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From Home Furnishing Business

The Fun Factor

By Home Furnishings Business in Furniture Retailing on April 2007 A collaboration between two self-described €œfriendly competitors€ six years ago has staked a big claim on the furniture retailing scene in Connecticut.

Pilgrim Furniture City, last year€™s 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 management€”and a shared heritage in furniture retailing€”in 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 €œGrand 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 Pilgrim€™s sales; and a revamped Web site that better tells the retailer€™s story and offers shoppers a better idea of what they can find in the store.

Hooking Up

Albert and Bichunsky both grew up in the furniture business.

Albert had purchased Pilgrim Furniture from his father, Jay Albert, in 1985. The family€™s furniture retailing roots date to 1909, when Mike Albert€™s great-grandfather opened Albert€™s 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.

Bichunsky€™s 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 Bob€™s Discount Furniture, where he worked in purchasing.

€œOn my way to and from work (at Bob€™s), I used to drive I-84,€ Bichunsky recalled. €œMike 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 don€™t we combine our efforts in one store?€™€

Their shared concept, €œShoppertainment,€ 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 store€™s 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 Pilgrim€™s 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 store€™s 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 Pilgrim€™s previous floor layout, retaining only the original configuration€™s cityscape, carousel and skylight. The café, also remodeled, remains a highlight, Bichunsky noted.

€œCreating a destination is very big for us, and part of the experience includes a full-service cafe,€ he said. €œOne of our favorite items is a steamed Nathan€™s 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 Pilgrim€™s 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 offered€”and promoted€”same-day pick-up and delivery on customer purchases.

€œI think we deliver better than anyone in our market, and there€™s a huge fun aspect to this store. Our customer is a woman who€™s probably working, and when she shops she probably brings her kids with her,€ Albert said. €œWe 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.

€œPeople want immediate gratification€”they€™re 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 store€™s busiest days.

€œThere are two owners on this property every day of the week,€ Albert said. €œOn 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 airwaves€”75 percent television, 20 percent direct-to-consumer and 5 percent newspaper€”and Bichunsky gives a lot of credit to the retailer€™s ad agency for telling its story of fun shopping, attractive mid-price furniture and fast delivery.

€œOur ad agency, Horich Parks Lebow in Baltimore, has been a key part of our growth,€ he said. €œOur advertising is getting the message out. We€™re 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 hasn€™t reflected the experience customers have in the store itself.

€œWe€™re 30 to 60 days from bringing out a brand new Web site,€ Albert said. €œIt will include pictures of store interiors, merchandise, more features and designs to get people into the store.€ HFB


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