Part 1: Two retail chains and four partners on the leading edge.
Retail Trends by Janet Holt-Johnstone
It’s almost like show business! A meeting of energized minds, emerging themes, developing story lines, scripting, role recognition, props, staging. And, with the passage of time, plots thicken! Retailers Mig and Tig and Mortise & Tenon boast four principal players. Their extended cast of characters is infinite.
Based one in Chicago, one in Los Angeles, the two M & Ts are independent home furnishings retailers, cleverly named Mig and Tig (think two types of iron welds) and Mortise & Tenon (a wood joint). Owners are Vicki Semke/Kirk Schlupp, and Jerod Lazan/Maite Garcia, respectively. Both entrepreneurial ventures were founded on quality, contemporary product lines, Mig and Tig metal and fabric, and Mortise & Tenon unique wood products.
Each M and T has its own marketing strategy, but there’s a history of serendipitous overlapping of imagination and project delivery. And now, almost a decade into the new millennium, the four high energy friends have their sights set on cohesive, cooperative social technology designed to join vendors, retailers and consumers in innovative partnership for mutual advantage.
The adventures began in 1991, a banner year. Vicki and Jerod “met through family. He was visiting Chicago from Los Angeles, I showed him some of the sights and we became great friends,” said Vicki. “Jerod and his girlfriend, Maite, had a small wood shop in L.A. they’d opened in April that year. He encouraged myself and my boyfriend (now husband), Kirk, to open a store of our own in Chicago.
“Kirk was a laid –off art director, formerly at Carson Pierre Scott in Chicago, who had started making great iron furniture for interior designers. I had opened a custom sewing shop when I graduated from Harrington School of Design. So we already had our fingers in the industry somewhat.
“We were on a shoe string budget. We had enough money for our first month’s rent and utilities when we opened in October of 1993, so we had to get in the black and fast! Jerod shipped us $10,000 worth of his very hip wood products on a handshake and said, ‘Pay me when you can!’ I mean, who does that?! All I can say is, I have the utmost respect for Jerod. He has a kind heart and, if you are lucky enough to have a person like this in your life that you can trust and who truly cares, you are very, very fortunate. He is a fantastic designer, awesome retailer and just an amazing person.
“We both love business, and enjoy the process of creativity in business. We have had countless conversations about the furniture industry and the changes we have seen and been a part of through the years.”
The conception of Mortise & Tenon “was almost accidental. Jerod and Maite were between shoots for the movie business one summer. They decided to build a Santa Fe lodgepole entertainment centre, borrowing all of Jerod’s dad’s good tools, of course! One thing led to another and they started selling at the local swap meets. They built all their product themselves from a tiny little shop. Then they began wholesaling to big stores in L.A., and finally opened their own small retail store. They expanded that location to 16,000 square feet three years later and had stores in Hermosa Beach, California and Las Vegas for 10 years. Now they are happily settling back to one store and the factory, and zeroing in on YourFurnitureLink.com.” (The co-op “social technology”.)
“Mig and Tig shared many of the same clients in Chicago. Like Mortise & Tenon, after wholesaling to other furniture stores in the U.S. and to interior decorators, we opened our store in 1993, then another location on Chicago’s North Shore for 10 years. We’ve expanded our downtown location, and closed the suburban store. We now have one store, and we’re also very focused on YourFurnitureLink.com.”
The demographics are very similar in each store. “Although at Mortise & Tenon the clientele is highly skewed toward the entertainment industry,’ Vicki told us. “At least fifty percent of their clients are actors, producers, musicians, editors, et. al. Sometimes we have the same customers who are moving from or to L.A. and Chicago, and continue their furniture shopping at our stores. This is not by design, it just happens.
“Jerod’s family has been and is currently in the film business. Much of the economy in Los Angeles relies on the film industry. He is smart to embrace it. Movies, T.V. commercials and shows have been renting or buying furniture and accessories from Mortise for over eighteen years. Set decorators come to them because they know the product is design forward, high end, and always very fresh, crucial to shows they rent to such as ‘House’, ‘Dirty, Sexy Money’, ‘Eli Stone’, and the new ‘Beverley Hills 90210’.
“They also custom build for the film industry when necessary. Jerod and Maite know what it takes to accommodate the sometimes crazy, last minute scheduling of a production. Mess up once by not having the product ready, or worse, having sold it! and a set decorator will black ball your store. After all, the set decorators’ necks are on the line, too. Mortise & Tenon has a stellar reputation and a long standing relationship with many of the city’s art directors and set decorators.”
It seems only logical that Jerod and Maite’s community outreach also involves show business. Daniel Kucan, of HGTV’s “Desperate Spaces” is lead designer for Mortise & Tenon, described on web as “Hollywood’s to-the-trade furnishers”. A couple of years ago Daniel “needed some extra rehearsal space for a Shakespeare play for which he was the Fight Coordinator. Jerod and Maite had just gutted a thousand feet of space to revamp their kids’ department. They used this empty space (for the production) and that’s when they met Stephan Wolpert who was the lead in the play. Stephan had been an officer in the army, serving thirteen years. He saw a production of Richard III and was bitten by the theatre bug. He decided this was his passion. He worked on Broadway and taught at Cornell, but his real passion was to create a non-profit theatre where returning veterans would have a comfortable place to express themselves through art, and help re-acclimate to the civilian world.
“Stephan wrote ‘Veterans’ Voices’, a one act play taken from real vets various experiences both good and bad, and performed by both professional actors as well as vets. It was produced and performed upstairs at Mortise & Tenon, and was very well received. That was two years ago, and the V.C.P.A. (Veterans Center for the Performing Arts) is still going strong, helping civilians know what the soldiers face on their return home as well as the hardships the families endure during the soldier’s term on duty, and as well as the difficulties adjusting to ‘normal life’ again.” Outreach attuned to the needs of our contemporary community.
A bit of background, “Daniel Kucan and Maite grew up together at ‘Children’s Theatre’ in Las Vegas. His connection with ABC’s ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ occurred when a producer shopping at Mortise was impressed by him. He asked Daniel to be one of the designers on the show. Daniel is like family to Jerod and Maite. He is very passionate about design and theatre, and really fits the Mortise & Tenon family!”
Mig and Tig, in their turn, will be highlighted in an upcoming ‘Extreme Makeover Home Edition’ show. They were approached when the show was working with the Gries family of Peoria, Illinois. “They (the show producers) loved the fact they were able to see ‘what is in our store’ via the category button on the Mig and Tig website, and they worked with us virtually. They still came to Chicago to physically touch and see products, but we did a lot of communication and point of reference through our website.
“Jerod’s business gets a lot more Hollywood than we do though. I have to admit, I am quite envious of his A List client base. But we at Mig and Tig have had the privilege of servicing celebs like Oprah, Julia Roberts, Rod Stewart, Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman. All of them are really nice people and exceptionally gracious.”
The foursome has also become active in educational outreach, recently funding a scholarship at Harrington School of Design, Chicago, Vicki’s alma mater. “We gave the students a tough assignment, to design an audio visual cabinet and sofa with stringent requirements based on our understanding of what the industry needs to produce in actual products.
We posted the progress of the students on both the M & T websites weekly. It was very successful, and the students did a great job!
“We’re looking to continue the design scholarship through other schools with revenue from YourFurnitureLink.com, and get manufacturers involved by producing the winners’ pieces. We strongly feel it is important to encourage students and manufacturers to embrace fresh design. There is some wonderful talent out there and hardworking factories; we look to introduce them to each other.”
Audiovisual components are an area of long interest to the two M & Ts. Said Vicki, “Jerod and I started a website called MigandTigAV.com a few years back. It’s a separate corporation but using the Mig and Tig name. Jerod is VP.” (More productive overlap.) “We’re focused on audio video cabinets and media room upholstery. Jerod was very involved in custom media installations, and doing quite a bit of work with his wood shop in that arena.
“We knew the digital TV change was going to take place in 2009, and wanted to develop an audio video wood cabinet line and have reps sell the line to electronics retailers. Unfortunately, there were obstacles, and it was difficult to get off the ground. But, who knows. We created an amazing website for this line, and a beautiful line of AV cabinet samples.
The MigandTigAV.com journey allowed us to have an excellent understanding of systems and the Internet. We also have a good understanding of what the electronics industry faces as we have networked and met with some top tier electronics companies.
“Talk about a quick and changing market. There is no standing still in the electronics industry. Between the talents of Jerod, Kirk, Maite and our programmers, we have an amazing little team. And the www.MigandTigAV.com journey has made the path into the www.YourFurnitureLink.com site much simpler to execute with this previous understanding.” (The curtain goes up on YourFurnitureLink.com in our next issue.)
In the meantime, the nitty-gritty of retailing must always encompass customer service. Said Vicki, “We strive to find quality products with good value, so we have as few challenges (as possible) from the outset. And we deliver what we promise. If mistakes happen, and sometimes they do because we are all human, we do what we can to make the customer happy.”
The proof of the pudding, “After so many years, at least 60 per cent of both M and T’s businesses is repeat or referral. We strive very hard to get it right the first time, or fix it immediately. Therefore, our customers trust us.”
Mig and Tig has had “an appreciation for green since we opened in 1993. Jerod and Maite have been building amazing recycled wood products for almost 20 years. It is nice to finally see more companies building green, using recycled material. So purchasing green is becoming more available for retailers. And the end users love it!”
They’re eco-friendly. “We have always tried to be as green as possible. We simply try not to waste, and to recycle as much as we can, from packaging materials to scrap paper. Efficiency with shipping is also important and, when possible, we ship by rail. And always try very hard to buy local.”
There’s little to no emphasis on print ads. “We used to be heavily in print, but we’ve cut back due to expense and lack of return. We’re focusing on our websites.” And no radio, no television commercials. Print flyers are also a thing of the past. “Mig and Tig once produced 500,000 catalogues a year and circulated them in the Chicago local New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Again, we’ve stopped that programme due to expense versus the return we see with our site. And rather than in-store print handouts, we encourage customers to go to our website either in store or at their homes.”
Vicki’s interpretation of the M&T’s USP (unique selling proposition!), “We are both boutique furniture retailers with personal thumbprints on our stores that try to think outside of the box.
“I think Jerod, Maite, Kirk and myself, have a very strong common thread. We come from backgrounds with a strong work ethic. At the same time, none of us have ever had the security of a safety net. So we knew if we fell down, it was up to us to pick ourselves up and brush off the dust.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to make mistakes, because this is how you learn. You just don’t want to make too many of them! My advice to other entrepreneurs is to aim carefully and go for your goal. Thinking positive and not giving up is core. There will always be bumps in the road . . . but those tend to happen for a reason.”
Mig and Tig and Mortise & Tenon are in for the long haul. They aim to be “The Mousetrap” of retailing. They’re building a better one. The bait’s irresistible.
Next issue, the evolution and actuality of YourFurnitureLink.com. In the meantime, do check out www.migandtig.com and www.mortisetenon.com.