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From Home Furnishing Business

Building on Success

By Sheila Long O'Mara

Boutique home furnishings retailer Boston Interiors has its sights firmly set on growth with a methodical strategy in location selection, building on its omni-channel presence and capitalizing on the knack for remaining true to its niche.

The 36-year-old retailer, which operates seven stores, plays in one of the most competitive markets in the United States. The Boston retail scene offers an abundance of options for consumers on the hunt for furniture.

That competitive playing field, however, hasn’t kept Boston Interiors from growing. Last fall, Boston Interiors opened its most recent location in Burlington, Mass., and Stefanie Lucas, CEO, sees great things in the company’s future.

Lucas, by no means a newcomer to furniture or retail, joined the company in October. Prior to taking over the day-to-day operations from Boston Interiors founder Ken Loring, Lucas was president of upholstery supplier HTL International.

Before HTL, she spent a number of years as president and CEO of Rowe Furniture. Her background also includes stints with women’s apparel retailer Chico’s and with Reebok International.

Know Thyself

With stores ranging from 12,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, Boston Interiors is far from the big-box, mega furniture stores in the market—think Jordan’s Furniture and Bob’s Discount Furniture. Instead, the retailer presents itself as a lifestyle boutique where consumers come for inspiration and customized furnishings.

“We’ve always been good at having a pretty focused point of view and knowing who our customer is,” Lucas said. “We’re not trying to be everything to everybody.”

In any of the Boston Interiors stores, consumers are welcome to work with a designer if they’d like, or not. The approach is without high pressure, Lucas said.

“We have a focused brand image, and we’ve stuck to that. It doesn’t require a mega-store footprint,” she said. “For us, the focus has always been on beautiful product and a high level of service.”

The abundance of retailers in the Boston market vary. Many are price-driven and promote sales constantly. That’s not Boston Interiors’ style.

“We’re trying to get out of that noise and be true to the customer we target,” Lucas said, adding that the target is mostly women. “They like to shop the way I like to shop. I don’t want to be bombarded. If I need help, I like for them to feel more like a friend who is giving me advice. If I want help, it’s available. If I want to do it on my own, I can.”

Lucas said she’s overwhelmed by the number of retailers who think everything needs to be cheaper.

“It has to be a longer journey,” she said. “You have to be true to who you are. We’re not going to be reactive on a daily basis. We understand who our customer is, and give them the environment in which they want to shop.”

In addition to the retailers driven by price, all of the major lifestyle retailers like Pottery Barn, Arhaus, Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware, have locations in the Boston market. Lucas compliments them on their ability to understand the consumer.

At Boston Interiors, consumers can find a more “intimacy with a local relationship,” Lucas said.

Giving the consumer a comfortable, welcoming and helpful visit makes all the difference in return business. Shopping for furniture shouldn’t be like shopping for a car, Lucas said.

“Everyone wants to have the feeling they’re buying a great product,” she said. “It has to be about more than what’s under the hood and what’s the price.

“It’s about how furniture fits into your lifestyle and how it will represent you and your style when you have friends over,” Lucas said.

Into the Future

Looking back over the company’s history, Lucas said she sees a strong foundation on which to build and asks herself frequently what the best strategy is for growth.

“I have the luxury of not coming in and having to fix something,” she said. “I’ve come into a great business, and my job is to grow it. The surrounding Boston area offers a lot of opportunity to spread out.”

The retailer is currently looking at new store locations that meet its current focus of free-standing stores or spaces in open-air lifestyle shopping centers.

Lucas said Boston Interiors will plan for new store openings, as well as building on the foundation of becoming a more significant player in the omni-channel universe.

“We’re currently updating our website so that we can grow our e-commerce business,” she said, adding that the site will feature easier-to-use functionality for consumers. “The ultimate goal is for the site to mirror the look and feel of our stores.”

In addition to expanding the e-commerce business, Boston Interiors will be mailing its first consumer catalog in September to broaden its reach.

“The goal is to make it easy,” Lucas said. “Wherever the customer chooses to shop, we want to offer them a seamless shopping experience.”

Get Casual

That shopping experience offers a range of traditional to contemporary designs with a heavy emphasis on comfortable living designs for dining rooms, living rooms and bedrooms.

“I think of it as the way people like to live,” Lucas said. “In today’s world, it’s rare that people have a super formal living room and only a few people have super modern homes. People want a beautiful home that is livable.”

More than 50 percent of Boston Interiors business is derived from special orders throughout the store in both upholstery and case goods. The retailer places great emphasis on quick delivery wherever possible.

Boston Interiors understands consumers don’t like lengthy waits when it comes to furniture, so the retailer works with vendors who can delivery quickly.

Typically that means domestically produced furniture.

While the retailer’s entire stock isn’t 100 percent domestic, Lucas said it makes good business sense to source from the U.S. where possible.

So far, that direction is working well.

“Customers’ expectations are that they can buy things they want to buy them,” Lucas said. “Customization isn’t a problem for us. If someone comes in and doesn’t see what they want, we can offer it to them in a relatively short amount of time from one of our suppliers.”

While the custom wait depends from vendor to vendor and product to product, Lucas said upholstery is usually delivered within 30 days, and often case goods make the turnaround quicker.

Sharing the News

Again, the Boston market is filled with furniture retailers ranging from traditional stores to independent retailers to lifestyle chains to manufacturers’ vertical stores. It’s a busy furniture market, and all of those channels are eager to have a slice of the pie.

Lucas said because of the sheer number of players in the market, furniture makes “a lot of noise in the marketplace.” That noise requires a multi-pronged approach to advertising and marketing just to be heard.

For Boston Interiors that means television, some print and the retailer is increasing its online media spend in its plan.

“That aspect is going to be more and more important, especially as we become more omni-channel in our business strategy,” Lucas said. “Our catalog will be a big piece of the change, and it will take us into markets outside of Massachusetts.”

Lucas said the catalog will provide the retailer with a testing ground outside of the Boston market and the state. “We’re not close-minded to crossing the border,” she said.

As for the online marketing and social media, Lucas said both are “fascinating” with the ability to turn strategies quickly and create very targeted messaging depending on how the targeted consumer searches and shops online.

“A better understanding of online habits allows you to buy media and make changes by the day or minute if needed,” she said. “There’s no longer a line between social media and online marketing. It has become blurred. Now, it’s more about understanding where your customer travels online and how to talk to them the way they want to be communicated with.”

Lucas is realistic about where the company is now and where it could be in the future with its online advertising. “The potential of where we can be in the next year is great,” she said.

To get there, it’s imperative that retailers understand how the different generations of shoppers want to be approached with marketing. Baby Boomers want one approach while Gen X and the Millennials are completely different and want to see things on phone screens and hear an authentic message.

“Old school online is two years ago,” Lucas said. “We’re all evolving so quickly. We’re not going to be stuck in the way we’ve always done it. We have the right people on our team to ensure that.”

The Early Days

Boston Interiors was started in 1979 by Ken Loring as a waterbed store.

At that time, Loring was working with a man who sold waterbeds and decided to open his own store focused on selling nothing but waterbeds. He set up shop in Brookline, Mass. Later the store evolved to sell other bedroom furniture, and Loring changed the name to Boston Bedrooms.

The retailer then expanded into other home furnishings and the name changed in 1984 to Boston Interiors.

Stefanie Lucas, CEO, said the growth through the years was planned and more organic.

Prior to jumping into the waterbed retail business, Loring had no furniture experience. In fact, he was in the motorcycle business.

Loring remains chairman of the retailer, while Lucas runs the day-to-day operations.

 



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