From the way it designs its locations to the way it handles its customers, this family-owned furniture retailer marches to the beat of its own drum. The Albert family lends credence to the notion that business intelligence is inherited. Mike Albert took over as president of Pilgrim Furniture City in 1984 after his father, Jay, retired. Jay was the third generation of his family to work in the furniture business, starting with his great grandfather, who opened Albert’s Furniture in 1909.
Jay separated from the family business in 1961 to open his own store, Pilgrim Colonial Furniture, in Bristol, Conn. He passed that entrepreneurial spirit onto his son who, in 1994, moved out of Pilgrim Furniture City’s 30,000-square-foot, shopping center-based location and into a 160,000-square-foot building in Southington, Conn.
That same year, Albert brought in a partner, Steven Bichunsky, as head buyer for the company. The two events brought the company tremendous success and raised Pilgrim Furniture City’s profile from furniture store to shopping super center.
“The new building was five times larger than our Plainville store, and after the move, we saw a dramatic increase in sales,” said Albert.“Because the store was almost too large for what we needed, we took the opportunity to incorporate unique elements into our design.”
Typically, when renting a store, it’s important to make every square foot count. The 160,000 square feet gave Albert the chance to do more than develop a furniture showroom, starting with the installation of a 28-foot carousal from Argentina. Next came a 6,000-square-foot house in the section of the building with 32-foot ceilings.
The life-size house acts as a showroom within a showroom and is the place where Pilgrim Furniture City places furniture lines it wants to feature. “When you add all of those elements together, the Southington store creates a unique display that distinguishes it from a typical furniture store,” said Albert.
For the next eight years, Albert and Bichunsky fine tuned what they’ve come to call “shoppertainment,” adding a free movie theater and free popcorn to the mix. In 2007, they found an opportunity to open a second location in Milford, Conn., and in April 2008, they opened what is now known as Pilgrim Furniture City’s “green” location, an old printing factory that they completely renovated.
Rather than covering them up, the company reused the location’s concrete floors by staining them. Pilgrim Furniture City also used most of the existing structures in the store and added 1,500 solar panels to the roof that handle 60% to 70% of the electrical needs of the location.
Although a boon to the company’s image, the development of a green location wasn’t exactly intentional, said Albert. “We didn’t think ‘Let’s go out and find a green building.’ It was more ‘This is perfect; we can reuse this and that.’ And once we found a solar company to work with on the panels, everything fell into place.”
The addition of a second location also marked the addition of a new member to Pilgrim Furniture City’s management team: David Bassett. As with the addition of Bichunsky, bringing Bassett into the fold was a strategic choice: he had years of expertise with Lane Home Furnishings.
“David brought a different perspective to our business, having come from the wholesale side,” said Albert. “He’s been in stores all over the country, and he brings a lot of new ideas to the table.”
With his two partners in place, Albert turned his attention to bigger picture ideas, such as growing the business and streamlining operations. And to a certain degree, the second location helped him out.
In tandem with the Southington location, which is located in the middle of the state, Pilgrim Furniture City found warehousing efficiencies from servicing two locations rather than one. It was the same case with its advertising, which was previously supported by the Southington location’s sales alone.
With the addition of a third location in Manchester, which opened earlier this year, the efficiencies have been even greater. Albert said he believes Pilgrim Furniture City is doing better than 90% of retailers out there because of its ability to take advantage of these efficiencies.
“We’ve more than doubled our sales since adding these new locations, and we’ve gotten more efficient,” he said. “We deliver for three stores now, not just one, and our advertising is now paid for by the sales of three locations.”
Change of policy
Decorations and operations aside, Albert said Pilgrim Furniture City’s success would not be possible without the expertise of the salespeople who work for the company. The culture is focused on doing almost anything to make a customer happy, even to the extent that the company breaks its own rules to make sure all who purchase furniture walk away satisfied.
“The retail world is run by chain stores, and in a lot of instances, a policy is a policy, and it’s not going to be changed,” Albert said. “We’ll break our rules every day.”
This flexibility is essential, he said, especially as customers’ expectations continue to rise. “Consumers’ demands today are world class,” he said. “If you go to an electronics store that has a 90-day warranty, 96 days later, they’re not going to replace your item, but not us. We take each issue on a case-by-case basis, and our goal is to take care of the customer no matter what.”
Even before a sale is made, the salespeople at Pilgrim Furniture City understand the best way to handle customers looking for furniture. Each goes through a two- to three-week training period before hitting the floor, and ongoing training is provided on a weekly basis.
Critical to making sure customers enjoy the unique design of each location, salespeople are taught to let the customers take their time. “They are taught not to hound the customer, to give the customer some space, which we get a lot of credit for,” said Albert.
Unique locations, customer-first mentality, strong leadership team, and ongoing community service (the company donates thousands of dollars each year to organizations such as the American Lung Association and the United Way) earned Pilgrim Furniture City the exclusive National Home Furnishing Association’s Retailer of the Year award in 2006. The recognition, said Albert, proves that the company is heading in the right direction.