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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5: Tom Lias

Celebrating 75 years in the furniture retail business is an achievement of which to be proud. Marking 75 years in the shadow of one of the industry’s most powerful independent retailers—Art Van Furniture—is a feat to be shouted from a mountaintop.

Novi, Mich.-based Gorman’s Furniture is gearing up for its diamond anniversary this spring, and Tom Lias, president and COO, attributes much of the retailer’s success to its adaptive nature and remaining true to the Gorman’s way.


Home Furnishings Business: Gorman’s operates in quite competitive markets. What do you do to stay ahead of your competitors?


Tom Lias: We have to remember that retail is sort of like the game of golf where you’re really competing against yourself. Your execution of your individual game plan means more than anything else. We develop our game plan for our position, and we pay attention to it in a very disciplined way.

More than 20 years ago, we declared Gorman’s was going to be Michigan’s style leader. That allowed us to broaden our footprint in price and in style ranges with our merchandising platform of good, better, best and exceptional. We treat all products with respect in our operation from our Intro private label product the mantra of “starting out or starting over? Here’s where to start” to our exceptional lines. The good is just as important as the exceptional.


HFB: You’re celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary this year. In an industry that has seen a lot of retail closings, how has Gorman’s remained successful through the good times and bad?


TL: You don’t get to be 75 by doing the same old things. Instead, you get to be 75 through innovation and evolution and by trying things that, in most cases, you’re uncomfortable with.

We’ve always been a bit of an innovator in our segment of the business, and we’re always looking for new ways to improve.

Last fall, we got involved in the area’s Homearama with the local Home Builders Association. Gorman’s designed three of the six luxury homes on the tour, and it was an overwhelming success to be the presenting sponsor of the event. In March, we’ll receive a number of awards for design excellence from our work there.

That’s the kind of thing where you step out of your comfort zone. It put Gorman’s at the forefront of the market.


HFB: How do you communicate with your target consumer?


TL: The zero moment of truth is when someone on our team says “Hi. Welcome to Gorman’s.” Advertising is the brand promise, but the brand experience happens in the store.

It’s all about how we merchandise; how our designers communicate and work with the customers. That is paramount in all that we do.

We make sure the design staff has all they need to position the marketing promise. We have to have a certain image in our TV ads. We work with a firm out of Nashville, Tenn., that has been our partner for 25 years. They know what we want to say and how we want to say it.

The film image on TV and the style of our newspaper ads say we have style; combined with an Intro sofa, we have value, too. It is more about talking to the women than talking to the men.

We buy our media based on when women are listening to the radio or watching TV, and we gear it to those aged 35 to 64.


HFB: This issue focuses on partnerships. Our industry has seen partnerships grow and some falter. What’s your take on partnerships and where we are as an industry at nurturing them?


TL: We have an incredible amount of things going on at the same time. Our market position is 100 brands. When we say 100 brands, we don’t have to name any of them. WE have very important brands that are incredible supports of us, and we’re very protective of them.

Those brands are very important to us, and they are the core of what we do. In the marketplace, we’re the brand. When I choose to name the brands, they need to be important.

How we nurture those partnerships is that I find out what every one of them is best at and congratulate them for being great at it. We don’t want to buy from anyone unless they have a unique buying proposition.

We’re striving all the time to be a great citizen within that structure. You become a good citizen by being supportive and figure out what things work well. The majority of our partners are great at protecting us in our markets.


HFB: What challenges do furniture retailers face this year?

TL: The truth is it is becoming harder than ever. You have to know who you are and who your customer is. Then, you have to take that position and communicate it incessantly to the marketplace, and today, we have to do it in more places than ever before. The whole digital platform is now all consuming—social media, SEO—and you have to decide which vehicles are important and which services you offer are important. It’s a must to focus on the important parts.

Trying to be everything to everyone won’t cut it.

In our markets, we have the big box stores and then we have a slew of lifestyle stores. What’s left is a multi-brand, design- and service-oriented organization, and that is our goal. Luckily, that’s what the market has given us, and that’s what we’re always working toward.


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