in the 2013 Leadership UAB Class, a group of community advisors made up of young professionals and volunteers supporting the University of Alabama-Birmingham.