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From Home Furnishing Business

Publisher's Letter : The Value of Design

While he was explaining the features and benefits of the product, I casually mentioned a feature I saw on a similar product in another showroom. The feature I mentioned is a definite benefit and could easily be adapted to most any product you see at Market.

It addresses a problem most consumers have had an issue with at some point before. The fix was a very simple one, but one I had never seen. When I mentioned this, the manufacturer said in jest, “Thanks for the tip.” When I heard his response I just paused and thought, “oh damn, I just let the cat out of the bag.” After a couple of seconds, we both chuckled and our conversation began on how long it would take before others in the industry began knocking off this particular feature.

I’m guessing I’ll see it again in High Point at the April Market, but not from my manufacturing friend. He’s far too reputable and classy to blatantly “take” someone’s idea—but there are others, I’m sure, who are implementing this into the design right now.

I’ve heard it said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”, but maybe not in this case. Designers spend months working on a concept, picking the right materials and coming up with the perfect lines to create the perfect piece.

Once they are happy with the product, work begins with a manufacturer to produce it. The manufacturer builds and markets it, with hopes of getting it to retailers and in front of the consumer.  A lot of time and effort go into this piece. It was an idea in someone’s head just a few months ago. Now the whole world can see it, draw inspiration from it and well, knock it off.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. When does a person cross the line from drawing inspiration to outright knocking off an idea? You all have seen a number of bedroom suits with similar designs and features, someone was first up with the idea, so did all others knock it off? Do you or your customer really care? 

I’m guessing the deciding factor is whether or not it moves off your showroom floor; and I’m OK with that. Maybe the original manufacturer that made this piece should have done a better job of marketing this item. They need to make the potential buyer aware of why the original design is hands down a better product.

They have to distinguish a value at that price point. Then, the consumer has a better understanding on why the price point is set as such. As they decide on which product to purchase, original or knock off, maybe that saying “you get what you pay for” will echo in their heads.

This issue of Home Furnishings Business magazine takes a look at intellectual properties and potential issues that could arise from buying and selling copyright infringed goods. Please take some time to read this issue and make sure you aren’t putting your business in a potential situation that you may regret later. 

Publisher's Letter: Employee Management

My second position was with a client that I worked with by way of the Fortune 500 that asked me to come to work for them. It was a dedicated third-party logistics provider that was privately held and employed just over 120 people. Less structured than my previous job, but attempting to become a “real” company.

This brings me to my present position as publisher of Home Furnishings Business. A team of five, the majority of us work from home, with some support from our parent company.  Each company has had its share of pros and cons, but each was driven by the fact you must have good employees to deliver on the promises you make to your clients.

At one time or another with each place I have been employed, I have hired, fired or have been counted on to keep morale up within my group of employees. I know the old saying, sh*t floats downhill but it amazes me how quickly a senior manager will run when such tasks come up.

Right or wrong here are a few things that I have learned along the way. 
When hiring, don’t try to just fill a vacancy. Use this time to find an “upgrade” and find someone that will work well within your team. If you hire a person that is motivated, smart and has a good work ethic, you can train them on the necessary skills to help them be successful in the position. They will grow into the role. Don’t rule out hiring from outside your industry, sometimes a fresh set of eyes, ears and ideas is what the position needs as a jumpstart. Explain what is needed for them to be considered successful and supply the tools to make that happen.
Firing, this is a tough one for most people. In today’s world of documenting potential issues, problems and inch-thick personnel files, it’s my thought that a person has a pretty good idea which path they are on before the firing takes place. If you have completed your supporting documentation and included it in this file, you should have no concerns about your next step. You have outlined what was needed for that employee to be successful, and they have not reached those goals. Lose no sleep when terminating an employee; you’ve had discussions along the way about performance issues and addressed this with each item that was put in the file. Cut the cord and move on, your team will be better for it.

Happy employees are more productive employees, but keeping employee morale up is a difficult task. Management needs to keep an eye on morale. Good employers will make sure an employee is feeling  happy and secure in the position, so they can focus on doing their job and not have concerns about the “what ifs”. It’s a fact that an employee will be more productive if they feel good about the company. Remove any doubts employees may have, and you will be rewarded by them. Be sure to acknowledge employees for the effort they give. Celebrate the wins and always be sure to include families in your celebration. The family may not be on your payroll, but they are a vital support for your employee. It’s important for family members to feel included and part of your team. 
This issue of Home Furnishings Business delves into these topics. Take a moment to read it and learn from others who are much more seasoned than me in what makes a successful team in the furniture industry. I’m sure you will walk away with an idea or two that will help you become more successful and create a team environment that will exceed your expectations.

Obamacare’s Impact a Question Mark

The jury’s still out on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, on businesses.

Jill Benson , an attorney specializing in employment issues in the Greensboro, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle, noted that employers will have to provide coverage in companies with 50 or more full-time employees. The next big deadline is March this year to give notice to employees, but that could be pushed back.

“It’s not clear yet what minimal essential coverage will be,” Benson said.

Taylor Ganz, vice president of finance, planning & administration at Profitability Consulting Group, said he’s spoken to a number of retailers who are reducing some full-time positions to part-time; and all part-time positions to 28 hours a week or less in order to reduce the number of employees they must cover in a health insurance program under the law.

“Some are raising prices, but they should be raising prices anyway,” Ganz said. “Up to now, a healthy benefit package has been a useful retention and recruitment tool, but because of the uncertainty around the new regulations it’s unclear how many retailers can offer the full level of benefits. … It’s the uncertainty about the law’s mechanics.”

With a huge number of retail associates spread over its Thomasville store network, Furniture Brands International has stayed abreast of health-care reform developments, said Beth Sweetman, senior senior vice president of human resources.
“We’ve been on top of health care reform for a couple of years, and we already comply with the legislation—we know what’s coming,” she said. “For us I think it will be an attraction and retention tool. Benefits are a significant spend for Furniture Brands, so we watch that carefully.”
Susan Brashears, at Brashears Furniture in Berryville, Ark., doesn’t expect much impact from Obamacare on the retailer’s benefit packages.
“We were already providing insurance for our people, and we have under 50 people,” she said. “We actually got a small rebate back from our health insurance company last year.”

People Savvy : Retaining the Right People

The boss!

The relationship usually begins with fair pay and adequate benefits that are the cornerstone of a successful company in recruiting and retaining committed workers. If you provide a living wage for your staff, you then have the luxury to implement additional motivation tools. Without the competitive compensation, you risk losing your top talent.

Once you have pay and benefits in place, then it all falls under the manager. People normally don’t quit the company … they quit the boss. In the past, managers predicted the most vital motivational aspect of work for people was money, although personal time and attention from the supervisor has been cited recently as most rewarding and motivational for them at work.

Feeling valued by a supervisor at work is essential to employee motivation and positive morale. Your words, body language, expression on your face telegraph your opinion of your staff’s value.
Your arrival at work sets the mood daily. Smile. Walk tall and confidently. Walk around your workplace and greet people with sincere good mornings. Mornings can be the hardest part of the employee’s day. They are fighting off fatigue, have trouble focusing and getting excited. Offer fresh brewed coffee to help start the day. Not only will they be grateful for the caffeine, they’ll be more productive throughout the day.
Ordering pizza or taking the staff out to lunch occasionally keeps spirits high. Socializing without worrying about the bill puts them in a good mood and helps them enjoy their work environment and colleagues. Get to know them. Ask about families, hobbies and interests. They will appreciate it. People are often motivated by camaraderie. People don’t want to come to work to fight. It is important to understand employees’ basic desire to work collaboratively … a fundamental goodwill.
Treat them with respect. Use simple, genuine, powerful, motivational words such as please, thank you (and hand-written thank you notes), you’re doing a good job … ask about their day off … recognize birthdays, anniversaries and personal accomplishments to demonstrate caring and value.
Always remember a satisfied employee knows clearly what is expected from them daily. No surprises. Hold individual weekly meetings with staff to discuss progress and upcoming expectations. Consistent communication is the key. Establish employee recognition programs to acknowledge notable contributions and to incentivize others to improve.

Challenge them. Whenever you task an employee with a project, you want them to succeed. Be aware that if you only give assignments/goals where success is assured, you’re hurting yourself in the long run. If your associate is not going to learn something, the assignment/expectation you gave likely wasn’t robust enough. Pushing people out of their comfort zones allows them to develop new skills. Control, creativity and challenges in their work inspires motivation.
Continue training them to stay up-to-date with trends in their field. Enroll them in seminars, have them read relevant books/articles and discuss the content. Keep them fresh and inspired.
The ability of the employee to speak their mind is another key retention factor. Do you solicit ideas and provide a comfortable environment for honest feedback? Ensure that your open-door policy is meaningful. Conduct periodic employee satisfaction surveys. Be sure to address any issues you uncover promptly and thoroughly to avoid losing staff for good. The perception of fairness and equitable treatment is imperative for morale.
In short, when word of your company culture gets around, it will significantly improve retention and make it much easier to recruit the most talented workers in the job pool. 

Manning the Boat

If it’s the latter, read on: We’re taking a look this month at ways to retain the talent—and personalities—that benefit your operation; and how to keep them fired up about selling home furnishings. Some of it might seem plain common sense, but some messages bear repeating.

Got a problem with your best people leaving for another opportunity? The first place to look for a solution is in the mirror, according to Joe Milevsky, CEO of JRM Sales & Management, Acworth, Ga.
“It starts with the owner and goes down to managers,” he said. “If the sky is always falling, if anything employees do that’s good is ‘just part of doing their job,’ it won’t be a place where people want to work.
“I preach positive feedback—a 10 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism. It depends on the individual so that might be 5 to 1, but the point is I’m always looking for good things. I want to create an environment where it’s going to be enjoyable to work.”

MORE THAN MONEY
Keeping good people on board is more than money and benefits, agreed Taylor Ganz, vice president of finance, planning & administration for Atlanta-based furniture retail consultancy Profitability Consulting Group.
“You want to know the number one reason people leave a business or a company? They hate their supervisor,” Ganz said. “It’s not the money, it’s not opportunity elsewhere, not retirement. They feel unappreciated, and they hate not the company, but the guy the work for.”
During his days at furniture retailer McMahon’s, Ganz remembered a number of people who said they liked working for the store but absolutely couldn’t work under their supervisor.

“It was my fault for not dealing with the supervisor, and I let both sides down,” he said.

Another non-monetary link between employees and their jobs is knowing their contributions are valued, added Ganz’s colleague, Rene Johnston-Gingrich, vice president of training and development at PCG.

“You show that appreciation in action and in words,” she said. “Customize how you show that appreciation to the individual.”

For example, one employee might enjoy recognition before the entire staff with a lot of hoopla—another might prefer a quiet pat on the back away from the spotlight.
Morris Furniture, Fairborn, Ohio, is big on setting a positive tone from the top, said Dan W. Little, human resources manager. That helped maintain retention and morale during the recession.

“Lead by example—if managers and leaders are upbeat and positive it is contagious,” he said.  “Be positive.  During a management meeting in 2008 our CEO, Larry Klaben, stated we have some of the best associates in the industry, and we will come out stronger when the economy improves.  He repeated this message consistently during full staff meetings.  It was a very effective message.  And he was right.”
COMPENSATION/BENEFITS ISSUES
Setting the right tone and atmosphere in the workplace is key, but after all, people do work for money and the security of employee benefits. The strongest compensation and benefits packages incorporate performance motivators.
“I like bonuses,” PCG’s Ganz said. “Bonuses have to be benchmarked and tied to ambitious, but achievable, goals. You have to reach those goals, and that takes favoritism out of the picture. Bonuses aren’t occurring if achievement’s not occurring.

“People think they’re entitled to raises—it’s like an annuity.”
Don’t allow any discussion of salary among employees, and make sure that’s in writing.

“I’ve fired people for discussing salary,” Ganz noted.

“What we find is there are many ways to compensate salespeople,” said Milevsky at JRM. “If I had my choice, I’d go 100 percent commission versus 100 percent salary.

“That said, if I get into a company with a great environment and accountability, in theory commissions aren’t needed, but in practice that rarely happens.”
He added that, during the hiring process, the prospect’s pay preference can speak volumes.

“In the interview, if they say they want a salary versus commission, what does that tell me?” Milevsky said. “It tells me they aren’t confident in their abilities, or they just want a pay check.”

On the other hand, if a prospective salesperson wants commission only, make sure they understand “customer opportunity” rules and don’t run roughshod over other employees.

Brashears Furniture typically offers salespeople a base around 70 percent of their potential earnings plus commission, said Susan Brashears, an owner at the Berryville, Ark., store.

“This protects a salesperson during a slow month so they don’t get panicky and pushy; and still provides for a commission incentive,” she explained.
In addition to a strong benefits package from a retail standpoint—health coverage, 401k, etc.—Thomasville stores are big on performance incentives and recognition.

“We recognize top writers each month,” Beth Sweetman, senior senior vice president of human resources at Thomasville’s parent company, Furniture Brands International, St. Louis. “We’re also in the process of developing a President’s Club where we’ll celebrate the top writers and top stores for the year.”

Don’t forget the holistic side of the benefits you offer. Wellness programs are good your employees and can be good for your business. Morris Furniture, for example, has motivational incentives such as “Raving Fan” recognition programs for superior customer service, but also gives employees a chance to stay in shape.

“We have a state of the art fitness center available to all associates at no charge,” Little noted.

Jill Benson is an attorney specializing in employment issues in the Greensboro, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle. Her clients have seen measurable benefits especially in the last two years from wellness programs including cholesterol screens, exercise in the work place, and weight loss programs.

“The research shows that employees are missing work less and that it makes them feel more valued,” she said. “I know it’s helped several of my clients retain employees.”

THE RIGHT ATMOSPHERE

An attractive showroom that creates a great environment for shopping keeps customers coming back. And a working atmosphere of open communication, clearly outlined responsibilities and team spirit keeps the employees serving your customers on board. And again, it starts with you.

“Creating a fun, positive environment, that has to be a top-down value,” said PCG’s Johnston-Gingrich. “It’s not about warm and fuzzy, it’s good business. … There’s an old cliché that happy employees equal happy customers, and happy customers equal good business.

“Customers pick up on it immediately—they’re hugely sensitive to a store’s energy.”
Thomasville relies on store and district management to set the tone.

“My view is everyone wants the same things from work: Feedback, whether good or bad, on performance; understanding the strategy of the company; and people want to know when they’re doing a good job,” Sweetman said. “That comes from the store manager and the district manager.”

“We can tell which stores have the best managers. They’re the ones with the most satisfied, productive employees,” added Christine Bonnell, human resources lead at Furniture Brands. “I think it’s up to the store managers and district managers to continually teach people to do their jobs better.”

For example, Thomasville stores hold morning gatherings that cover some component of customer service to give associates new tools to improve their performance.

At San Diego-based Jerome’s, quarterly, one-hour roundtables take place in various departments and stores.

“Small groups of six to eight—a mix of associates with senior management—meet to discuss openly their thoughts on the company and solicit their ideas and suggestions for improvement,” said Vice President of Human Resources David Markowicz.
Make sure you’re meeting one-on-one as well, suggested Milevsky at JRM.

“Have one-on-one meetings and not just to talk but also to listen to what they have to say,” he said. “I had a meeting with a larger company—10 to 12 managers with the owner—and we were talking about this subject. A manager asked how they could possibly find the time for all these meetings. The owner responded, ‘How can we not find the time?’

“We think we’re in the furniture business, but in fact we’re in the people business.”
Encouraging a sense of friendly competition helps build teamwork—and keep everybody on their toes.

“We have some kind of competition or game almost every month for our salespeople,” Brashears said. “We frequently put them on teams—sometimes with salespeople in other stores. They have fun with the friendly competitions. It may sound silly, but it is good for morale and keeps them focused on sales as a group.  They watch everyone’s sales closely and encourage each other throughout the month.”

It’s all about building a company that’s customer-centric, Milevsky said.

“Mom and Pop build a great company, where they’re doing everything. They grow and need help so they hire people to do some of those things—but those people don’t own the company,” he said. “Those people need job descriptions, they need performance measurements, and they need to be trained properly to that job description. They need regular periodic evaluation.

“Create a policy to make that happen. That way it’s not just about the money, the incentives, it’s that people understand what’s expected of them. The only thing worse than having no rules is having them but not holding people accountable to them.”

That means a clear, professionally done policy manual; and a process for resolving conflicts in the store.

“Develop your skill sets to confront and resolve conflict,” Milevesky said, adding that conflict can’t be avoided. “If you sweep the snake under the rug, it will bite you at the worst possible time.

“Celebrate successes, celebrate victories,” he added. “We’re trying to create an environment where we breed success.” 

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