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Retail Profile: Up Market Down South

Furniture World Magazine


Jeff Cohen,
after 30 successful years in the music business, turned his innovative talents and foresight to home furnishings at what proved to be for him just the right moment. It was 2007.

Leather by Design is a 6800 square foot jewel of a destination, set in America’s most historic city, St. Augustine, Florida. Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived on the scene in the fall of 1565, liked what he saw and named his colony’s settlement in honor of the patron saint of his Spanish home town, Aviles. And it also happened to be St. Augustine of Hippo’s feast day, a good augury, another “right moment”. A few years earlier, Ponce de Leon had found his way there in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth. And some say he found it.

So Jeff Cohen in the year 2007 was confronting his own challenge, unquestionably not the first of his and his family’s nomadic lives. This adventure began back a few decades when, as a restless 11th grader, Jeff found himself “a part time job in a record store selling vinyl and I fell in love with the music business.” He believed he had found his calling. So entranced was he that although he’s “not proud to say and certainly wouldn’t recommend it, after the summer I took my GED and went to work full time. By January of the following year I was on a truck stocked with all the latest albums, eight tracks (I’m dating myself) and 45s, and I was asked to develop a wholesale route in North Florida to call on record stores and distribute to them. After developing a second truck, now covering the area from Central Florida to South Georgia, I decided to open up my own retail outlet. I was 21 years old, and that pretty much sealed my fate as an entrepreneur forever!

“During my 30 year music career I switched from retail back to the distribution business with warehouses in Jacksonville (my home town... Go Jaguars!) and Atlanta, and a very successful independent record label that had several acts on major labels and national and international distribution. Although not a musician, I was a critic and became a producer on many of our releases.

“We did mostly rap music. Our only rock/punk record was ‘Stevie Stiletto’ which we licensed to Europe and Asia. I am still a huge music fan, looking out for new artists as much as I can. I’m still in demand as a consultant on all aspects of the industry from distribution to marketing.” (Jeff’s son, Eric, is also “in the music business, more of a technician than a musician.”)

But that challenge inevitably cropped up. “Unfortunately (or fortunately) digital downloads turned the music industry on its head, and I was lucky (blessed) to sell my business before the bottom totally fell off.

“Here I was, 50 years old and I naively thought someone would want to hire me! Without a degree, I couldn’t even get an interview. I realized I would have to go down the same path as before and either start or purchase a (job) business. And while I was working with a business broker, a distress call came in for a leather furniture store that was available for assets only. I looked at the numbers, saw the downward trend but I also saw a lot of room for improvement and decided that all I needed was product knowledge. It was like going back to school. And I was certainly willing to do my homework!” He laughed, “I started off selling vinyl and then upgraded to selling leather!”

Jeff presciently “asked to interview” Steve Lent, an existing staff member, “to learn exactly what he did and to decide if I would keep him. I realized pretty early in our conversation that it was really him interviewing me to see if he wanted to stick around! Steve had been at Leather by Design since it was first opened in 2004. He was only being used for delivery back then, but I immediately started giving him more sales responsibilities and dealing with service issues. He has thrived, he is my right hand, and we have truly found our rhythm. He coordinates all our service, scheduling and delivery issues.

“While considering making an offer on the store, I researched (googled) furniture retailing, furniture business, etc., and came across quite a few articles. Of the ones I found truly interesting enough to print were a series of stories by Larry Mullins from Furniture World magazine. The articles made a lot of sense to me and helped to convince me that I could transfer all my previous retailing, merchandising and marketing experience. And confirmed that, if I worked hard enough at product knowledge I would be able to turn the store around.

“Send positive communications 

to your customers. No one wants to shop with a loser or leave a customer
order deposit with an owner who is dismal about his prospects.”

“Now fast forward two months. It was a Sunday. I was working by myself when a nice couple walked in. They were looking for furniture since they had just moved to the area. We talked, I made the sale. When he gave me his name I asked where I had heard that name before. Then he asked if I read Furniture World and it clicked!

“I went through my files and pulled out his stories. The rest is history. We developed not only a business relationship but also a true friendship with Larry and his wife, Joan. They are a huge part in whatever successes we may have achieved through Larry’s insights and execution of some great marketing.

“The old store was a 3,200 square foot space in the Cobblestone shopping center.” Jeff realized quickly that expenses were too high and competition too harsh. Larry helped Jeff zero in to some “fresh tactics” that began to beat Leather by Design’s numbers.
Said Larry Mullins at the time, “Jeff and Steve are relatively new to the furniture industry, but they understand marketing, are computer savvy, learn fast and maintain their poise in this tough home furnishings market. From the greeting to delivery, Leather by Design performs in a passionate, dedicated way: serving the customer and making the experience fun.” He talked about how Jeff “began developing new media communication channels to increase market share. ROP newspaper was still cost-effective with older buyers, especially in smaller cities, and most newspapers were cutting good deals.” He reminded Jeff that one should “keep in mind that people over 55 control about 75 per cent of the buying power”. He went on to say that “Jeff made several great newspaper buys during this turndown (2007-2008) and this was key to keeping his numbers up. He picked up a few half-page ads in full color at reasonable cost and good placement on the weather page. The local paper also offered him a series of twice-weekly three column x six-inch ads without color for a very reasonable cost. The paper still insisted on a high premium for color, so he went with black and white. Jeff understood that he had to use every inch of this space effectively to sell, not to ‘brand’ or ‘get name recognition’. The effectiveness of these ads was multiplied because they were all different, yet they were recognized as Leather by Design ads immediately.” The concept was good both then and now.

Larry also mentioned “effective copy”. He believes, as did ad guru David Ogilvy many years ago, one of those truths that has proved-platinum over the years, “People do read copy, especially older customers. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of research and fact. Jeff found that many people came into his store with his ad in their hand. It was not uncommon for them to compliment him for his informative ad. Jeff’s ads contrasted with the huge, copy-starved big box ads containing no benefits, no stories and limited-information approaches. He also posted every ad on his website, so prospects could look them over.” A second opportunity for each ad. “And he always followed through with point of sale.”

Larry said that Jeff’s up-beat attitude was a distinctly positive factor. He relates the story about an older couple shopping one day at Leather by Design. In casual conversation, Jeff was asked, ‘How’s business?’ and Jeff replied, ‘Not so bad. We’re ahead for the year and optimistic about our future.’ The customer was delighted and said, ‘I’m so glad to hear something optimistic from a store owner. Good for you!’

“The message here is obvious,” continued Larry. “Send positive communications to your customers. No one wants to shop with a loser or leave a customer order deposit with an owner who is dismal about his prospects.”

The demographics in Leather by Designs’ orbit give promise for both the present and the future. The relatively affluent junior and senior boomer category has a large representation in St. Augustine, the Palm Coast, Gainsville, Jacksonville, Ocala and Daytona Beach. And these centers also boast university populations, a naval air station, the headquarters of NASCAR and, at Ocala, the “horse capital of the world”. Jacksonville is blessed with a deep water port and a solid business foundation of banking and insurance.

“We deliver to all of North Florida,” Jeff told us, “probably 75 miles. And we have shipped quite a bit, usually to customers who have second homes in St. Augustine”.

In the fall of 2014, Jeff made yet another of his dramatic entrepreneurial decisions, to transition to larger quarters just a mile away, a free standing building on Highway U.S. I, to provide customers with better opportunities to see, sit and appreciate engaging and satisfying style and comfort. “Now we can show attractive room setups, help customers to visualize how the furniture will look in their own homes, and broaden their wish lists with well-chosen sale-enhancing accent furniture, lighting, rugs and objets.”

Key to differentiating the revamped Leather by Design was carrying only up market, higher end leather. “I knew this was generally lacking in St. Augustine so I eliminated lower-end merchandise, carved myself a new niche. I kept the Palliser line, the nicest brand we’d sold previously. Then we added Stressless, Natuzzi and Elite. We attracted an entirely fresh group of customers. People no longer have to drive further afield to find quality brands.

“We use Nourison for rugs, Van Teal and Koncept for lamps, and Johnson Casuals and Lands I Brands for cocktail tables, etc.
“We have an older clientele for our Stressless line, although we are actively trying to market to younger more affluent customers that may like the look of the line. Most of our older customers, while they love the style, are more interested in the comfort level the Stressless line provides. Our Palliser, Natuzzi and Elite customers tend to be somewhat younger, 35 to 55.”

Transition day came in early January this year. Said Jeff, “After a massive moving day sale, we had a soft opening and then an Open House for our previous customers. We sent post cards and did an e-mail blast, all coordinated with Larry.

“While I was nervous that no one would show up, we had a huge turnout and one of the biggest sales’ days in our history! Some of our suppliers shared it with us, Lloyd Davis III and Lloyd Davis IV were here from Stressless; Donna Lane, James Yates and K. C. Greenwald from Palliser, along with Jennifer Caporal from Nourison Rugs.”

Back to 2007, Larry had also advised the use of carefully crafted inexpensive newspaper inserts, great attention getters, used on “off” days so there was no competition with the big box stores. “Run your ad when you’re the only show in town. If your ad is well done and informative, people will save it.” Direct mail was also high on the communications’ list, “the most cost-effective and least intrusive medium”. Jeff built his mailing list, worked it and kept it current. Said Larry, “Use personal messages with good stories instead of the look-alike promos used by some large stores.”

And then, of course, e-mail. “The important thing is to keep e-mail communication open but not always try to sell something. Give tips about products, offer a free premium just for dropping in, or ask how their purchase is working out.”

Jeff added, “I would think now that Larry would want to talk about the fact that Leather by Design, with its niche business, mostly special orders and smaller size, is a different type of store than Larry was used to dealing with but, through listening to each other with respect, we are able to tweak his methods to fit my needs.”

As Larry had remarked, both Jeff and Steve are “computer savvy”. Jeff said, “Being an entrepreneur (a scrambler!) I was not at all thrilled at the prices being offered to design websites. The one we had done in 2007 was outdated. So I found a template I liked, had them customize it with the colors from our logo, total cost under $300, then paid someone to start putting our catalogue, pictures, prices, etc. in place. The site is written in Magento, an open source program, so I can purchase plug-ins at very reasonable prices to keep the site new. Magento is an e-commerce program, so selling on the Internet in the future is certainly possible.

“We are still newspaper heavy and, unfortunately for us, it takes three papers to reach our target customer base, our local paper, the St. Augustine Record, the Jacksonville paper, Florida Times Union and the Daytona Beach News Journal, Flagler County edition. We just started doing some TV with Stressless, and it seems to be a direction we will do more of. We have done some great promotions with direct mail, especially to our existing customer base. We do regular e-mail blasts to our customers as well as to people who signed up on our website and, of course, that’s a no brainer, just a little bit of time creating it and ‘send’!

“And we take full advantage of all opportunities to have an ‘event’. Our main vendors are good and getting better at timing deals to events and times of year. Palliser especially has been more aggressive about promotions such as free power, discounts on leather, discounts on motion, home theatre, etc. Ekornes, of course, is all about quarterly promotions with leather upgrades, multiple seating, charity promotions (our favorite) and discounts off selected models. Natuzzi has also started targeting all the holidays with promos.”

Both Jeff and Steve are firm believers in giving their customers what they want. It’s been said that customer demands and expectations tend to rise along with price tags. Steve agreed, “But we’re OK with people coming in the store 10 times if that’s what they need before making a purchase.”

A very popular gesture is their store loaner program. Leather by Design offers many, many different colors and styles for most products, so items are frequently ordered. Sometimes it’s possible that six weeks could elapse before delivery. Envision the customer who has just bought a new house before making her purchases at Leather by Design. Now envision her delight when Jeff and Steve lend her a great sofa to enhance her living room until her order arrives!

“Our customers appreciate our removal service more than anything else. We find that by offering to take away the old furniture we lift a lot of stress from the customer. We work very closely with several worthy organizations in town that provide furniture to people in need, donate what we can and mail the tax receipt to the customer. We want to make it as easy as it can possibly be to buy from us. We also are involved in sponsoring some local schools, and we donate to other charities in the community.

“Our delivery includes all the obvious elements, but we also give a leather care class that focuses on the type of leather the customer purchased. When they forget, we guide them to our YouTube channel where we have a video of Steve cleaning a recliner.”

”All our vendors are environmentally responsible and of course we talk about it to our customers. It is a very important issue and our customers are glad to learn about it.” A point to note, eco-friendly high quality leather is perfect for all climates, including Florida’s sub-tropical regions. It always feels cool to the touch in warm weather, and its smooth surface never scorches like fiber or microfiber suede.

Music, of course, is a feature of the ambiance at Leather by Design. Jeff said, “I do create playlists and use specific ones based on times of day, days of the week (Sundays are a little wilder!) and who is in the store. Now there you can see my background as I have, along with everything you would expect, some Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour from France, and Khaled and Cheb Mami who are North African singers. I also will throw in more obscure Rock, Country, Jazz and Blues tunes.”

Another important team member at Leather by Design is Sandy Veenstra, in-house designer. “Sandy was working at Furniture Country Gallery both as their in-house designer and doing sales for them. She was impressed with the reputation we were gaining when unfortunately her store became a victim to the economy around 2009/2010.

“She came in to purchase a home theatre seat for her husband, and we got to talking. I hired her on the spot! She definitely brought the fashion to the store that I certainly didn’t have, and she was a huge help in choosing the décor for the new store. We’re currently employing her grandson as a part time delivery man and her grand-daughter in part time sales on weekends.
“We offer design services both at the store and in customers’ homes. We’ve had several workshops and, frankly, should do a lot more. We have the best reps in the industry, and we use them a lot. We have taken them up on all offers of working promotions and they are a big hit. They are truly part of our family.

“All my vendors have showrooms at High Point, the only Market I attend once each year.”

The Jacksonville Jaguars by coincidence (or was it?!) qualified for the playoffs in that fateful year of 2007. “I am an absolute (fan)atic about our Jaguars! An NFL franchise is one of the most valuable assets that an area can have. The Jaguars have unified people from across the spectrum in North Florida. Although the wins have been very (start the jokes now!) lean the last few years, we are optimistic that we are turning things around on the field!

“I was an original season ticket holder, but since I work on Sundays the store is known to have the games on all TVs, especially in front of the Home Theatre Section. I’ve gotten a crowd more than once cheering!”

Jeff calls Jacksonville his “home town” but he actually began life in Casablanca, Morocco. “Along with over 200,000 other Sephardic Jews, my family was planning to migrate out of Morocco. While most went to Israel, my father was in love with America and decided to apply to immigrate to the U.S. There was a 10 year waiting period and we waited it out in Paris where I lived from age three until I was nine. Our visas finally came and we moved to Jacksonville. My Mom’s sister had married an American serviceman who retired to Jacksonville. I am still pretty fluent in French and I also speak enough Hebrew to get into trouble. I have two brothers, Michel five years younger than me and Jonathan 10 years younger. Three boys, five years apart and born on three different continents! I was born in Africa, Michel in Europe (Paris) and Jonathan in Jacksonville, Florida. My brothers, along with my Mom, now live in Be’er Sheva, Israel. I have not been back to Morocco, but it’s definitely on my list. I don’t speak Spanish, but Mom does, learning it from her parents and grandparents in Morocco. Now she watches Spanish soap operas on Israeli TV!”

Jeff is married to his “childhood sweetheart, Cindy. We dated for eight years and just now celebrated our thirty-fourth anniversary. Cindy is a preschool teacher and she falls in love with a new batch of four year olds every year. Her Mom lives close to us. We have two children, Eric (this generation’s music man!) and our daughter, Cara, a CPA; she has been married for two years.”

The home furnishings industry has been and is a welcoming environment for Jeff and his family. “While I don’t think I have a vision per se, I will tell you that one of the things I loved about the music industry was the absolute joy that music brought to people. The ability to introduce a new artist to someone, a new song by an artist that they already love, brought me an incredible amount of satisfaction. The furniture industry allows me the opportunity to do that again. From the time a person walks in, ‘just looking’, to when we deliver a room that is going to bring them the same kind of joy, and they forever associate that room and how awesome it is to Leather by Design is priceless.”
"Our customers appreciate
 removal service more than anything else. We find that by offering to take away the old furniture we lift a lot of stress from the customer.”
What might happen next? Said Jeff, “I’m not smart enough to predict the future of the industry but as you know I entered the industry at the worst time in history. I have seen it slowly climb out and, hopefully now, to an extended period of prosperity. We know everything is a cycle and it won’t always be down (although I was questioning that one!) and won’t always be good. I try to operate always as if times are bad, even when they’re good. Good times tend to make us too relaxed and not watch costs as much as we should. If you always act like business is bad, it will carry you through the hard times.

“Leather by Design? If I were younger, I might be more ambitious but, for now, I see a second location in Jacksonville with a warehouse located between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Jacksonville is a natural for us.”

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.