"Those companies that prefer the same old, same old, will not be able to compete in a crowded marketplace.” -Bruce Berman, The RoomPlace
It was one of those times when the unbelievable became believable. Late afternoon, April 20, 2017. Paul Adams, CEO of The RoomPlace, had called Bruce Berman, Chairman of the family-owned company, to tell him their warehouse was on fire, but reassured him that “Everything looked to be under control, the employees safely outside”.
An hour and a half later, Paul, along with Diego Delgado, Supervisor of the Distribution Centre, were about to re-enter the building when a firefighter threw open the door and told them to run.
Said Diego, “It was an inferno in there!” They watched as smoke “turned the sky dark and the roof and walls collapsed.”
Now, a little more than a year later, Bruce recalled, “The fire was overwhelming. Paul and I decided that we were going to make sure that every last one of our employees had a job to return to. Over the first few weeks after the fire, we gradually put people back to work. We made sure that everybody had a job they could count on. We were a little overstaffed for awhile, but keeping our people working was our number one concern. I believe all of our employees are special people.
“In the aftermath of the fire, we made significant changes to our operation. In order to increase our capacity and provide better service to our customers, we not only moved into a Chicago Area Distribution Centre larger and better than the DC that burned, we also built out a DC in Indianapolis that will better support that market as well as additional markets in Ohio and Kentucky.
“We face significant competition in both Chicago and Indianapolis. Over the last five years, more than 30 competitive furniture stores have opened in our markets. Until the fire, we were more than holding our own and, now that we’re back on our feet, we’re committed to even more growth.”
Where, big picture, is The RoomPlace now? “The new store in Indianapolis will be our 25th store, and we have over 700 employees.”
The Berman’s “American Dream” began 105 years ago when Sam Berman and his family left a dysfunctional Russia and arrived in West Town, Chicago. He was a visionary, a hardworking entrepreneur ready to tackle the world. The legend goes that he saw a discarded, broken chair on the sidewalk. He took it home, fixed it, gave it a coat of shoe polish and the next day carried it door-to-door until he sold it. A promising beginning. Next, Sam saved his money, bought a cart, expanded his reach and, in 1912, opened a store front in the district. And there he stayed, put down roots, survived the Chicago ‘20s, the Great Depression and prospered.
But in 1940 Sam shut up shop. His son, Leo, joined the Army. Sam waited until the War was over, the military returned home (including Leo!), housing started to soar nationwide and the demand for furniture exploded. “The Bermans went back into business.”
Leo, his wife, Marilyn, and his father and their partner, Melvin Luckman, founded Harlem Furniture Company. Well-placed in the fulcrum of the city’s growth with its 50 x 125 foot showroom and five employees, Frank Ellis as manager, the store became a target for the exciting, new boomer generation.
Then Leo had his brainwave! Room-packaging. A vision that led to The RoomPlace. The concept featured completely furnished, coordinated rooms, a total room model. Revolutionary. Instant packaged visualization for customers, a tangible inspiration to help them discover their individual needs and wants. Pocketbook apt, too, they saved on each piece of furniture, but even more when they bought the whole room! A plus, free delivery.
So, Harlem Furniture grew. There were several major additions, a complete second floor, an explosion to 37,000 square feet that, at the time, made Harlem Furniture one of Chicago’s largest furniture stores. This was in the early ‘60s.
Leo’s wife Marilyn sometimes brought baby Bruce to the store when his sitter was unavailable. The atmosphere was addictive. In 1977, he joined the staff as a salesman. By this time Harlem had six salespersons and a total of 15 staffers, including Leo, Marilyn and Bruce. Four years later they launched their memorable family television commercials using a jingle that cleverly can still be heard tagging millennial communications. The decade of the ‘80s saw another surge as households became two-income, and consumers were able to indulge their home furnishings fashion preferences.
Marilyn’s inspiration and formidable work ethic brought her substantial industry and community love and recognition that included awards as Retailer of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year and Pillar of the Industry. When Leo retired in 1982, Marilyn became CEO. Three years later the family opened their second store, rapidly followed by three more and a Distribution Centre.
In the ‘90s, growth was exponential and it was said that, “Harlem began the decade with 200 employees and ended it with more than 600”. 1997 was a banner year when the Berman’s 145,000 square foot Distribution Centre was expanded to more than 200,000 square feet. And then, coincident with the Millennium, Harlem’s signature name evolved officially into The RoomPlace.
One hundred and five years and counting, and The RoomPlace is opening that 25th store. The management team, Bruce Berman, Chairman, Paul Adams, CEO and Rich Crawley, FFO.
“The new Indianapolis store will be over 75,000 square feet. With our average location being 30,000 square feet, we are able to not only show our entire assortment, but will also include a 35,500 square foot clearance center. There are many design elements we’ve never used before. From a glass front to rope walls and dynamic backlit murals, this will be an exciting store to shop and mark the beginning of a new phase of continuous improvement for The RoomPlace.”
And along came the legendary Miss Connie, CEO of Affordable Design Solutions. But really she’s been there for the Bermans, “Forever, back when they were Harlem Furniture”.
Said Bruce, “I first met Miss Connie 25 years ago. She was partnering with Klaussner, and we agreed to create a department for their product in our original Harlem Avenue location. Before the project was completed, we were so thrilled that we decided to redo the entire first floor. We were so thrilled with the first floor, that we did the second floor! Over the next few years, we redid all of our then 12 locations. We plan, over time, to work with Miss Connie and her team to renovate our existing 24 locations.”
Miss Connie is excited about the Indianapolis addition’s, “Breakout store format. It will position The RoomPlace brand as updated, not stale, and with a cool, modern vibe. I decided to add touches of urban delight by integrating bits of the branded colors, Pantone Green 383U and Blue 2925U, throughout to create a more cohesive shopping experience for the store.
“The major central display touts that cool urban vibe as it plays out, stacking 168 wooden pallets in the middle of the store, capped off with yellow plexiglas. This feature area will display furniture and accessories. We have selected custom modern green and blue chandeliers from Seascapes Lighting that will highlight this area. The inspiration came from a Swedish store design that I thought was simply fabulous. I’ve been waiting for the perfect client and the perfect time to use it! This area is surrounded by other wooden pallets displaying chairs down the center. This time, the inspiration came from the Maison & Objet Paris Furniture Fair.
“Down the middle of the store, the walls display wonderful sayings, famous lines about family and loving one another. No furniture will be used to distract from these lifestyle statements.
“The entire floor plan has interesting flooring level changes to create excitement and interest.
“That center circle display has a tin ceiling. Every two foot square sheet is different in style and color for a very groovy urban statement. The walls around the ceiling are different colors of the same Wolf Gordon Wallpaper pattern for a marvelous fashion statement!
“Down the left side of the showroom, we created lifestyle environments that are divided by huge ten inch open window grids for good visibility. One is showcasing an oversized race car mural for regional appeal for the INDI 500 races, and fireplaces and huge window grids mounted to walls with outdoor murals...just to name a few!
“The kids’ department has a fabulous entry that is made out of different colored piping woven together, old painted used car tires, and background graffiti wallpaper on a concrete floor, with cowhide flooring and colorful wallpapers throughout the display.
“We’re using rope walls everywhere and movable walls that have been wallpapered or painted to divide space but provide flexibility for the future. And we’ve utilized various colors of brick wallpapers to strengthen the urban theme, also lovely wallpapers that send a modern message to each department. An all-enveloping concept that sparkles!
“The Service Counter was a conscious design decision to maximize raising the bar for RoomPlace! Study the 3D drawing (on page 22 that shows the green soffit with cutouts for the white chandeliers to hang from, the end of the soffit running into the back wall to meet up dramatically with green glass tiles by Daltile that run down the wall. This is flanked with amazing architectural and dimensional raised wallpaper in blue from Wolf Gordon. The RoomPlace lighted sign will hang over glass. The flooring will be a shimmering pearlized white from Centiva, and a funky service counter designed with a predominately blue and green two inch stripe to complete the entire WOW – WOW look!”
“Bruce and Paul both trusted me with the ‘raising of the bar’ and refreshing their branded store experience. I do not take that lightly! From the beginning it was planned to take some of these created brand statements to evolve and freshen up other locations. My goal was to create affordable visual statements with maximum appeal for the female shopper, to grab her interest and have her telling her girlfriends they needed to shop at RoomPlace because it was so different and more exciting than other stores! And have them all believing in it and acting on it.
“The RoomPlace’s same assortment mix will look totally different in their new store experience. After all, ‘differentiation’ is the name of the game today, along with a fun and exciting guest experience...believe me!”
Knock your socks off!
Said Bruce, “We are constantly striving to make sure our marketing, merchandising and customer experience continue to evolve and remain relevant to our customer base. Our competitive advantage is our ability to make marketing, merchandising and operational changes much more quickly than our competition. The majority of our competitors are national or super-regional companies and we are much more nimble as a local company.
“The biggest trends I’m seeing would be in urban industrial and Glam. I’m seeing presentations across all product categories that carry this influence. I feel that the lifestyle retailers (RH, Pottery Barn, West Elm, etc.) do a good job setting trends, so I follow their retailers very closely.
“Our marketing program includes TV, newspaper inserts, direct mail as well as significant digital marketing initiatives.
“A big trend in interacting with customers has been the use of texts. Although there has been an increase in the use of e-mail, the convenience of texting seems to really appeal to customers.
“We recognize that e-commerce has become a significant competitor. Our research tells us that 15 per cent of furniture sales take place on line. That shrinks the pie for brick and mortar stores by 15 per cent. If, in five years, 25 per cent of furniture is sold on line, there will be a significant reduction in the number of viable brick and mortar stores that the market can support. We expect our e-commerce business to continue to grow, and we’re evaluating several e-commerce strategies to significantly increase the e-commerce side of our business.
“The only constant in our business is change. The companies that have led in both retailing and manufacturing are companies that are willing to change in response to a changing market. Those companies that prefer the same old, same old, will not be able to compete in a crowded marketplace.”
The RoomPlace and, before it, Harlem Furniture Company, have always been active at the heart of community outreach in Chicagoland and beyond. Bruce is, “Proud to announce The RoomPlace Million Dollar Give Back. In what we are calling The RoomPlace Community Care Million Dollar Pledge, we will be donating $1,000,000 of furniture to local area charities and support organizations.”
In a relentlessly evolving world, Bruce feels that, “The biggest challenge we face is the impact of the potential border import tax. It is hard to imagine domestic manufacturers developing the diversity of style and, most importantly, price points our consumers have grown used to.
“The pie isn’t getting any bigger, so the only way to grow is to continuously improve. Better marketing, better merchandising, better operations, each day, every day.
“Knowing that you make a difference in people’s lives is what has been and will be most rewarding.”
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.