From Home Furnishing Business
The Fun Factor
By Home Furnishings Business in Furniture Retailing on April 2007
A collaboration between two self-described friendly competitors six years ago has staked a big claim on the furniture retailing scene in Connecticut.
Pilgrim Furniture City, last years National Home Furnishings Association Retailer of the Year, is using a combination of fast delivery, a fun shopping environment, high-impact merchandising for middle price-point goods, and broadcast advertising to attract customers from a wide area around its Southington, Conn., location right off Interstate 84.
Mike Albert, president and owner, and Steve Bichunsky, vice president and partner, combined their respective strengths in operations and merchandising managementand a shared heritage in furniture retailingin 2001 to form a partnership that has taken a former Levitz store and made it not only a destination for furniture shoppers, but also a significant corporate presence in its local community (see sidebar).
In the past year, Pilgrim has expanded its showroom space by 30,000 square feet, bringing its total display to 90,000 square feet, and created in conjunction with retail designer Connie Post a 6,000-square-foot Grand Interiors presentation to showcase its higher-end goods.
On the horizon: a new 100,000-square-foot store set to open early next year in an undisclosed location in Connecticut that Albert believes will double Pilgrims sales; and a revamped Web site that better tells the retailers story and offers shoppers a better idea of what they can find in the store.
Albert and Bichunsky both grew up in the furniture business.
Albert had purchased Pilgrim Furniture from his father, Jay Albert, in 1985. The familys furniture retailing roots date to 1909, when Mike Alberts great-grandfather opened Alberts Furniture, which grew to a seven-store chain based in Waterbury, Conn.
At the time, Pilgrim was an 8,000-square-foot operation employing four people with annual sales of $400,000. Over the years, Mike Albert grew the business to 12,000 square feet, employing seven people, with annual sales of $1.2 million.
In 1993, Albert purchased a property owned by his grandfather that allowed Pilgrim to grow to 40,000 square feet including a 10,000-square-foot fully racked warehouse, and employ 25 people.
In May 2001, Albert partnered with Steve Bichunsky to open Pilgrim Furniture City at a former Levitz store in a high-visibility location in Southington.
Bichunskys experience in furniture retailing dates to his days as a teenager working for his father and uncle in their business, The Meriden Auction Rooms in Meriden, Conn., where he found merchandising to be his particular operational calling. After that business was sold in 1998, he went to work at Bobs Discount Furniture, where he worked in purchasing.
On my way to and from work (at Bobs), I used to drive I-84, Bichunsky recalled. Mike and I had been friends for a long time, basically friendly competitors. I used to drive by our present location, which was a former Levitz store. ... In 2001, we thought, Why dont we combine our efforts in one store?
Their shared concept, Shoppertainment, was to make furniture shopping enjoyable and convenient. The store featured a fantasy townscape, highlighted by an old carousel imported from Argentina. The new store, which in 2001 employed 70 people, also housed a 20-seat movie theater to entertain children while their parents shopped.
For their combined efforts, Albert is the operations expert, while Bichunsky oversees buying and merchandising.
Upping the Ante
Last year, Pilgrim converted another 30,000 square feet of its Southington location to retail display in the stores second project with Connie Post (the first included the addition of a skylight to shed natural lighting on the shopping area). A highlight of that expansion, which held a grand opening last fall, is Grand Interiors, a 6,000-square-foot footprint showcasing in particular Pilgrims high-end case goods, Fine Furniture; and Massoud upholstery.
Grand Interiors is a full-scale facade of a New England style home added to the stores original townscape and designed to help customers see how the furniture on display looks in an actual home environment.
The $3 million remodeling project basically gutted Pilgrims previous floor layout, retaining only the original configurations cityscape, carousel and skylight. The cafÃ©, also remodeled, remains a highlight, Bichunsky noted.
Creating a destination is very big for us, and part of the experience includes a full-service cafe, he said. One of our favorite items is a steamed Nathans hot dog we sell for a dollar.
While it boasts a brand-new look, the store also constantly updates its floor presentation. A team of three merchandisers led by Vince Alberino, store designer, works full-time to fine-tune the visual aspect of Pilgrims sales floor.
Meat to Go with the Sizzle
Fun is fine, but Pilgrim works hard to back an inviting atmosphere with powerful service.
For almost two years, the store has offeredand promotedsame-day pick-up and delivery on customer purchases.
I think we deliver better than anyone in our market, and theres a huge fun aspect to this store. Our customer is a woman whos probably working, and when she shops she probably brings her kids with her, Albert said. We decided that to say we offer this service on network television would been a lot. It was a simple process for us. We were working out of one building, we have our own drivers and our completion rate is very high. We serve most of Connecticut, and we attract people from great distances, so this is an extra incentive to shop our store.
Bichunsky believes Pilgrim is the only retailer in its market offering same-day service on orders.
People want immediate gratificationtheyre time-starved, he said.
Albert and Bichunsky expect their 112 employees to meet that service commitment, but they also walk the walk, leading from the front during the stores busiest days.
There are two owners on this property every day of the week, Albert said. On weekends, one of us might come in early and the other later. It shows the employees we want to be here when the ducks are flying.
Telling the Story
In its advertising, Pilgrim Furniture City goes heavy on the airwaves75 percent television, 20 percent direct-to-consumer and 5 percent newspaperand Bichunsky gives a lot of credit to the retailers ad agency for telling its story of fun shopping, attractive mid-price furniture and fast delivery.
Our ad agency, Horich Parks Lebow in Baltimore, has been a key part of our growth, he said. Our advertising is getting the message out. Were right in the middle market, and we really have to put the merchandise on a silver platter.
Pilgrim also is revamping its Web site, pilgrimfurniturecity.com, which both partners admit to date hasnt reflected the experience customers have in the store itself.
Were 30 to 60 days from bringing out a brand new Web site, Albert said. It will include pictures of store interiors, merchandise, more features and designs to get people into the store. HFB