January 14, 2014>
The furniture industry gets younger every year. In order to embrace the new generation of retailers and welcome them into the business, RetailerNOW features a different member of the Next Generation NOW social network in every issue. Next Generation NOW is the premiere social scene for the new era of furniture professionals. Join the conversation at social.ngnow.org!
For this month’s spotlight, we introduce 35-year-old Lael Thompson, Chief Operations Officer at Broyhill Home Collections in Denver, Colorado.
RetailerNOW: Tell me about your industry history.
LT: My parents started the company when I was 5, so pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve been exposed to the furniture industry. It was everything that accompanies growing up in a family business, from helping assemble and deliver things to cleaning around the store. One of the unique things about our history as a store is that we specialized in unpainted furniture. You could either pick the stains and the materials and complete the project yourself, or we had a finishing department where we would actually finish things for you. It was the original roots of this industry, which was all solid wood, American-made products.
RetailerNOW: How have you seen the industry change throughout your life?
LT: It’s changed tremendously. The industry used to have a very deep passion for influencing peoples’ lives at home, and it focused on the end experience that was facilitated through the product. Over time, especially as things have shifted towards imports, the industry really became more about pushing the commodity. The focus shifted from the end experience that would be delivered through the product to just simply focusing on a product at a price. Now it’s kind of become a race to the bottom to see who can make what the cheapest and the industry has lost sight of the role it plays to the end user.
RetailerNOW: What do you think needs to be done to get the industry back to where it was, knowing it’s relying on foreign products?
LT: We get so focused on the specific details of running our businesses, and I think we need to focus more on that end consumer and the experience we’re providing. In the welcome video for our website, I talk to the public about how when you buy the products, you’re not just simply buying an item to fill a room. These items serve a purpose. Like on Thanksgiving. We’re all going to huddle up around this table. And that table is facilitating these life moments, these lifelong memories. If the industry focused more on the role it plays with the people who are buying the products, then the public would find more value in what we offer.
When you look at the industries that are doing the best or the industries that stayed strong through the recession, they were the industries that had more of a connection to the consumer and what the consumer was going to be rewarded with experience-wise for having bought that product. We have to get back to delivering and showing the customer what it is we’re doing to improve their lives, and then they’ll look at us as a worthy place to spend that dollar.
RetailerNOW: Do you think that the furnishings industry is headed back in that direction?
LT: I don’t see the industry as a whole moving that way. The industry, at this point, is still finding its way to race to the bottom. In High Point, Jerry Epperson went through analytical data that showed we’re selling furniture at its highest value proposition than we ever have. We walked backwards in pricing. Our industry defies inflation. So the numbers tell us that we’re not focusing on any other aspect than trying to do it cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. But look at how many retailers it’s put out of business. There are only a certain number of retailers who can survive at such razor-thin margins. So that race to the bottom has actually done a significant amount of damage to the livelihood and value of this industry. For people that have spent decades in or grew up in the industry, we remember times when the relationship aspect was the core driving force of the industry. And on the back end of the industry, we still experience that between ourselves, but I think we’ve lost that connection with the public.
RetailerNOW: Do you think those are the biggest challenges facing store owners today?
LT: I think those are probably right up at the top. The challenge is that it’s self-fulfilled prophecy. We drop prices, we run thinner margins and it reduces our ability to do the things we want to do. So what happens is we’re working harder for less. You have to sell more $200 dressers to make up for the one $400 dresser you used to sell. When we drop our numbers, we have to work a lot harder and do a lot more to make the same amount of money.
RetailerNOW: What advice do you have for older retailers?
LT: I would remind them that things constantly change and although their past experience is valued and valuable, it’s not the only way to get things done. When times got tough in the recession, a lot of the retailers fell back to what they knew worked in the past, but it didn’t necessarily work as well now. I believe the statistic was that during the recession, the furniture industry lost one out of four stores nationwide. The attrition level through this last recession was the heaviest this industry has ever seen, including the Great Depression. But I think part of what caused that was a resistance to change and the fact that they were going to do what they knew, but not try new things. They have to get out of that “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality. That was based on an old business model. To try and do the same thing in a new business model is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Not everything is going to be perfect all the time, but we have to learn to try things, but be smart about it so that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t sink you. They have to embrace the change and welcome the technology and find ways that they can be successful with it.
The other thing is that almost anyone who’s great in this industry, if you ask them if they had somebody who made a difference in their furniture career, someone who took them under their wing and gave them a leg up, or mentored them or gave some advice that changed things for them, almost anyone you talk to is going to have someone that did that for them. So I would urge them to make sure they’re doing that for the next generation coming in. Find a way to contribute into these new people who are going to carry on the traditions.
RetailerNOW:What benefits do you see in Next Generation—NOW?
LT: The major ones are being able to find a friendly resource to help you get plugged in. There’s this kind of network, and that network shares influence, information and best practices. Those people stay on top because they stay abreast of what’s relevant and what’s working. What I love about Next Gen is that it’s providing an opportunity for young people to get plugged in and access all those resources. We can provide education, networking, information and best practices. Back in 2004 or 2005, we started the concept of this program, and the gist behind it was that we wanted to see young people who came into the industry stay in the industry. A lot of young people come into the industry and after two or three years, they’ll burn out and go elsewhere. They have challenges and problems and frustrations they encounter, and if they don’t get past them, that’s when they leave. We’re able to help people become successful and rooted and planted in this industry sooner. A lot of entrepreneurs, it takes a long time before they get it right. They had to get out there and do it and fail and find what worked, and there was a lot of energy and time and resource that was lost in that process. So what Next Gen can do is avoid that headache. If you have someone telling you, “don’t put your hand on the stove, it’s hot,” they save you the frustration and pain of getting burned. In this industry, we can come in and basically help people be more successful quicker and avoid the burnout—and hopefully have a little fun doing it at the same time.
Next Generation NOW (NGN or Next Gen NOW) is a community of young, passionate and engaged home furnishings professionals. Next Gen NOW seeks to give a voice to the unique needs of future generations entering the workforce to educate the industry on how to attract and keep young talent. Connect with members online at social.ngnow.org or on twitter @ngnow.