Fifty years after opening its doors as a wholesaler of sewing machines, Pittsburgh’s largest purveyor of room furniture packages is asking for a favor. Because of the success the company has seen as it’s evolved throughout the years, Roomful Express is asking its customers to write in and nominate someone they know who needs furniture, and they’re giving it away for free.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe it is, but for those families who have already been nominated to receive up to $3,000 worth of furniture, it’s the solution to a problem they will never forget. By teaming up with local CBS network affiliate KDKA and the United Way, Roomful Express’ 50 Years 50 Families program is providing 50 families across the Pittsburgh region with new home furnishings. 

From families who have pushed themselves out of public housing and into their first owned homes to families who lost everything in a fire, since April 2008, Roomful Express has been touching lives and reminding people that businesses are more than just dollars and cents.

A new direction

But getting to a place where this kind of promotion is possible has not been easy. In the past 50 years, the company has gone through a number of changes to find the business segment that best represented the heart and dedication to quality that has been there all the time.

Spawned from a department within the old business structure of Freight Liquidators Furniture, Roomful Express came to be in 2000. Its primary focus, providing promotional furniture room packages, has doubled the company’s business over the past five years, building on the vendor relationships of the past and opening the door to new ones.

“It allowed the vendors who would not sell to Freight Liquidators to sell to Roomful Express,” said COO Paul Sanford. “The big bedding companies didn’t want to sell to Freight Liquidators because of the name association, so the transition has enabled us to have better brand names on the floor than we’ve had in the past.”

With the name change came the need to change the company’s physical brand, establishing a new logo and look on all building facades. Unlike the designs of the past, almost all 12 Roomful Express locations now have a uniform look and color scheme of red and blue. “One of the things we knew was that we had a collection of stores but not a chain,” said Sanford. “Now we believe we’re getting much more of a single look to how we do business, both inside and outside the stores.”

Issues and opportunities

Although signage is an important tool in raising brand awareness, one of the biggest changes at Roomful Express is in its attention to customer service. Gone are the days of the hard sell, with sales people touting the message ‘If you bought it, you own it. Period.’

Pittsburgh is not a growing population, which means the customers of today will be the customers of tomorrow. To establish loyalty and ensure all customers are happy when they leave, Roomful Express instituted a 100% satisfaction money back guarantee for 30 days for all of its merchandise. Sanford said the change wasn’t as extensive for the sales associates as it was for the back-end customer satisfaction and operations staff. 

“The money back satisfaction guarantee is obviously going to increase the number of returns in the short run, but it made us take a hard look at the quality of the furniture, both how it comes from the manufacturer and how it goes out our door onto the delivery trucks,” he said.

Roomful Express implemented a program to increase the quality on its shipping docks, with quality control inspectors on hand to drive down the number of exchanges and address any quality issues before the items are shipped to the customers. When a box of merchandise is opened, the company’s warehouse management system gives a history of problems the merchandise has had in the past. 

In addition, the company has a sampling meeting once a week in which its long-time craftsman reports on any issues he had when assembling and doing a detailed check of one of each of the new arrivals. “We take a look at all the nuances of that particular product,” Sanford said. “Is it going to be difficult to deliver? What are the features and benefits that would help it sell? What issues might the customer have with it when making a call to customer support center with a problem? It’s really helped us identify by SKU those items that may be an issue or an opportunity.”

To another 50 years

Sales have been tough in the furniture industry for the past 18 months or so, said Sanford, but Roomful Express has been holding its own. In fiscal year 2008, the company saw a small increase in sales, which he considers a victory and attributes to both the company’s aggressive promotions and its reputation as a trustworthy business.

“Pittsburgh doesn’t get the same highs or lows that other economies do,” he said. “It’s been a challenge selling furniture in the last 18 months nationwide and for us, but we’ve sought ways to promote ourselves and bring great value to our customers.”

To promote the back-end quality control process the company has developed, Sanford keeps a blog on the company’s Web site, discussing how Roomful Express handles deliveries and customer support. It’s also moved the majority of its advertising away from print media and onto the Web.

To survive in this business, Roomful Express must maintain a certain level of flexibility. By paying attention to and evolving with its customers’ needs, it’s almost guaranteed that this retailer will last at least another 50 years.

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