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Retail Success: Furniture Mall of Kansas

Furniture World Magazine


In 1900, Frank Baum’s whimsy discovered the Land of Oz. It was thirty-three years later that Ben and Eva Winter envisioned their own magic at Emporia, Kansas. “A furniture store, along with a gas station, a dog kennel and a restaurant called Howdy Come In,” their son, Jeff, told us. “They pretty much did whatever they could to make ends meet during the Depression. Furniture was the only thing that lasted past the Depression. Except for the home-made frozen custard they served which became a part of almost every family or work family gathering I can remember!”

Now, take a lion’s leap to the summer of 2015, an over-the-rainbow sighting of the Furniture Mall of Kansas, 150,000 square feet of fantasy in the city of Olathe, once long ago, a stop on the Oregon Trail. It’s within shouting distance of Topeka, the capital city and center of government, seven universities, commerce and bustling industry. Noted, too, in song and story, for its railway, the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!

Inside the more than three-football-field space of the Mall there are five individual stores, Discovery Furniture, RoomMakers, Marling’s Furniture, Mattress Headquarters and Abbey Flooring Headquarters.

Imagine you are a guest, just arrived, and as design Wizard-in-Chief Martin Roberts exclaims, “The stage is set for performance! First, the Café creates a social grouping area where the customer can linger longer and discuss their purchases (or prospective purchases) in the company of other family members with plenty of natural light to encourage them to stop for refreshments.”

Curved Walkways
Within the Mall, “The (enticingly!) curved walkways are intended to direct customers to high traffic areas in the back of the store. As guests walk down them, their eyes travel from side to side, seeing the furniture displays along the way. Bedrooms need higher wall space so they work well in the rear of the store. Dining rooms are usually located in the center so the customer will walk past them on their way to strong destination areas like bedrooms and recliners. The customer service area needs to be centrally located but also within view of the front door so customers can easily get the help they need.”

Martin Roberts is a veteran of more than five decades of diverse high profile design. A student of the internationally renowned Sir Terence Conran, their association eventually led to a Habitat Retail Stores partnership. His award winning team, now focused on the home furnishings industry, last year alone was responsible for the “look” of more than a million square feet of home and appliance stores in six countries. “I’ve designed everything from potato peelers to cars to global airport terminals and duty-free luxury shops as well as creating the iconic look and feel of Barnes & Nobles (Martin inspired the placement of coffee outlets in book stores!) and the popular Sheetz café-grocery-gas stations. I’ve worked on every continent of the world, and my work is definitely influenced by my past travels and experiences. I continue to build on it.”

Easy Navigation
But back to your tour! Large, color-coded rings hang above various sections of the Mall, “They identify the furnishings under them and create destinations for the customer to travel to while experiencing the other furnishings along the way,” continues Martin. “It also makes it less confusing to navigate the complex geometric mazes in the store. The ring colors coordinate with the color flags outside, representing both the multiple offerings in the store and the color square in the corporate logo.”

You’re suddenly aware of a structure within the structure. Martin explains, “Sixty percent of Americans prefer solid wood furniture that’s well constructed like the Amish make. So we named one area ‘Amish Barn’ and actually constructed a barn with posts and planks and with the help of Amish artisans, created the ‘theater’ to display our solid wood line of furniture.” (Featured furniture line is ‘Amish Impressions’, by Fusion Designs.) “The barn also makes the area easily seen from across the store.”

Jeff added, “We have no actual Amish connection other than a passion for well made furniture. And what better way to showcase Amish made furniture than feature an Amish made solid cherry timber barn?! We are always looking for ways to add interest and excitement to our stores that, in turn, add fun and excitement to the shopping experience. The experience can’t be boring, or people can just shop on the Internet!”

Use of Technology
More surprises ahead! You’ve entered a realm of enveloping serenity, surrounded by many mattresses and anchored by... an enormous, two-story fish tank! Said Martin, “I originally came up with the idea of placing a fish tank in the mattress department to create a calming, restful environment and to add a source of entertainment. Since an actual fish tank with real water and real fish wouldn’t work, Jamie Winter (an electrical engineer and brother to Jeff) came up with the virtual tank idea. He designed three curved plexiglas projection screens with a projector on the inside. It can show colorful Caribbean fish or be changed to show sharks. It entertains the kids while Mom and Dad are shopping for mattresses!

“Retail is all about providing a rewarding emotional experience for the customer, so it’s like setting the stage for a performance. An example, the recliner department in the Mall is deliberately set up like an amphitheater with wall projectors to show and educate the customer about the 75 recliners on display. The same can be said for the virtual aquarium.”

An additional enhancement, there are four different “music zones” within the Mall, one each for RoomMakers, Discovery, Marling’s and Mattress Headquarters, each chosen for the guests most likely to be shopping in those stores.

Also marked by a hanging color coded ring near the front of the store is the Congratulation Station. Here there is a fascinating display of vintage photos that reflect the Winter’s family foundation of history, security and trust. Martin said, “The Station was designed to congratulate the customer for making their purchase. And it’s also surrounded by impulse-buy items to increase the sale.” Clever!

Managed Growth
The interactive Winter’s/Roberts connection was a happening of a decade ago when they met through Furniture First, the national buying group. “I began working with the Winters on an old 35,000 square foot grocery store building in Lawrence, Kansas, that they needed revamped into a furniture store. We created three door fronts for their Mattress, Discovery and Ashley brands that all led to a central location and the first Congratulations Station check out.

“Then, several years later, they contacted me to work on another location for them. This was an old, two-story Macy’s store space that anchored a mall. The 150,000 square foot space with five entrances was a huge undertaking with more than its share of challenges, but after six months of hard work it all came together. After two stores under our belt, they approached me about the third one.” A natural progression.

Flashing back, the Winter’s quintessential American dream began in the late 1870s with Jeff and Jamie’s great great grandparents. (The Winter’s and the Baum family, by the way, share an affinity with the philosophy of the Brothers Grimm through their Saxon/German ancestry. It’s reasonably safe to say they all carried a potent mix of determination, persistence, practicality, optimism and love of life in their portmanteau...along with, in the Winter’s case, their secret family weapon!)

The Winters settled first in Iowa, then in western Kansas. “But this is a family business, not a dynasty!” insists Jeff. Right now, circa 2015, ”Both our mother and father as well as our wives are involved, my wife, June, full time. When you have a passion for what you do, it creeps into almost every area of your life, so even though our kids are not actively involved in the business... they have been involved all their lives!

“The furniture store opened by our grandfather in 1933 was called Winter Furniture. I don’t know how big it was, only that it was in a converted dairy barn. Our folks, Bob and Joyce, bought out our grandfather’s partner in 1967 and ran Winter Furniture with our uncle until they sold to him in 1995. And, when we opened in 2000, the name of the store changed to Discovery Furniture.

“After that opening in Topeka, we were all talking about how to speed up our growth, and we decided that the best way to do that in the Topeka market was to open a competing store with a different model. So, in 2003, we opened RoomMakers as an all Ashley store. As the mattress category remained strong after 2007, it became more important to our business. Stand alone mattress stores were stealing market share, so we developed our own mattress concept called Mattress Headquarters with the help of Knorr Marketing. Doug Knorr has become a friend and continues to be instrumental in shaping our strategy of how to market our changing and somewhat complicated five store brand.

The Mall Concept
“As we were planning our Topeka Mall concept in 2011-2012, Marling’s Furniture, one of the long standing (75 years) furniture stores in Topeka, was looking to sell their building and close. Marling’s had an excellent reputation and a higher market share in the good to upper end than we did, so it just made sense to keep their name alive as well as extend our offerings in better goods. So, our Mall concept would include three furniture brands covering three distinct price ranges from good to better and best.

“We believe our guests want big selections, but not the big box feel, so by dividing a big space into three furniture stores, a mattress store and a flooring store, we’d make it easier for them to shop and keep some of the small store feel our guests have come to appreciate. The addition of Flooring Headquarters was to further help our guests to find more of what they need to have, an exceptionally beautiful and comfortable home, all in one convenient store.”

In 2013, the Winters established their first mall in Topeka, 193,000 square feet. “Although the concept was the same... Big Selection~Local Connection, one destination broken into five smaller, easier to shop stores... obviously the layout is different. The Topeka Mall is on two floors and the new Olathe Mall, all on one floor. And I hope we improved the look and flow from what we’ve learned as there is always a better way! Martin is one of the best retail thinkers I know and we have had a great partnership, using him for the design of both the Topeka and Olathe Furniture Malls. We always come away from a meeting with new ideas and thoughts to improve.

“It was in Lawrence that we structured our first version of our Mall concept in about 45,000 square feet that included Discovery Furniture, RoomMakers and Mattress Headquarters. This location was not large enough to include Marling’s Furniture and Flooring Headquarters stores, and is located about halfway between the Topeka Mall and the Olathe Mall. It just made sense to close this location which we did at the end of March. Our Lawrence work family became the first members of our Olathe family. We opened the Olathe Mall in June with 109 employees.”
The configuration now includes the Topeka Furniture Mall of Kansas and the Olathe Furniture Mall of Kansas retail locations, and the Distribution Center and Clearance Center in Topeka that serve both locations.

Good, Better, Best
The “good, better, best” concept came about “When we were developing our Topeka Mall in 2011-2012. It was really driven by trying to find a solution for the paradox of our guests. They want a big selection to choose from, but they don’t want to spend a lot of time narrowing down their selection. That’s what we like about the Internet, it takes almost unlimited selections and allows us to sort it down to what we really want to look at very quickly.”

The Winter’s enormous buying power of “more than $1 billion annually” has to do with their membership in “Furniture First, a great group of progressive retailers that work together to bring the best product values and retail experience to our customers. We have developed great friendships and are always learning from many of these savvy furniture retailers. Being part of a Furniture First performance group is one of our most valuable investments in time outside our business.”

The Furniture Malls of Kansas share an innovative website, “Designed by MicroD with direction from our team and our marketing partner Knorr Marketing. We may sell online as a convenience to our guests. However, our main focus is on providing an exciting in-store shopping experience because we believe guests that have this in-store experience are much happier with their selection.”

Customer Service Cliché
And the Winter’s Customer Service ethos? “We believe our simplified business philosophy of ‘Happy Family. Happy Guests. Happy Business,’ done in that order, drives the right decisions and behaviors that can make a positive difference in peoples’ lives, be it family or guest.

“Customer service is such an overused cliché, it isn’t a list of things you do or don’t do, it is more how you do what you do and why you do it in the first place. Or more important, how we make a guest feel. Who wouldn’t agree that in retail, guest experience is one of the most sought after differentiators? The funny part is almost every retailer believes they have the ‘best’ customer service in their area of expertise. However, if you ask shoppers to give you specific examples of when they received what they felt was great customer experience... you won’t get very many examples. It’s easy to make the list of what needs to happen, but a very different thing to consistently deliver on it. We spend a lot of time as most retailers do, focusing on developing and growing our people. Because the business we are really in is the people business.

Howdy Come In
“Our strategy? First, we have to believe the right things, do the hard work of earning trust by doing the right things, and keep our focus on serving others. We have the opportunity of turning the ordinary into something special.
“We do a few unique things for a furniture store, like our fully furnished café called the Howdy Come In, a direct salute to our grandparents, that makes home-made frozen custard, cookies, coffee, etc., that we mostly give away to our family and guests.

“And we operate our own delivery service so we can continue to own the experience of our guests, and because we believe they will be happier with our service.

“Both our Malls have an in-home design team that help our guests with space planning, selection and projects. We have been doing design classes for several years and have around 150 to 200 women attending each class day in Topeka. We’ve not started these events in Olathe yet, but are planning to roll out a new format in the fall. We have several design areas in each Mall with fabrics and large screen TVs that we use to show product as well as space planning.”

Many Interesting Stories
Over the years, as might be expected, many “interesting stories” have evolved. The brothers, Jeff and Jamie, “Had no clue we would ever end up working in furniture, even though we grew up in it. Our folks have always loved this business, most all of our family vacations I can remember as a kid had at least one stop at a furniture store that they wanted to learn from. And they were not the most popular stops on the trip from the kids’ perspective!”

Came a time when, “Our folks had been without a store for almost five years. They were 65 and we thought they were retiring. I received a ‘phone call from my dad and he said, ‘Your mom and I are thinking about opening a furniture store in Topeka.’ Surprised, I asked, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ He replied, ‘Because we think we can do it better. I’ll send you an article.’ A few days later I received a package that had a Wall Street Journal in it with an article that basically said something like, ’Whatever You Do, Don’t Invest in Retail’ because it’s done so poorly’. I called him and said I got the article, but it didn’t seem to be supporting his position. He said, ‘If it’s being done so poorly, it should be pretty easy for us to shine above the rest!’

“All of us kids tried to talk them out of it but soon switched gears to support them when it became clear that they were passionate about doing it. A few weeks later, we were all at Jamie and Jeanne’s house in New Braunfels, Texas, for Thanksgiving, and the main topic of conversation was helping our folks with ideas and plans for the new store. On the way home, I told my dad that it was exciting that he was doing this. He quickly said, ‘Well, what would make it exciting for you?’ To which I replied, ‘You know I like making things, not necessarily selling things’, and that was all that was said at that time. You have to understand that I had never given any thought to ever being in the furniture business. I loved what I was doing at Maytag, I went to work there straight out of college, and I loved the people I was working with. I had the great fortune to learn and grow in a lot of different manufacturing and engineering roles. I’d invested 16 years there, and considered it my home.” (Jeff has a degree in mechanical engineering from Kansas State.)

“But the idea of starting a business from scratch was exciting. Being closer to family was appealing. Going into business with my dad, well, I would probably never have that opportunity again. After a few weeks of thinking and praying about this with June, we decided to go for it. We moved our family to Topeka and opened Discovery Furniture in 2000. What fun it continues to be!

“Jamie’s story follows a similar path. He went to work for Motorola out of college with an electrical engineering degree and an MBA. Jamie had many fun roles in auto electronics manufacturing, including moving his family to China to start a plant from scratch. In 2009, after 16 years in manufacturing, he felt the call to come join us in the furniture business. Our mom likes to call this one of the most exciting surprises we’ve ever had, and I agree!”

We asked Jamie for his input! “I grew up in the furniture business and spent much time as a teenager delivering furniture and doing whatever odd jobs my dad could come up with. My first job at the store, assigned by my Dad, was to clean out the bottom of the freight elevator pit in the basement. Dad was nice enough to raise the elevator up a foot so I could slip between the elevator and the floor to get to the bottom of the pit and he told me he would stay there to help pull me out and ensure nobody lowered the elevator on me which was comforting, I guess. Yes, there was trash to clean up in the pit, but the job really involved shoveling black slop more than anything. I finished the job and was ready to crawl out of the pit when I had my real introduction to retail! Customers always come first, and Dad was nowhere to be found!

“From the time I was a kid, I’ve always enjoyed figuring out how things work. Electricity was fascinating to me as it ran practically everything, but I had no idea how it worked. I could take apart electronics and put them back together to see them work again, but I had no understanding of how they worked. The only way to understand electricity was to go to school. I enjoyed college (Kansas State University) and had a great time in the engineering field.

“I came back to the business in 2009 after enjoying 16 years with Motorola in electronics manufacturing. I was thrilled to come home and be close to family. Running a small business is challenging and a blast!”

What about those fish tanks? “We have found the most important aspect of any mattress department is to ensure it draws guests into the department. We spent considerable time brainstorming on creating some type of attraction to draw guests into the department. We wanted something unique and fun, yet calming for a sleep department. A digital fish tank was the result. The tank draws guests from clear across the store.

“The first digital fish tank was implemented in Topeka. That tank is 14’ in diameter, 10’ tall and consists of four projectors to create the tank. The tank also has an interactive feature where you can use arm movements that are captured by a camera to ‘feed’ the fish. Once the food is dropped, the fish will eat just like in a real tank.

“We improved on the first version with the new Olathe store. The new tank is 16’ in diameter, 16’ tall and consists of 10 projectors to create the tank. An additional four projectors round out the department to create the total environment.” Just a touch of Oz!

As you might expect, the Winters and their work family are very active in their local communities. Jeff especially talked about the Topeka Rescue Mission and also the City Union Mission in Kansas City. “We’ve also worked with (celebrity designer) Angelo Surmelis on a room makeover for a Habitat for Humanity family in Kansas City.”

We wondered if the Mall’s winding “yellow brick roads” had ever welcomed a spectral Toto, but were told “no”. Although maybe occasionally the resident Wizards permit Jamie’s boxer, Hammer, and Jeff’s German shorthair, Abbey, to stroll the precincts!

Family Secret Weapon
We talked before about the Winter’s family secret weapon, their home-made frozen custard. Jeff recounts the legend. “At almost every Winter family gathering, there was home-made frozen custard from a recipe that Grandma Kate brought with her from Germany. It used to be the kids’ job to take turns cranking the handle on the freezer unless you were too small, then it was your job to sit on top of the bucket to help hold it in place. This tradition carried on to gatherings with our work family and, when we opened our Olathe Mall, we thought it was time to share the tradition with all our guests. So now we make and serve Grandma’s Frozen Custard to all our guests. I think we can safely say we are the only furniture store in the world that makes and serves home-made frozen custard. I think our guests like it... we make about 30 gallons a week.

“My folks found a story about our great great grandmother Kate, then living in western Kansas. Kate used to cut blocks of ice from the Pawnee River during the winter, kept it frozen underground covered with straw and dirt, and used it in the summer to make her special recipe. People would come from miles around to have a bowl of her ‘famous’ frozen custard.” Tradition!

Future of Furniture
Jeff sees, “The future of furniture as filled with change and opportunities to better use technology for customizing the shopping experience, delivering more exciting product presentations from almost unlimited selection, making products uniquely fitting the style and look of our guests’ homes, and to deliver faster. However, I’m pretty sure our future success will still be dependent on people... the quality of each individual that serves, and the quality of their leaders.”

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