Part 11: Retailers share interesting stories of growth, hardship and their strategies for success.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone
“There’s always something new at the oldest furniture store in Texas!” After 135 years of business, Hermann Furniture has every right to its many claims to fame. From the day in 1876 when Gottlieb Hermann set foot at storied Galveston Island, once the headquarters of pirate Jean Lafitte, he and his descendants have consistently found ways to surprise, delight and reach out helping hands to their fellow Texans.
Perceptive Gottlieb took time to look around and assess potential areas of frontier growth, and he made the excellent decision to target Washington County, the “Birthplace of Texas”, where the State’s Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1836. A German immigrant, he carried with him skills learned in the old country, earned his citizenship and began to build his own American dream.
It was an extraordinary period in history, the centennial year of the United States, Thomas Edison’s invention of the mimeograph and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and, famously, one of the nation’s most contentious presidential elections to this date. Mark Twain published the classic “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and, in Montana, Custer fought the Battle of Little Bighorn. What a year!
Washington County’s town of Brenham is the county seat, a halfway point between Houston and Austin, renowned as the heart of the Bluebonnet Region in Central Texas. The Bluebonnet Trails are a reminder of former First Lady Barbara Bush’s initiative to “take advantage of and enhance the State’s natural beauty”. (And Barbara Bush, by the way, was one of Hermann’s illustrious customers in her time.)
Back in the good old days, “If the customers didn’t come to the store, the store went to them!” Gottlieb or one of his employees would load a wagon, tour the countryside and not return to Brenham until all the items were sold. Within a few years, the first washing machines were invented. They, too, were loaded on the wagon, and were demonstrated by the travelling salesmen in the prospective customers’ homes. “People from miles around would bring their laundry to the demonstration!”
Fourth generation John Hermann and his daughter, fifth generation Jennifer, are steeped in the history and traditions of the Hermann dynasty. “They came to America to find peace and quiet, no national conscription and the opportunity to create a business.”
The original enterprise, G. Hermann Furniture, was located on Brenham’s Main Street, a dirt road then, and right downtown. An asset, the railroad ran through the town. Amongst other services, as cabinetmakers the Hermanns built caskets. “People were dying to do business with us!” quipped John. The first store “is housed in a structure of fine German architecture and craftsmanship, a treasure of our heritage”. As prosperity grew, Gottlieb offered “modern and fine brands of furniture”, helping to define his rapidly changing frontier community. And the reputation of Hermann’s quality grew.
“Visitors can still see traces of the businesses that occupied the building, the butcher shop, the funeral parlor and even an early Ford Auto Dealership once housed in a portion of the historic building. There are now three connected buildings and one additional structure where the General Store and Crafts Mall are located. The addition also houses the warehouse on the third floor and, at the back, delivery and staging trucks.”
By the late 1800s, times were prosperous in Washington County and, as the area developed, so did Hermann’s. Their reach expanded to seven locations throughout Texas. Gottlieb “remained a fixture in the original store, constantly expanding and improving the quality of the merchandise. He passed the store to his sons, Ernest and Will. A third son, Arthur George (aka A.G.) opened a store in Yoakum, Texas. And his two sons, Arthur and Alfred, followed family tradition and chose careers in the furniture trade. Arthur joined his father in Yoakum, and Alfred established a store in Gonzales, Texas.”
It was Ernest and Will who steered the Brenham store through the difficult days of the Depression and then World War II. “People had nothing,” John said. “When people needed furniture, you traded it out, they paid what they could. Or we bartered. Customers would offer to work for their purchases, make deliveries for us. At that time we carried carpets and flooring, and they would help us with this area of the business. People just depended upon and looked out for each other. Yes, it was bad, but it was a family time, the warmth of a family working together.”
Ernest had no children and turned to his nephew, Alfred, as his successor. So Alfred became the third generation of Hermanns to head the store’s operation.
In 1974, Alfred died suddenly. His son, John, became the leader of the fourth generation. John acquired the store adjacent to the original building and expanded the business to its present size.
But, says John, it was the addition of his daughter, Jennifer, 15 years ago, the fifth generation, “whose creative talents have made Hermanns the unique and well-shopped Hermann Furniture that we see today”.
Jennifer added, “I began in the store when I was real little, dusting up as high as I could reach, and helping to assemble items in the back. And doing repairs, too. I loved riding on the cargo elevator, and being pushed on the furniture dolly through the store! In school, I was an Arts Major, creative, very interested in design. I’ve helped Dad to build on our rich history and transform Hermanns into its present conformation”.
With Jennifer’s influence, the Hermann Furniture Company now consists of five shops “providing a variety of unique items in the home furnishings industry space. As you enter the main building, you’ll find a beautiful, two-storey 30,000 square foot showroom, highlighting new, high quality, traditional home furnishings, accessories and gifts. We have been honored to become a Flexsteel Gallery and also a Kincaid Gallery.
“Then there’s the Floral and Design Center, custom silk floral arrangements and our home decorating services.“ Thousands of fabric selections are on display here to customize shoppers’ upholstery selections, and a designer is on staff to assist them. “Customers are encouraged to take home samples to view the spaces where the new pieces will be used to ensure fabrics will coordinate and enhance existing colours and lighting. As well, resource catalogues are offered to broaden searches for the perfect piece.” Custom drapery and bedding are a necessary and useful adjunct. Personal in-home consultations are also offered. Jennifer tells us she prefers to “hand-sketch design opportunities, more personal than computer technology”.
Jennifer’s artistic touch has created great interest in the use of floral displays. Hermann’s continues to expand on this new initiative with the addition of Hermann’s Backdoor, added to offer a greater selection of garden and floral design. A compliment to the spirit of the past!
At the Hermann Antique Mall, customers are offered both antique furniture and vintage accessories. Jennifer explained that 40 “different dealers have space in the building, so their offerings are a little bit of everything, very eclectic!” Added John, “In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, I had extra space and didn’t know what to do with it, so the Antique Mall came into existence. I observed that customers would come out, walk through the Mall and then leave. It occurred to me that what we needed was more small stuff. Customers would have to walk past the enticing displays as they entered, and also as they left, an incentive to purchase. It works!”
There is a big, annual Antique Show at Round Top and Warrenton, two nearby towns. The week-long event is “very popular, well-attended. People come from all over the country. And the thousands who visit the Show just naturally spill over to Hermann’s!”
The Hermann Craft Mall is a story all by itself. It features a huge variety of handcrafted gifts and artwork, soaps, jewellery and items for children. It’s a great attraction for both the local community and the many tourists who come from Houston, Bryan, Austin and out of State to visit this historic enclave and Hermann’s in particular. The Mall still boasts the original tin ceiling and wood floors of the old Ford automobile dealership, and the quaint ambience is maintained throughout the Mall. (Jennifer is an enthusiastic craftsperson herself, “I’m really into it!”)
A favourite booth within the Craft Mall is a reflection of the far reaching insight of The Art Center, an Active Treatment Workshop and a satellite of Brenham Production Services. The Art Center itself is located on the campus of Brenham State School, a residential facility for people with developmental disabilities. The program features the talent and creativity of the artists who reside at the School, and the arts and crafts they produce working mostly with donated items. The Art Center was originally designed to be a therapeutic part of individual treatment plans, and has morphed into a viable business outlet for those talented artists, endowed with a strong desire to be creative, who are unable to work in mainstream selling because of their physical limitations. The Art Centre is one of the Hermanns many outreach involvements in the community. (If you are interested in this program, the Hermanns suggest you contact Pam Rhoades, Art Center instructor, 979-836-4511,extension 1570, for more information.)
Since 1996, the fifth outlet, the Hermann General Store offers an inventory typical of the original concept of the village emporium. Gourmet Texan foodstuffs bearing the Hermann label are plentiful and in demand, “salsas, marinades, candies, pickles, jams, jellies, relishes, sauces, asparagus, several dips – pineapple, pecan, cream cheese”. Explore the shelves and displays and you’ll find specialty children’s clothing, local souvenirs, soaps and lotions, books and custom gifts.
Old fashioned home town hospitality is offered the moment one walks through any of Hermann’s doors. All visitors are offered complimentary refreshments while they browse and shop. “It’s a warm and welcoming place to spend an afternoon collecting ideas and discovering your design style.”
Since Jennifer joined her father full time, they have introduced a multitude of innovations, including the many workshops staged throughout the year, great “brand” reinforcement and incentive for traffic growth. Topics range from the hanging of art in the home, to floral design, to tablescapes, design presentations for special dinners and many other themes. “Six or seven years ago, when the workshops began, our presenter was a former design teacher from a college in Houston; now I do it,” said Jennifer, “and I find it gratifying and enjoyable. People are so responsive. I also go out to home and garden clubs to address the members. And we do house tours. And I’ve opened my own home at Halloween and on other occasions; it’s a multi-level old English style house. Had lots of traffic!
“In my spare time,” Jennifer laughs, “I also design the stores’ interiors. And I have a designer with a great background on my team.
“We’re delighted that the local school sends their Home Economics students to us for both tours and workshops. They are also very interested in the Crafts Mall.”
John and Jennifer’s inspiration and ingenuity create special events, some seasonal. Christmas in July involves taking a section of the store, setting up trees, persuading Santa to brave the Texas summer heat and temporarily leave the North Pole to entertain the children, and decorating the area skillfully to “get people in the mood. If they want to change a room around at home before the holiday season in time to welcome guests, they are able to order early and be sure their new space will be complete. Of course, we mount a simultaneous sale.”
At the appropriate time, the Easter Bunny Sale makes its appearance.
In store, events are created around styling themes. “We’ve transported customers to the living room of a French Country Cottage. On other occasions, we’ve featured English Country and, very popular, a Tuscan Ranch look. And quality furniture and accessories are on display to assist shoppers in creating their own style approaches.”
The father/daughter team has developed some unique marketing directions between them. Jennifer’s sense of humor provoked her to tell the story of an off-the-wall family marketing approach several decades old. “At my father’s house when he was little, they had one of the first televisions in the neighborhood and, of course, you could get one at the store. His Dad would turn the television to the window and people would bring their lawn chairs over and watch television in the yard. This would lead them to come in to the store the next day and purchase their own television!”
John insists that “The turning point in the business’s growth was when Jennifer came back in the store. She is Hermann’s future. I am guiding and helping her. And she is doing a great job.” John leads the business operations and Jennifer’s fingers are on the pulse of anything and everything creative.
“We had hard times here locally when the oil industry died; there just was no business. People just didn’t buy very much. We now carry such a diversity (of product lines) that if people can’t afford a $2,000 sofa, they can still buy a lamp or other accessories. And we are so well stocked with accessories!”
“And,” said Jennifer, “in keeping with twenty-first century marketing methodology, we’re now selling on the Internet. We’re doing very well, starting off with the General Store, promoting food products and accessories.” (View the merchandise at www.hermannfurniture.com under the General Store button.) “We hope to add furniture and more accessories online in the latter part of 2012.”
Last November, the celebrations attendant upon the 135th anniversary were a week long event. “State Representative Lois W. Kolkhorst, Brenham city officials and representatives from the Hermann Furniture Company, gathered for the ribbon-cutting outside the Hermann Furniture building in historic downtown Brenham, Texas.” Appetizers and live music were on hand, and there was an open invitation for customers to “stop by, enjoy some wine and cheese, and take advantage of special promotions and daily giveaways”.
Jennifer said, “It is great that Hermanns is recognized as the oldest family owned and operated furniture store in Texas. A lot has changed over the years, but the extraordinary shopping experience we provide for our customers hasn’t. ‘A good product at a fair price’ is our motto. We stand behind our product. We believe in dealing with our customers as if they were part of our own family, a deep-rooted tradition.”
Inevitably, with any thriving old family business, there are tales to be told by the fireplace at midnight! One of John’s and Jennifer’s favorites, concerns spectral Uncle Ernest. “When things go bump in the night, or maybe pieces of furniture move about seemingly by themselves, people have seen an elderly gentleman wearing a hat coming down one of the several staircases in the building. And they always smell cigar smoke! And that’s very strange, because we don’t permit smoking anywhere in the building.” Jennifer laughed, “I can attest that there have been a couple of sightings!”
The most recent story doesn’t seem to have a ghost involved, but it is a tad strange. Now remember this is a really old building. “Towards the back of the store one day, the floor upstairs dropped about two feet in one area. No one was under it or walking on it above, but it made a really loud noise. And it was pretty weird looking!” Was Uncle Ernest looking for another way down?
Barbara Bush was not the only famous customer. Renowned country music stars Pam Tillis and Doug Supernaw are also Hermann fans.
The future? Said Jennifer, “The Hermanns have been willing over the many decades to change with the times, try new things, adapt to the economy and support from our loyal customers. We’ll continue our present path, evolving with whatever is in style in our old-fashioned way.”
Hermann’s website carries the message to customers that “Your home is your story and it should be the best story you’ve ever told”. Sound advice for consumers everywhere.
And, says Jennifer, “We just can’t wait to get to work every day!”
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone