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Retail Success: American Factory Direct Furniture

Furniture World Magazine

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all about Price... all about Design...

In five short years, the Comeaux family has grown AFD from an idea to five store locations serving customers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Third-generation Louisiana-based American Factory Direct Furniture, owned by husband-and-wife team Bob and Billie Comeaux, operates five store locations touting the largest selection of quality furniture in the Gulf South.

Many furniture retailers are either all about price or all about design, but AFD says it’s all about both. The company offers its customers premium delivery service, in-home design, special financing and a 60-day price guarantee.

Furniture World interviewed Bob and Billie along with Grace Comeaux-Piro, CFO; David Comeaux; COO, and their mascot GiGi who remained mostly silent.

 

Retailing Roots

Bob Comeaux told Furniture World about the family’s retailing roots in New Orleans going back to 1937. “My dad,” he recalled, “after the Great Depression, started selling light bulbs and roller skates door-to-door. Then he opened a small appliance store on the corner of Broad and St Ann Street. He eventually added furniture to the merchandise mix and the original Comeaux Appliance Center and Furniture Mart was born. In the 1960s, they moved to 4640 South Carrollton Avenue where he was known as the ‘Discount King.’ In the early 1970s, they re-located to a 30,000-square-foot store in a new part of the city known as New Orleans East.“

Bob & Billie Comeaux were married in 1974. Billie, now the company’s CEO and corporate designer, received a romantic introduction to the furniture industry on their honeymoon, spent, in part, at the High Point Furniture Market. “It’s been furniture ever since,” she said. Sadly, after Bob’s mother passed in 1991 the New Orleans East location, started by Bob’s parents, closed.

“Half bought right, half sold—half displayed right, half sold. And, when we combine the half bought right and half displayed right and sold, it’s sold.”

“It took us five years to get approved for an SBA loan to re-open under the American Factory Direct Furniture name,” recalled Billie. “After applying and getting turned down by six banks, we met with the president of Metro Bank, who had purchased a dining room set from a factory-direct store in North Carolina. The furniture arrived damaged and six months later he was still dealing with problems. When presenting our business plan, that called for ‘factory direct prices with local service.’ Billie said, “he understood the concept first-hand and approved our loan. The rest Is history. Today AFD Furniture continues to be all about price and all about design. We offer quality furniture—beautifully presented designer style that’s affordably priced.

“The industry has changed a lot over the past 26 years,” added third-generation David Comeaux, “but the American Factory Direct name is just as relevant today with our current sourcing model that has scaled up to offer AFD customers excellent value.”

 

Preparation Is Key

“I believe we were better prepared than most retailers for the kind of disruption the pandemic presented,” said Grace Comeaux, CFO. “That’s because here in Louisiana we’ve had more than our share of natural disasters. It’s become second nature.”

As proof of that, she explained that AFD doubled its volume following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then again at their Baton Rouge location following a massive flood in 2016.
“Yes, we had been through these scenarios before,” David agreed. “During the pandemic, we kept in constant touch with our factory reps. AFD belongs to a KAIZEN group with other retailers, including Virginia Furniture, so we knew early on that we were not an anomaly. That knowledge enabled us to implement a disaster plan to position ourselves to handle increases in sales volume.

“It was fortunate that our distribution center was set up to easily add capacity in 12 thousand square foot increments. So, within a year of being closed down in the early stages of COVID, we were able to break ground on a new store.”

“AFD was forced to start buying direct containers. We got hooked, almost immediately, on the margin potential, availability and product flow advantages.”

Just-in-Time to Just-in-Case

“During the pandemic, AFD shifted and moved away from a conservative just-in-time inventory model,” continued David, “that tended to pull inventory from our supplier’s domestic warehouses to a just-in-case model. When suppliers’ domestic warehouses ran out of inventory, AFD was forced to start buying direct containers. We got hooked, almost immediately, on the margin potential, availability and product flow advantages. The experience changed our buying habits.

“Right now, AFD’s DC is 90 thousand square feet with plans to break ground on 40,000 additional square feet.

“We tell our customers that AFD is all about price, all about design. But on the buying side we say, half bought right, half sold—half displayed right, half sold. And, when we combine the half bought right and half displayed right and sold, it’s sold.“

The Comeaux family got its start in the 1930s selling items such as light bulbs, roller skates and other merchandise. Furniture and appliances were eventually added to the merchandise mix at Comeaux Appliance and Furniture, shut down in 1991. In 2017, they opened their American Furniture Direct 40,000-square-foot flagship showroom in Covington, Louisiana.

Brand Strategy

Shoppers can read on the “about us” page of AFD’s website, www.afdfurniture.com, that “Bob has always been about price, and Billie has always been about design. The combination of the two,” it reads, “accompanied by the Glory of God, initiated the beginning of their success in the furniture industry.”

The passage is a branding promise and a statement to their customers that American Factory Direct is a faith-based company. “Every Monday morning, we have a Zoom meeting that includes salespeople and store managers,” Bob Comeaux told Furniture World. “These meetings always start with a prayer. “We play Christian music in our stores to let our customers know that we treat people the way we want to be treated. I believe that we’ve been blessed through the years.”

 

The Customer Experience

When asked why American Factory Direct Furniture has been so successful, Grace Comeaux noted that it’s in large part due to AFD’s employees. “AFD’s people are the heart of our company and embody its corporate culture. They see the passion we have for this business. That same passion is apparent in their presentations and how they treat our customers. Many of our associates have been with AFD for over 20 years.”

“It’s also about consistency,” added David Comeaux. “AFD works to deliver consistent customer experiences across all five stores. We insist that our customers are treated with respect in every interaction and that they are offered consistent pricing. The Saturday morning Zoom calls are critical to reinforce AFD’s selling system so that every store has the same focus, vision and pricing guidelines.”

AFD is known for its beautifully designed and accessorized displays. The open store concept was created and executed by Billie Comeaux, pictured above in the Covington store.

Design Excellence

Commenting on AFD’s focus on being ‘all about design,’ Billie Comeaux recalled, “Many factory reps comment we have one of the most unique and beautiful showrooms they have seen.

“I feel that my training as a draftsman enabled me to develop our open floor display concept rather than showing product as vignettes. The way we present product really helps our clients envision their room style.

“Other elements that have helped ensure that AFD stays true to being ‘all about style’ are keeping our branding focused, making sure that when customers walk through our showrooms they experience fashion design style, and keeping a pulse on design while attending High Point markets.

“Another important factor that contributes to the success of our merchandising strategy is that we don’t dabble,” David observed. “When we decide to introduce a new look, we swing for the fences. I believe that if a furniture retailer wants to sell more contemporary furniture, they need to let customers know that their stores are committed to the business of selling contemporary furniture. It’s the same for rustic, modern farmhouse or any other style category. When we commit to a specific category or a new look, we make sure that we do it right.”

“It’s important to be able to direct people where needed to keep staffing lean and get jobs done when they need to be done.”

Hiring & Retention

Furniture World asked the Comeaux family what else Furniture World readers should be thinking about as they look toward 2023. Grace Comeaux replied, “Right now, furniture retailers need to focus on their organizational structures to create efficiencies. It’s important to be able to direct people where needed to keep staffing lean and get jobs done when they need to be done. Retailers also need to think creatively about compensation structures to attract talented, younger individuals.

“Acquiring and retaining top talent is no longer just about compensation. We’ve started to offer flexible work schedules and building on that where possible.

“Sometimes flexibility can be a deciding factor in attracting a talented new hire. Whether it’s one day a week or three days, flexible work schedules are here to stay for office staff, sales associates and sales managers.

“Right now, AFD offers sales managers a four-day week with every other Saturday off. Quality of life issues are essential for hiring and keeping good people.

“Instead of using photography supplied by our vendors, we want to take our own shots so that when a customer looks at one of our photos they automatically know that it’s AFD.”

“We track retention and turnover rates by department and meet with managers to see if these numbers can be improved. And we are in the process of restructuring the onboarding of new hires and showing them where they can grow within our organization, especially on the logistics side.”

Pictured from left to right are: Grace Comeaux-Piro - CFO, Bob & Billie Comeaux - Owners, David Comeaux - COO.

Investing in the Future

Currently, AFD is building an executive office complex at its Covington, Louisiana, location that will include a green room for photography as new products arrive. “American Factory Direct Furniture has a distinct in-store look,” Grace told Furniture World. “We feel it’s important to project that look in the photography we use. That’s why instead of using photography supplied by our vendors, we want to take our own shots so that when a customer looks at one of our photos, they automatically know that it’s AFD.”

In closing, David Comeaux observed that many independents tend to invest more heavily in showrooms than in their warehousing, logistics and distribution capabilities. “At AFD, we’ve chosen to invest in our back end first,” he explained, “so those capabilities are in place to support future sales growth. It’s the basis for creating excellent customer experiences. A retailer can have the prettiest showroom, the lowest prices and the easiest sales process. But if they mess it up on the back end, they’ve burned a customer for life. That’s why AFD is as much of a logistics-driven company as we are sales driven. It allows us to under-promise and over-deliver. So, one might say that we are all about logistics as well as all about price and all about design.”

“At AFD, we’ve chosen to invest in our back end first, so those capabilities are in place to support future sales growth. It’s the basis for creating excellent customer experiences.”

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.