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Retail Furniture Stories -Part 4

Furniture World Magazine


Retail Furniture Stories -Part 4
by Janet Holt-Johnstone

It seemed eminently logical when we began to solicit and gather retailers' stories of success and survival, to arrange these histories in chronological order. To our fascination and surprise, many tales had their roots in the mist of the early 1800s, back before the founding of Furniture World magazine in 1870. These stories became archival celebrations of our industry's real pioneers.

Since then we progressed in Part One from 1820 to 1911. Part Two surveyed the years from 1913 to the 1940s. Part Three occasioned a slight backtrack to 1931 through to 1950.

But just as we began to organize Part Four, we were contacted by Ric Fiegel, President and Store Manager of McKinstry’s Home Furnishings of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Said Ric, “Our store has a longer legacy than many featured in your retail furniture heritage section. We started in 1858, and are still owned by the same family!”

1858 - McKInstry’s Home Furnishings

We’re more than happy to introduce John McKinstry, the founder, who delivered cabinetry and caskets by horse and wagon to the citizens of Beaver Dam, a town now of about 18,000, situated 20 miles northwest of Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, “and just a little further northwest of Milwaukee”.

John came originally from Quebec, Canada in 1855, his intent to hand-craft furniture and burial caskets for early settlers. By 1858, J. McKinstry Company had established a firm foundation of quality that has endured to this day.

Ric told us that McKinstry’s motto, “Where customers matter and quality counts”, has defined their goal for 152 years. “We are a conservative store, and that train of thought has served us well, but we have always kept up with or started the latest trends.”

He gave us some examples. “In the late 1800s, a newspaper ad boasted that we had ‘the finest hearse in Dodge County’ and that we could ‘make to order on short notice all kinds of coffins’.
“Then in the teens of the next century, when carpet was first manufactured in 9x12 pieces, McKinstry’s was the first in our area to offer this new product to the public. The late Randall McKinstry explained how the carpets were stored in the old barn piled 10 feet high and were available in light beige and dark beige, the only colours available at the time. That old barn was previously home to the horses that pulled the original hearse and the old delivery wagon. In the ‘20s, our new motorized hearse was also the first ambulance service.

“Jumping ahead to the ‘70s when waterbeds were just starting to come on the scene, we studied the markets and devoted one sixth of our selling space to waterbeds. We had the largest offering in the area.”

McKinstry’s Home Furnishings rapidly outgrew the original location and moved to the present site at 131 Front Street in Beaver Dam; the company also included the funeral home. Both family and business grew, and the store was renamed John McKinstry and Son Furniture when W. D. McKinstry, at the age of 16, joined his father in the firm. W. D.’ s son, William Randall, made his lifelong commitment to the company in the early 1920s. Forty years later, John B. McKinstry, the founder’s great grandson and Ric H. Fiegel joined the firm, and the name evolved to McKinstry’s Home Furnishings.

The store itself has been updated and renovated but, says Ric, “We always work hard to preserve the historical significance of our buildings. Our efforts are rewarded when we give guided tours to inquisitive children from our local grade schools.

“Today our niche, as in the past, is diversity. Yes, we sell furniture, but our design team puts us out ahead of others. People come to us for decorating assistance and, last April, we held our first Decorating Seminar, a huge success! And we do custom picture framing and both furniture and clock repair. For our ever-growing older population, we offer a huge line of lift chairs and scooters.

“We celebrated our 150th anniversary two years ago and, in connection with this, teamed up with La-Z-Boy and became a La-Z-Boy Comfort Studio.

“Today, we also utilize the internet with our web site www.mckinstryshomefurnishings.com, and we are on Facebook. However, we did not get into the ‘dot com’ frenzy of the ‘80s. I remember reading many furniture publications at the time about how the dot coms were going to take over the brick and mortar stores. Guess who won!

“Twenty years or so ago, we dreamed up our ‘Friday the 13th Sale’. We still run it today and it’s a great promotion for us. It’s not uncommon for customers to call in advance of the next Friday the 13th, asking if we are going to have the sale for sure!

“The McKinstry staff has always been community minded. There’s a small church in Beaver Dam dating back to the early 1900s. W. D. McKinstry (the second generation) donated the money for the stained glass windows; his name is etched in one of the windows. He was also a founding member of our local Chamber of Commerce; I am still very active today. In 2006 we were honoured to be selected as Chamber Business of the Year.

“Our local Y.M.C.A. constructed a new building three years ago, and we’re proud of the fact that one of the two pools is named ‘The McKinstry Competitive Pool’ due to the generous donation of John B. McKinstry. The family interest in the Y.M.C.A. dates back to 1927, when Bea Bonner McKinstry, then a teenager, saw her three friends drown in Fox Lake, 10 miles from Beaver Dam. She was a strong swimmer and, when the boat tipped over, was the only one to survive. Because of Bea’s commitment to have everyone learn how to swim, the McKinstry family started an endowment fund at the Y.M.C.A. which still provides free swimming lessons to anyone who applies.

“And our international claim to fame is the McKinstry’s long standing friendship with Fred MacMurray, the movie star, lead player of ‘My Three Sons’, and a native of Beaver Dam. He worked with Randall McKinstry while they both were in high school. They unpacked freight, did deliveries and helped wherever they were needed. Fred went on after high school and became world famous, but remained life long friends with Randall and Bea, Randall’s wife, and John B. McKinstry, their son and present owner.

“Whenever Fred MacMurray and his wife June Haver came back to Beaver Dam they would stay at the McKinstry home. In the ‘40s, the city would have a huge parade for Fred, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s there would be endless cars driving past the McKinstry home. And he always made it a point to come down to the store. It was thrilling for me to be a part of that. The McKinstry’s also visited the MacMurrays at their ranch in California several times.

“An interesting story I can share certainly shows our commitment to our motto, ‘Customers Matter and Quality Counts’. In 2008, during our anniversary celebrations, we did a lot of historical research. We found an entry from the ‘30s in an old ledger book about a lady who had purchased a chair. She found she couldn’t pay for it because of the Depression. Instead, she paid off her balance by bringing eggs into the store whenever she could. She bought her chair with eggs!

“We believe that longevity in any successful business comes with an experienced, well-trained and stable staff. McKinstry’s has survived because of our good and dedicated staff members, most of whom have been with us for over 25 years. Our present staff includes myself, I do a little of everything! And Sandy Dray, our head decorator, Ronney Fiegel in picture framing and sales, Linda Ferst, office and sales, Heather Madeiros in sales, and Chris Sell with window treatments and design. Gary McFarlane and Austin Fiegel take care of set up and delivery.

Lastly, John B. McKinstry, now semi-retired, comes in occasionally to look things over, and then he’s off to one of the many boards of directors’ meetings he’s involved with.”

McKinstry’s is Beaver Dam’s oldest business, and also the oldest family-owned home furnishings centre in Wisconsin. But Ric and his staff, with their energies directed towards continuing success, were focused during our series of contacts on “putting together a proposal for providing the furniture, window treatments and accessories for a new, long term care facility that is under construction in our area. We landed the contract,” said Ric. Of course they did!

Savoir -1889

Chronologically again, edging our way back to the 1950s, we were made aware of a happening in 1905 that presaged a 10-store U. S. retail thrust 105 years later! The legendry impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte had opened the illustrious Savoy Hotel in 1889, his commitment from the outset to provide guests with every creature comfort. By 1905, it was decided that no bed on the market was good enough for The Savoy, and a prestigious upholsterer, James Edwards Limited, was commissioned to create the bespoke, or handmade-to-order, “Savoy Bed”. An instant success, it’s still made today as the Savoir No2 Bed. And in the interim, celebrities of various stripes, have slept upon it and raved about it. A short list from the past, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, Noel Coward, Enrico Caruso, Giacomo Puccini, Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne! Add to that Lisa Minnelli, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Elton John, the Aga Khan and Emma Thompson, more recently, and many, many other well-rested, well-known clients.

The Savoy Bed was such a success, the hotel feared it might be sold to competitor hotels, so they bought James Edwards Limited and kept The Savoy and the other hotels they owned, Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley supplied. Famous guests were allowed to buy their beds, if they so desired . . . . and most of them did.

One particular purchase stands out. Claridge’s was the place to stay for overseas royalty when they visited British royals. The late King Hassan II of Morocco was a regular guest, travelled with his own retinue and many pieces of his own furniture. He would usually book an entire floor. His personal mattress, on one occasion, was damaged in transit and he was forced to use The Savoy Bed! Such was his enthusiasm for the substitute that he ordered 24 mattresses for his palace the very next day!

But times change and, in 1997, the “Bedworks” was put up for sale with the proviso that beds had to be hand constructed to the same amazing standard. The current owners realized this commitment was essential to the quality of the product and the future of the company. Said Alistair Hughes, owner and CEO, “Savoir’s presence in the U.S. is timely. Savoir represents a smart investment in healthy living and smart economics. Our mattresses are custom made of superior quality, all natural materials and crafted to last a lifetime, ergonomically better for body and mind, free of toxins and allergens and showcase our artisan’s meticulous skills gleaned over the course of 100 years.”

Savoir has served The Savoy in its 100 million pound sterling refurbishment this year by supplying mattresses for its most prestigious rooms, the Royal Suite and the top 20 riverside suites.

The company began its retail thrust in 1997, with the first retail showroom opening in 2001 in Wigmore Street, London. Now there are more showrooms in the U.K. plus outlets in Paris, Lyon and Nice in France; Berlin, Germany with a second showroom coming soon; Prague, Czech Republic; and a number of additional showrooms in Europe and globally to be announced in the New Year.

Coincident with the reopening of The Savoy after its refurbishment, Savoir made its U.S. debut in New York City, a delightful setting on Wooster Street in SoHo. Other store openings have or will unfold at Shop in Shop at Thread Count in the Miami Design District; Shop in Shop at Parnian Furniture, Scottsdale, Arizona; Savoir Vbed Store, Austin, Texas; and Savoir Store, Los Angeles, California.

Said Alistair Hughes, “Times are tough, still Savoir continues to grow, even in our oldest market, the U.K. The last few years have been crucial as we, after over 100 years, have gone from a business with the majority of sales in our home market to one that exports the majority of its production.

“To succeed with a high end piece of furniture (an average Savoir retails around $15,000-$20,000) it is essential to have exceptional sales professionals and the right branded environment. Our partners excel: they are driven and hugely client focused, having as they do a real stake in the business, but are backed up by the Savoir Beds brand. Think global, act local!

“The key has been never to compromise on quality. We believe that if we successfully communicate the quality of a Savoir Bed in terms of craftsmanship, natural materials and bespoke construction, we will always find customers willing to pay a fair price. Too many businesses in the furniture industry chase price, leading to falling quality and thereby opening themselves up to competition from cheaper markets. As a result, they are left with no competitive advantage.

“The new economy is all about shifting perceptions. People spend thousands on a watch or vacation, and more on a car, but they are reluctant to invest in something in which they spend a third of their lives. Savoir is not about selling beds; it is about selling quality of life through sound, peaceful sleep. A Savoir bed is for the true connoisseur who understands that a perfect night’s sleep is priceless!”

Marketing is extensive everywhere and includes advertising, for example, in Elle Décor, and the Financial Times, with hefty public relations activities resulting in lead stories in GQ, The Robb Report, The Times Magazine and The Daily Telegraph with many, many more to follow. Savoir also has an excellent, comprehensive and entertaining website, www.savoirusa.com.

Jerome’s Furniture -1954

We’ve edged both forward, then back again, and our time machine landed next in 1954 on the West Coast, when Jim Navarra and two partners took advantage of goods, becoming plentiful after the conclusion of World War II. Discounters of all types were springing up throughout the country. Their location of choice for “Strep’s Warehouse” was downtown San Diego, and it was the ideal place to open the first discount furniture warehouse. The new venture was wildly successful.

Moving on to 1960, Jim became the sole owner. San Diego was now in recession, and Jim struggled throughout the decade but managed to forge the framework for future success. In 1968, he changed the store’s name to “Jerome’s Furniture Warehouse”.

The second generation of Navarras joined the family business in the ‘70s and the added energy helped the company grow from a “mom and pop” furniture store to one of the leading furniture stores in the country. Jerome’s became notorious for television advertising campaigns which directly challenged large competitors. He coined the phrase “No Glitter” during this period, which explained the company’s low prices through low-overhead warehouse displays.

Four branch stores were added in San Marcos, Chula Vista and El Cajon, and the first new Superstore in Scripps Ranch, all this between 1980 and 1990. It had become obvious that customers now wanted one-stop shopping and the Superstore was Jerome’s answer, a much larger store with stimulating interiors that gave shoppers lots of decorating ideas and showed furniture as if it were in someone’s home. Four of the five stores made the transition to Superstores by 2000 and, in that same year, the original downtown store moved to the former Levitz building on West Morena Boulevard.

Jerry Navarra, third generation and now President, is Jerome’s principal storyteller and he communicates well the company’s vibrant philosophy. He said, “Our ‘promotional years’ began in the early 1980s with the Bassett aided promotions using the headline, ‘Every item – Every department on Sale’. We later added on ‘no interest’ promotions that began with ‘3 months same as cash’, and grew into ‘3 years same as cash’.

“At some point, we realized the promotions were another form of retail barbiturates. Over time, it took a greater and greater offer to inspire customers to shop. It became ridiculous. We felt embarrassed to be in an industry that asked for business based on how much it was giving it away. Finally, in 2008, after considerable planning, we made the switch to low prices every day, and no haggling. We haven’t had a storewide sale in two and one half years. People now shop with us because we have a good selection of good merchandise that is in stock. Our price is competitive every day, so customers can buy when it is convenient for them. They are willing to pay for good service that provides them with immediate gratification. The new program had a wobbly beginning, however we knew there was no turning back. We bet the farm and it succeeded.

“I actually had no intention of being in the family business. But I came home for awhile to support my parents. My dad’s health was deteriorating, so any place you looked, you could improve. I did anything and everything. I said, ‘We’re opening on Sundays’. He also had a problem with salesmen that were alcoholics so I said, ‘We are going to terminate this person, even though he is a superstar salesman’. At that time they sold electronics and major appliances, so another early decision was I encouraged him to drop those other lines and only focus on furniture. The first year after I returned home, we were up 60 percent.”

When asked about a defining moment in the history of his operation, Jerry said, “You really discover how good your associates are when the chips are down. Over the years many industry people have remarked that they would rather quit than re-experience a distribution center move, or the change to a new computer platform. These two events are continually mentioned as the stress apex of careers. Unfortunately, because of delays and technical difficulties, we experienced both events concurrently! Our associates were exemplary while they were hammered by an unbelievable situation. The pressure was so constant that it was hard to breathe. It took two horrendous years to work out of our predicament. To my astonishment, almost everyone rose to the occasion and performed admirably. For me, words like intrepid, loyal and persevering took on a new meaning.

“We are committed to an accurate inventory with a 90 per cent in-stock rate. This allows us to deliver on the same day as the sale date if desired, make the entire delivery in one stop, and not get bogged down on the phone discovering and disseminating merchandise ETAs. We can be more efficient and productive while our customers appreciate the good service. All parties are happier.”

Jerry feels that a “notable achievement for Jerome’s is its involvement in the creation of the super premium Sleep Therapy mattress brand. The company has been actively involved in mattress design since Jim Navarra suggested that a manufacturer quilt its mattresses in the 1950s. Recognizing the need for a future generation mattress product, Jerome’s worked with a major supplier to create the revolutionary new concept. It’s a true breakthrough in unparalleled comfort and durability. Incredibly successful, the design has been mimicked by the largest names in the mattress industry.

“Today,” Jerry continued, “Jerome’s leads the local furniture industry, with seven showrooms in southern California. In 2010, Jerome’s expanded out of San Diego County and opened two new stores in the Inland Empire. We’ve also an e-commerce website providing avenues for consumers to enjoy online furniture viewing and buying. There is a fleet of more than 30 delivery trucks, the largest stores in San Diego, one of the largest inventories west of the Mississippi, complete wood and upholstery service shops and a knowledgeable staff with years of furniture retailing experience. As the third generation joins the company, Jerome’s remains committed to continually improving its ability to better serve its customers.”

Jerome’s was recognized as the 2008 Retailer of the Year by the Western Home Furnishings Association (WHFA) and, for nine consecutive years in a row has been awarded the Best in Home Furnishings by the 2009 San Diego Union Tribune Readers’ poll.

Said Jerry, “Along with numerous business recognitions as the best furniture store, customers know they can count on Jerome’s to make it easy to shop for furniture with service support including interior design, same day delivery and financing”.

In their excellent website, we found Jerry’s concluding words: “Time is money. The more you drive across town looking for that perfect piece of furniture, the more expensive that furniture becomes. With the largest selection of in-stock furniture in Southern California, we’re sure you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for at Jerome’s. Our huge superstores feature hundreds of items for every room in your home. Almost all items are in-stock and can be in your home today.

“At Jerome’s, it just feels a little different. That’s because we’re a locally owned family business with over 55 years of experience in Southern California. With our low pressure selling style and friendly atmosphere, we think you’ll appreciate the difference. But don’t take our word for it. see for yourself.” The last three words are highlighted. Click on them and check Jerome’s recognition, at www.jeromes.com. An interesting exercise.

Interiors Joan & Associates -1963

Another short time machine maneuver, this less than a decade after Jerome’s founding, but in a different part of the country entirely, Schuyler, Nebraska. It was in 1963 that Interiors by Joan and Joan opened for business. Joan Sorensen Ronan and her friend, Joan Berglund, both studied interior design in school and had decided to start a business together.
About three years later, however, Berglund married and moved to Thailand, and Joan Sorensen Ronan relocated the business to her hometown, Fremont, Nebraska. She eventually settled in the historic J. D. McDonald House, a gorgeous Queen Anne mansion built as a private residence in 1887.

Through the years, the building has served a multitude of purposes. It was a private residence, twice a hospital, home to several businesses, amongst them a funeral home, and it eventually became the birthplace of Interiors by Joan. Interestingly, it was also the birthplace of Joan Sorensen Ronan; during its tenure as a Military Hospital!

With such a history and with their extraordinary talent bank, the business grew and grew. Joan hired a secretary, her first employee, in 1967, then began to take on additional designers. Ten years later, her daughter, Diane Gernstein, joined the business, then Nancy Pesavento in 1985, the same year that the Omaha, Nebraska studio location opened.
Another studio location, this in Lincoln, Nebraska opened in 2003, and in 2005, Gernstein and Pesavento bought the business from Sorensen Ronan.

In June of 2007, Interiors Joan and Associates moved its Omaha studio into a new, larger building, to accommodate the growth of the business. The Fremont studio location was consolidated into the new larger Omaha studio in June, 2009, making that location the firm’s headquarters.

Lindi Janulewicz, Marketing Director of Interiors Joan and Associates told us that the firm’s “continued success is a direct result of over four decades of collective ‘eureka’ moments, insightful plans and defining moments. A few clear components remain constant. First, our founder and current owners are incredibly progressive. Secondly, our company was built and continues to grow on sound business practices. Third, we work to develop and implement detailed marketing plans that include lots of ‘out of the box’ ideas and ways to not only stay in front of our clients, but to involve them in our industry, educating them about what we do and the value of our services and products. Fourth, we partner only with the best product vendors and installers. Fifth, we strive to anticipate our clients’ needs and constantly exceed their expectations. And last, we build strong relationships and are committed to providing our client with unquestionable value.

“While a company’s history, much like a person’s lifetime, is comprised of a multitude of defining moments, the stand-out in the history of Interiors Joan and Associates would have to be the opening of our new Omaha studio location. Taking on the challenge and responsibility of relocating an established business to a beautiful new building is scary, exciting and rewarding, all at once, especially in these economic times. Opening a larger studio has allowed us to house our accounting staff under one roof, streamlining our business procedures and offering our clients a more efficient experience. This new location has allowed us to expand our library, offering our designers more creative resources and our clients more purchasing options. With more visibility and an expanded showroom, the new studio location has been the key element that has set our firm apart in these times and made the biggest difference in the growth of our company.

“We recognize the importance of supporting the community that has supported us so generously and loyally for so many years. A few ways that we have benefited our clients, supported the community and, in turn, ensured the success of our firm are that we give home accessory donation items to select charity galas and silent auctions to support and be involved with our community. Our designers are devoted to their work, their families and their charities! Many of our employees are involved with whatever organization within the community feeds their passion. And our firm takes advantage of every networking opportunity possible.”

What began as one determined woman selling window treatments and wall covering, has grown into a successful full-service interior design firm with 16 ASID affiliated professional interior designers and nine administrative/supportive staff members. Five of these designers are professional members of ASID, and 11 of them are Allied Members of ASID. Interiors Joan and Associates is now one of the largest, most established design firms in Nebraska.

Time machines do allow for plot creativity, especially on the part of the pilot, especially when motivated by industry entrepreneurs eager to share their histories, present happenings and future plans. We welcome your input. And again thank Ric Fiegel for his kindness in contacting us with his gentle reprimand! Let’s hear from you!