"Southwest Detroit works. There’s definitely something special about the area. Businesses don’t give up, nor do the residents.” -Irwin Danto
That the Danto family has traditional values is well known. But forward-thinking and innovative Charles, Irwin and Ashley Danto are also much in tune with the energy and foresight of the twenty-first century.
The Danto’s have been in business for 75 years in the heart of the City of Detroit, riding through and surviving the many challenging economic and social upheavals.
It was 1919 when the founder, Julius Danto, together with his three brothers, came to the U.S.A. from a small town on the Russian/Polish border and quickly discovered that they should target Detroit, Michigan, at that time one of the country’s greatest vibrant growth areas.
The energetic and talented Danto men, open-hearted and business-minded, a rare combination, in short order founded a hat shop, a clothing store and a drug store, while Julius focused his talents on the home furnishings sector in Southwest Detroit.
On the friendly border between the U.S.A. and Canada, Metro Detroit is now home to 4.3 million people. It’s at the fulcrum of one of the world’s busiest waterways, from the far reaches of Lake Superior to the winding St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic.
Founded in 1701 by French settlers, the region’s earliest immigrants, by the 19th century Detroit had evolved from a fort and a cluster of farms to an important industrial hub. Detroit’s personality emerged with the surge in the 20th century of the automobile industry, “The Motor City”, re-mobilized and retooled during World War II to become America’s Arsenal of Democracy. And “Motown”, some believe Detroit’s “soul”, became the City’s signature to music lovers worldwide.
After multiple major disruptions and steady decline, and Detroit’s dramatic bankruptcy in 2013, the City, with the help of stalwart believers, like the Danto family, is now experiencing a renaissance, surging growth and massive rebuilding.
The family had adapted over the years to the needs of the burgeoning immigrant community in Southwest Detroit, “on the edge of South Dearborn”, with many Middle Easterners and a significant Latino presence. And in the heart of what is now called “Mexican Town”.
“Often people relocating from other parts of the world find it difficult to establish credit and they face language barriers,” said Charles, Julius’s eldest son. Charles became store manager in the mid-1960s. He guided the business well until, one dark day in 1992, the store burned to the ground. His son, Irwin, true to family tradition, joined Charles in their strategic move “down the street to the old Central Outfitting building”, the store’s present location.
Irwin now guides daily operations. “Southwest Detroit works,” he said. “There’s definitely something special about the area. Businesses don’t give up nor do the residents.” He believes the neighborhood’s repairing itself through the hard work of its residents... and it’s not hard to believe that Irwin’s “something special” is the residents themselves.
“The business is a department store without the clothing. A one-stop-shop!” It’s filled with “home essentials” and the warmth of personal attention to the needs of the Danto’s 105,000 loyal customers. Danto’s provides key assistance to help overcome financial and language obstacles with in-house credit and multi-lingual customer service. “The store offers credit to people who do not meet traditional requirements. In addition, we employ 25 people, and several are local residents who speak Spanish, Arabic, Polish and a bit of French and German, and can communicate easily with customers.”
Rita Cazares, Payment Center Manager, believes these services foster loyal customers. She knows “people who have furnished their whole home from Danto’s and others who return even if they have moved out of the area. They feel comfortable shopping at Danto’s.”
Ashley Danto, Irwin’s daughter, joined the family enterprise in 2014, “learning about the furniture business, helping re-brand the company”. That Danto’s is unique she has no doubt. She takes us on a guided tour of the store.
“Our display is not that of your typical furniture store! When you enter, you see our payment center and jewelry counter. We used to have a much larger section for jewelry, now it’s a small portion of our business. Keep walking and you will see our sales counter where we keep a supply of candy for visiting kids!
“To the right, you’ll see our Product Display Panels which we use with our customers to showcase the product and technology, and then our large bay window area. We have an assortment of products on the left side in front of the window. Then, set-ups of living rooms, a master bedroom, a youth bedroom and, behind the large window, more Product Display Panels to, again, showcase the product and technology.
“Upstairs, we have two master bedroom settings, some living room furniture and home office pieces. Downstairs, you’ll see our dining room sets, a living room and another room for smaller kitchen tables and bar stools. Back on our main floor there is a half room dedicated to TVs and sofas, the other half dedicated to appliances, stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers.”
Danto’s staff members have been discovered “as referrals from existing employees or from our customers. We offer both salary and commission, and vacation and health benefits.
“I would say that all of our sales people are designers in a way. Brenda and Vivian do a great job of designing homes with their customers without seeing their home. Vivian has been working here for 30 years, and she really enjoys her customers. And they trust her.”
It’s pretty obvious that word-of-mouth is Danto’s overwhelmingly successful medium, but, adds Ashley, “We have done some marketing in the past with local newspapers and magazines. However, we rely on our website/social media as the best form of marketing.
“Our website was designed by Renaissance Media. In-store, Walid, our IT Manager, maintains our website. We do sell on-line locally in the Metro Detroit area, and we definitely would like to see more online sales.”wroom Technologies, a division of Danto Furniture, was envisioned by Irwin, a Product Display Panel “smaller store” concept. It’s designed to solve a lack of showroom space by showcasing products and technology on panels and can be utilized in outside malls as well as in-store. “Our mission, to create an active showroom in today’s growing digital marketplace.”
Said Ashley, “We wanted to expand outside our own four walls. We’ve been working on this since the fall of 2014. We started in a local mall near our store before we had the touch screen catalogue concept, and then moved it out further to the suburbs, to other malls, a display with furniture and our Product Display Panels. It has been a big hit in several mall installations. We then successfully presented it at the High Point Market in the Ashley Furniture Showroom. The visual product shows over 6500 skus of Ashley Furniture’s items, a range from bedrooms, to home office and everything in between. Now we are working on a mobile website and app which we will be launching at the January Vegas Market.” (You can learn more about Showroom Technologies at http://www.showroomtechnologies.com
Irwin commented, “We are trying to stay ahead of the Internet in an ever changing retail market.”
The family doesn’t regularly attend Furniture Markets. “Although we were at Las Vegas in August and High Point in October this year, primarily to introduce Showroom Technologies. We had lots of people come to see what it was we were displaying – Gardner White, Art Van, Raymour and Flanigan and others. We did get some orders from furniture dealers and, of course, launched the product to the Ashley team. With our new app I anticipate success at Las Vegas. The feedback is that it was well received at the Brand Source Convention. I am reaching out to local Michigan dealers who were interested in the concept now and plan to install Product Display Panels there by 2017.”
The resourceful Danto’s have developed a well-written and informative section of their website to focus on delivery costs instead of fielding customers’ complaints! They explain that while profit margins have been declining since 2005, the cost of vehicles, transportation, insurance and employees with benefits was rapidly increasing. And “furniture is bigger, bulkier and requires more assembly today than it ever has in the past”. They do “charge $30 in Detroit, $40 outside of Detroit for one item, then prices go up depending on the order. But customers can pick up their product at our warehouse free of charge.
“Our delivery staff is not just ‘experienced’. They can set up and install anything you purchase from us. They can also disassemble manufactured furniture as well as the walls and windows in your house to see that what you select goes where you want it placed.”
The Laurel Park MicroStore is featured on their website. “We opened Laurel Park in May, 2015, with two large monitors, two pricing screens and two touch screens, some furniture and a salesperson. A furniture kiosk in the mall, and it was a major success when we introduced the panels. Sales went up tremendously.”
Danto’s presence in their community is phenomenal. “We are very much involved in our Southwest Detroit Neighborhood. We help to keep it alive and thriving. Irwin has received a Spirit of Detroit Award twice now, in 2012 for boarding up abandoned homes in the area, preventing blight and other crimes. And again, in 2015 for our hard work to revitalize the community through our annual ‘Christmas Photos with Santa’ event in the store.
“Irwin helped develop the West Vernor Business Improvement District in 2007, the first in Michigan, to use collective resources to improve the commercial district and make it a place where we want to visit and shop. He also helped create the Southwest Detroit Business Association group that ‘provides tech assistance, the ‘façade program’, ‘savor southwest’, andbonding education programs for businesses to work together and improve the neighborhood. SDBA’s façade program is tailored for local businesses. You can learn more about this: https://vimeo.com/132999069
“We also work directly as part of many local happenings with the Detroit Police Department, Halloween events, and summer family ‘Fun Days’. During the water crisis, we sent water down to Flint, Michigan. And we help with many other such events that pop up.”
Irwin added, “We know from our 75 years of selling furniture, appliances and electronics that delivering quality products at the lowest possible price is the bottom line. If you lived in the Detroit area, it’s likely that we sold your family, grandparents or parents their first set of furniture!
“We don’t have all the answers. We try to avoid the hype like the advertisements you see on TV or through the Sunday paper. Bottom line is we will save you time and money at Danto’s.”
Danto’s core value, how they’ve been successful over the years, what has made the family and business survive and thrive? “We are all family. We treat our employees like family. We work hard and play hard. There are days when the phone is off the hook ringing (we don’t have a line that says, ‘for this department call extension two’!) or when we have customers roaming around and we all work to help them even if you are not a sales person. We have had employees come back to work for us because it’s a good environment . . . and we are now looking to grow!
“The future of Danto Furniture will be seen in the next five years. As Detroit evolves in the downtown area, we will see more residents and gentrification in all the neighborhoods including Southwest Detroit. We will continue to sell furniture, but will be more digital and have more updated systems/processes.
“I see us opening a small store in the midtown area. We want to continue to innovate in the industry.”
Ashley has been working on a growth plan since August 2016 through Goldman Sachs “10,000 Small Businesses”, and will graduate in December, 2016. This is a growth plan for the store, for the future midtown location in 2017-2018, and for Showroom Technologies.
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.