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From Home Furnishing Business

Setting Priorities

By Powell Slaughter

Ask most furniture retailers for their best sales day week in and week out, and a lot will answer Sunday.

While most furniture stores depend on a full weekend to meet their goals, most people out there in the world take Sunday as a day to be with their families and worship as they see fit (or maybe even shop for furniture).

If you work at De Young Interiors in St. John, Ind., you can enjoy that day as well.

Though it shuts the doors on Sundays, De Young is still thriving after 87 years in business.

“We are a faith-based company, and we are closed on Sundays,” said Co-Owner John De Young. “We’ve been able to thrive and survive.”

It also helps make for happier employees.

“A very large store in our area closed, and I knew the sales manager,” De Young said. “I was talking to her about a job, and I told her, ‘You won’t be able to make that kind of money here because we’re closed on Sundays.’ That’s our church and family day.”

While the woman had children and would have liked the time with them, she still wasn’t sure about the money issue. She ended up giving it a shot at De Young Interiors.

“Three months later I asked her how she was liking her Sundays off, and she said she loved it,” De Young said. “In our industry, we push and push and push, and we get burned out. My grandparents set these standards and we carried them on. … We have a sign at the front of the store, and one of the things on there is “Closed Sundays, See You in Church.
“People tell me they appreciate those values. I’m not going to push religion on anyone, but this does serve as our ‘silent’ witness.”
Customers seem to like the store as well—it won the region’s “Best of” in the furniture store category this year.
4 GENERATIONS—SO FAR
Nick and Cora De Young  started the business when they opened a joint furniture store and funeral home in South Holland, Ill., in 1928—a common business pairing at the time, when the makers of fine furniture also made caskets.

The store’s emphasis on building relationships in the community it serves dates back to the Great Depression years, when the De Youngs would let people pay their bills when they were able to, a little at a time. That built a spirit of trust and friendship with their customers.
The De Youngs opened a second location in nearby Lansing, Ill., in 1939; and soon committed to the furniture only, bringing their customers more brands and a larger variety of products.
Upon retirement, Nick and Cora De Young  turned the business over to their three sons: Gerry, Arnold and Sidney. The brothers ran De Young’s until their retirement in 1993, when the stores passed to their sons and sons-in-law; Jerry and John De Young, Bob Scheuneman and Tom McGehee.
De Youngs closed their South Holland and Lansing locations and, in 2005, the company opened De Young Interiors in St. John, Ind. De Young’s had made a decision to put all its efforts into a single, strong location.
“The demographics were good, and it’s a growth area,” said John De Young of St. John, located along interstates 30 miles south of Chicago in northwest Indiana. “Our town just got rated by CNN as the best place in Indiana to raise a family. The store is right across the street from Lakes Central High School, with 4,000 students. They’ve had a $140 million expansion.
“We’re on a very busy highway, U.S. 41, and that school is a landmark, with parents going to events there. It put us in a highly visible area.”

AN EAR TO THE GROUND
The four partners in De Young Interiors each have 40 years of experience in the business.
“An owner is always on site,” De Young said. “Any time we have to make a call on something to get a customer satisfied, it’s coming from the highest authority—one advantage of a family business.
“My office is right by our counter. I have two open doors, and I can hear the interaction. It’s going back to what we were doing in 1928, with third, fourth and fifth generations of customers.”
Some family owned retailers have closed up shop because they couldn’t get the next generation interested in continuing on or family squabbles.
“The foundation of priorities and how we treat each other is huge, because some families don’t get along,” De Young said. “We disagree sometimes, but we all are committed to the business and each other.”

CARVING A NICHE
De Young Interiors positions itself firmly in medium to upper-middle price points.
“We don’t deal with low-end product, but we have some price-conscious items, and we don’t go crazy at the high end,” De Young said. “That’s where we hang our hat. Customers have come to know us and trust us because of the good brands we carry and the service we offer.”
In May, De Young Interiors was voted “Best in Region” for furniture stores by readers of the local paper.
“We’d won that award in the past, but hadn’t last year,” De Young said. “We won again because we’ve worked a little harder.”
De Young Interiors’ floor staff is a mix of interior designers and sales consultants who have no design background per se, but all are highly trained on the products they sell. The store develops skills through mentoring; and relies more on selling value versus price alone.
“Take Smith Bros.’ construction—our sales consultants know how to say, ‘You may see the same fabric on a less expensive model, but the quality underneath this is better,” De Young said. “Our industry made a mistake by going cheap, cheap, cheap all the time instead of selling value. We have flourished because we’re selling better product and explaining the difference to customers.”

PRESENTATION ON THE FLOOR
Time was, De Young tended to buy the sorts of products he wanted, but that’s changing. There’s more designer input involved now.
In addition to the designers on staff, De Young’s son Kyle, who is sales manager, has a degree from Savannah College of Art and Design. His new bride as of this month has a degree from Harrington College of Design in Chicago.
“Since we have more designers on staff, we’ve gone to more of a committee approach to buying decisions,” De Young said. “Kyle helped bring that to the table. We’re combining the experience of management with the input of designers and sales managers.
“We’re very heavily accessorized—presentation is everything if you’re going to help people visualize how it will look in the home.”

CUSTOMER COMMUNICATION 
A knowledgeable staff combined with a new emphasis on direct mail and e-mail blasts to give De Young Interiors what De Young “the best first quarter we ever had.”
“We’re continually trying to improve how we communicate to the customers,” he said. “We’ve done television and local cable, and radio in the past, but what we hang our hat on now is our mailing list—direct mail and e-mail.
“I don’t really understand social media, but Kyle does. We’re trying to market more on the social media side along with direct mail pieces. I’m convinced a lot of people aren’t reading newspapers.”
Direct mail and e-mail are especially effective because of the relationships De Young Interiors has built after 87 years in business.
De Young shared an anecdote.
“In 1928, my grandfather started the business, and in the early ‘30s he bought a hardware repair shop,” he said. “A local roofer bought nails from my grandfather.
“In 2004, I was moving records and came across a ledger with this roofer. When I moved to northern Indiana, the man at the end of the block turned out to be the owner of that roofing company.”
De Young shared the ledger with his neighbor, and in addition to getting his business, “he sends his kids to me. You can’t buy that kind of word of mouth.”

GETTING OVER THE HUMP
Like most retailers, De Young Interiors faced a lot of challenges during the recession and the economy’s slow recovery.
“I think the economy in general has made everyone do a self-check,” De Young said. “We had to do cut-backs, but we’re adding people again.
“We had built a new store and were on a real roll when the economy tanked. We keep talking about it on a daily basis.”
While De Young Interiors isn’t resting easy, the immediate future does look promising.
“We had the best first quarter we ever had, and my warehouse is jammed with sold merchandise,” De Young noted. “I think the rest of the year will be good, but I don’t know if it will be great.”
Since De Young Interiors moved to St. Johns, 15 other furniture stores serving the market are no longer in business. The key to the store’s prosperity is Business 101, but apparently not everyone can pass that course.
“The amount of business you can get on the front end, you can lose on the back end,” De Young said. “We watch the doors on both ends, pay attention to detail and minimize expense.”
And despite a lot of multi-generational customer relationships—maybe even because of those relationships—service and satisfaction remain paramount.
“Ours is not a guaranteed approach,” De Young noted. “You have to keep earning that business.” HFB

Inset Story

Next Generation

De Young Furniture Is Setting up for Another Generation of Family Management

Kyle De Young, sales manager at De Young Interiors and son of co-owner John De Young, represents the furniture retailer’s fourth generation of management.

He brings a fine eye and a competitive personality—Kyle went to Savannah College of Art and Design on a baseball scholarship where he graduated in 2010 with a degree in visual communications with a concentration in design.

He’s getting married this month, and his bride Carolyn has a design degree, hers from Harrington College of Design in Chicago.

It’s not where he visualized being, but the family business has provided an outlet to match his skills. A poor job market made working in his field a tough prospect; and after attracting the attention of a number of professional baseball scouts for his middle-infield and outfield play, a shoulder injury left Kyle unable to throw.

“My whole life, I’ve been able to draw and paint,” he said. “I also had played baseball my whole life. … My dad had always said (furniture retailing) is hard, you don’t want to work here,” he said.

Still, Kyle had worked in the store’s back end as he grew up, and he was determined to get a job.
“I’m very competitive by nature,” he said. “I asked if I could work in the business, and (my father) said ‘no’ at first. Suddenly, my cousin moved from a customer service position.”

Kyle finally talked his dad into letting him give it a try.
“I took it as a challenge to solve problems,” he said. “When people call in and they’re upset, it’s like they’re saying your family’s doing them wrong. I take that personally.
“People often feel they’re being taken advantage of, and with a lot of the retail experiences they have, I can understand why.”
Proving that he could take care of some of retail’s trickiest and most emotional situations, Kyle got a shot at sales.
John De Young challenged his son that he wasn’t up to sales.
“My competitive nature came out in sales,” Kyle said. “My goal is that our family is going to take care of the customer better than the next person. We’re going to inform you more than the next person, and give you the best price and the best value.
“My goal is to be better each day with whatever we’re doing, and we have to do a lot of different things in a day—selling on the floor, creating settings, backing up the warehouse.”
John De Young said Kyle brought the passion that won him a scholarship to the store, especially in terms of reaching out to a new generation of customers.
“In the father-son relationship, it’s always been my goal to challenge my boys,” the elder De Young said. “Sports taught good communications skills, good people skills, and how to work with a team to make it all work.”
In addition to his work at De Young, Kyle puts his design background to work on vendor Whittier Wood Furniture’s design committee.
“He helped make some changes in their youth line, suggestions he brought to the table,” John said. “You don’t see many people his age in the business doing that. Kyle has the passion for it—that furniture fever people get.
“I worked side-by-side with my dad, and it makes me very proud to have Kyle by my side. On a daily basis, we bounce ideas around about product, and Kyle brings his age group’s perspective. That’s helped our business. There are some things I don’t agree with, but he’s made the right call on many occasions.”

 

 



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