Western Retailer recently sat down with four intelligent, women business owners from the state of Arizona to learn about their industry experiences and how they connect with other retailers in the industry. Read the fun and entertaining insights from Carol Bell and Tamara Scott-Anderson, Contents Interiors; Valerie Watters, Valerie’s Furniture and Accents; and Chris Ehgoetz, Michael Alan Furnishings about Retailers helping Retailers.
WR: How did you get started in the furniture industry?
Carol Bell, Tamara Scott-Anderson and Valerie Watters
Carol Bell: I majored in fashion in college and after I got married, I became involved in the antique business. The antique business led to the furniture business, and here I am, 20 years later in the furniture business. It was not necessarily my calling but my journey in life that brought me here.
Tamara Scott-Anderson: I received a degree in art education. Once I graduated, people weren’t hiring art teachers, so I got a job selling window treatments and accessories. That led me to Content Interiors where I did design and eventually furniture sales. Now Carol and I own it.
Chris Ehgoetz: My parents owned the business and then my sister and I purchased it 20 years ago. Next Friday, my sister and I are toasting to 30 years!
Valerie Watters: I never dreamed of owning my own business or being in furniture retail. I needed a job when I was 21 and a friend of mine worked in a furniture store. They hired me part time and I got sucked in. Fortunately, through the years and a lot of self learning at the library, I discovered a great passion for this industry. I love how it is ever-changing, and when I started, part of my motivation was to be successful in a male dominated world. It was one of those “I’m gonna show these guys…” kind of things.
CB: Valerie, how did you get the courage to open your own store?
VW: My friends talked me into it. I had been managing different stores for eight years and was thinking of getting out of furniture retail. My friends said that I needed to open my own store. They gave me the encouragement, so I went into the library and started reading books on how to own and operate a business.
CB: Tamara and I bought an existing business and often times have said to each other that we don’t know if we could’ve started it on our own. That’s very brave.
VW: Thank you. I started out small, with a small concept. The big thing was I always did my homework. I did a lot of research, and I have always been one of those penny-pinchers. I didn’t go into debt, started out small, built the company and here I am 23 years later. It is challenging, as we all know, we have our moments. But I do love the industry. Especially being involved with WHFA—they are the best people in the world!
CB: Great people, great support. When you talk about passion, there is nothing more exciting than going to High Point and seeing the excitement behind the new styles and the passion that goes into it.
VW: And the thought that you can get into someone’s home and help them—because some of them don’t have a clue—you can help them create a home. I love people. I always thought I would be an actress; well my showroom is like my stage.
WR: Over the years, how has your relationship with other retailers evolved?
CB: Since we first started, we’ve belonged to the Fort Lowell Furniture District. Back when times were better, there wasn’t the attitude of helping each other as much as there is now.
TS: It [Fort Lowell Furniture District] is a cooperative for advertising, so we used to share information on that level. But everyone kept the cards close to their chest on their products. Being a part of the Contemporary Design Group, we saw the value of sharing between retailers that took place. When we became active in the WHFA, it just triple-folded what we learn from other retailers around the country.
CB: Over the course of the last 10 years, I think there is a lot more sharing. At least in our world, maybe we are more open to it.
CE: We have always been a part of performance groups. We have always been open to sharing with other retailers and come back from every meeting with new ideas for our store. We would not be where we are today without performance groups.
VW: For me, it has been about gaining friendships with other retailers. I’ve always felt like I was such a small store in Cave Creek. I am not a big, multi-million dollar, multi-location store, so that intimidated me at events. I used to think, “What do I have to contribute?” but the neat thing I have found is it doesn’t matter if I am a small store in the WHFA. We always talk about the passion for the industry, and when you are involved in an industry and you are passionate about it, it doesn’t matter if you sell $1 million or $10 million a year, you have ideas to contribute. I am proud that I can be a part of it even though I am just a little slice of the pie.
WR: Do you share business information with each other?
Chris Ehgoetz and Carrie Hemme, owners of Michael Alan Furnishings
: We call each other for advice when we have questions like, “How did they market this”, “how did they handle an employee issue”, etc. I did take a trip up to Chris’ store years ago, and I was so impressed by the things they were doing in the store and got great ideas for mine.
CE: I think it is always exciting to go to other stores when I am traveling. I always learn so much. When I am in another town, one of the first things I do is check out the other stores. If you get one little nugget of something new to take back to your store, it is so exciting.
CB: We were just at the WHFA board meeting, and Chris had an idea that I brought back to our store. Whenever you are with a retailer, if you are listening at all, you will pick up some pearl of wisdom. When we started this business, we knew a lot about furniture and design, but as far as knowing anything about running a business… hmmm—we might not have known enough.
CE: Like how to do a balance sheet!
CB: We depended on other retailers to help us out and learn the business. For the first several years, we were on the phone learning from others.
TS: I have to say that because Carol and I are equal business partners, we get to bounce ideas off each other that sometimes an individual owner wouldn’t have. I am actively involved in ASID, so I am always gathering information and sharing it on that level and don’t let Carol kid you, she is a wiz at keeping us on track with our buying, our open to buy, etc. She keeps us in check on all of those business things.
CB: One thing that I wanted to say about the association, is that when you have your own business, there are so many things that you need to know and some of them I admit that I am not too terribly interested in. To belong to WHFA where there are people to negotiate the great credit card processing rates for me through a program, it makes it easy for me to just say, “OK, I will use their program”, and I don’t have to take the hundred phone calls a week on the credit card processing, insurance, etc. To be a part of an association where you get that kind of support, frees you up to do the things you are better at which is important.
VW: We are running businesses, so whether you have a passion or an eye for color, you still have to watch the business side of things too. I have to credit a lot of my success to having an awesome accountant. He keeps on top of everything, takes care of me. For years, he kept telling me to buy my own building. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be a million dollars in debt. But thank god I finally bought my building 10 years ago. I just listen to his advice and I learn a lot from him. He set up my Quickbooks and teaches me all the tax laws so I know what I can and can’t do. That is invaluable information.
CB: It is so true because I can remember spending the afternoon talking to the tax person asking them to explain certain parts again.
VW: Especially now, it is important when we are counting every penny. You need to know where your money is spent, how it’s spent, and try to be the best. It is challenging out there right now. I think it has been more challenging the last few years than when I first opened.
VW: It is a little disheartening to work so hard and just be treading water. Although we are because we are still survivors, but man, I am on the cheap beer and I can’t handle it!
WR: Do you think since the economy has been a challenge, retailers are more open to working together and sharing ideas?
VW: I would say yes. I’ve seen it more with people who are competitors. I don’t really have competitors; I think the more the merrier. I have noticed I am getting more phone calls from people who might consider me a competitor, asking how I do things. I think people are panicking and when people panic, you join together and realize you are all going through the same thing. You survive and try to help each other out.
TS: There is a rug store in Tucson, who’s almost a one man operation and he is constantly taking Carol and I to happy hour because he wants us to help him out and is great in asking for advice.
CB: And we are all about people taking us out to happy hour!
CE: I think it makes for good competition too.
TS: We are also now renting warehouse space from the Copenhagen store across the street. We needed a little extra space, and they have 60,000 square feet, so we are renting a little bit of their space. We just asked if we could put some stuff in there, and they were fine with it.
CB: It is a good relationship we have with them.
VW: But I do wonder where you got that new sofa Carol?
CB: [Laughs] Yeah, we now have new Ekornes lines over here! [Joking]
WR: What is it like to be a female business owner in a predominately male industry?
CE: I don’t think there are any issues.
CB: It has occasionally been an issue for us. Since we are a part of both the WHFA and Contemporary Design Group, which are both well accepted, it hasn’t really mattered. Every once and awhile, since Tamara and I are business partners, at Market a vendor might look at us like we are designers and tell give tell us they only want to work with people from furniture stores. Needless to say, our business cards now have a picture of our beautiful store. Vendors now are like, “Oh, you have a store”.
TS: They realize then that we aren’t interior designers just shopping for one client.
Carol: That is probably the biggest issue that we had to get past—oh and the we aren’t gay part. Other than that, the groups that we belong to are so accepting, so for the longest time, we didn’t even notice it was a male dominated business.
TS: I think that with so many family furniture businesses, females are involved in some way, whether is it the wife or a daughter. There is female input that goes into so many businesses. I do think being a woman in the business makes us more in-tuned to when things aren’t working out. One of the things that Carol and I have learned is as a small business, you are a little closer to everything, so you can change faster than a big business. Women have the sense of when things aren’t working and will question it. Things aren’t working here, what do we need to do? I think in that sense, it is a benefit to being a small woman owned business and we aren’t a part of the “good ol’ boy environment”.
VW: I feel the industry has changed a lot. When I first opened my store at 29, I was going to Markets and applying for credit all by myself. I did get some of the, “Well are your parents involved, is your husband going to do this?” Times have changed a lot in the last 20 years. Look at the WHFA, there are so many more women on the Board. It is history making!
I feel it is much more accepted today but back in the day I did feel I could use it [being a woman] to my advantage. I was the little blonde asking, “Can you help me figure out this pricing?” You couldn’t really be a bitch and get your way in the industry back then, so I went the innocent route and asked for help. I remember years ago some of the old guys would take me under their wings. They would show me the ropes. They saw that I was a hard worker, so they would make sure I was making smart decisions—sort of adopted me. It was definitely male dominated back then and now women are running freight companies, furniture stores, etc. It is a good movement that is better for the world and better for the furniture industry for sure.
CE: I’ve never felt the good ol’ boys club, but maybe it’s because I have always been so involved in performance groups. I have always felt like everyone was there to help me, and give me advice. I have never felt it though. Sometimes I do see how people at Market would think women walking in are designers, but I think two gay men walking in would get the same treatment. I think it goes both ways on that. I have never had anything but true help from the industry.
In our industry, the buyer is female. It only makes sense to have females working in the business. I think many men are starting to see this and having female accessory buyers because they truly are more in-touch with the female buyer who is our customer.
WR: What is one valuable tip you have come away with from sharing with others?
CB: One of our stores from the CDG started a realtor program, getting home furnishings set up with the housing industry. So we have been emulating their program. We have put a little money into it and we just had our first payback to it. SO far, it is a good idea that hasn’t made any money. But that was an idea that we took from a store in Florida and hooked us up with their staff person that is in charge of the program.
Also, we have never visited a store and not learned some sort of new merchandising tip!
TS: Valerie shared some of her accessory sources with us cause we dabble a little in Western accessories. We learn a lot about western cause she is an expert.
CE: I think when people share their best sellers it is helpful. We get so locked into what our store looks like and what we liked. Sometimes I will buy something that I would never put into my house and it is a best seller. The business has changed so much in the past few years that we have to be more open to best sellers and even if we don’t really like them, but they sell, then we like them.
VW: I would say learning what not to do and merchandising ideas are always valuable .