The City of Boston shares its nickname with Philadelphia, the “Athens of America”. Within its environs there’s a heady mix of academia, venture capitalists, assorted internationalists and the vibrant presence of hi-tech entities. It is most definitely a global city. In fact, Boston is amongst the top 30 most economically powerful cities in the world.
So challenges abound, and there are those brave souls in the home furnishings industry who truly enjoy challenge, who actually reach out to grasp Boston and the centers within its purview wholeheartedly. Others have discovered it almost accidentally and found their niche.
It was back in 1979 that Boston Interiors' founder Ken Loring found a new career direction in waterbeds. In time, he opened a store in Brookline Village, Massachusetts named Boston Bedroom to reflect product expansion beyond waterbeds. As store selection grew even more, its name evolved into Boston Interiors.
For 30 years, Ken, with his wife, Mal, who directed merchandising, grew the business, created the brand and were great at what they did. They were joined in time by their son and daughter who stayed with them as Vice President, Merchandising until the sale of the business in 2016.
Growth To Top 100
What had been one store multiplied into seven successful retail out lets. After Brookline Village, the first in 1985 in the town of Hanover, Natick was opened, then Westboro, Mashpee, Stoughton, Saugus and finally, in 2014, Brookline. That year they hit the Top 100 List with estimated sales of $44.5 million.
That same year Stefanie Lucas entered the Boston Interiors’ scene as its new CEO, and led the launch of their brilliant new catalogue. Ken remained Chairman and a member of Boston Interiors’ Board of Advisors. He said of Stefanie, “The company is fortunate to have found and hired such an experienced CEO with an impressive background in both the retail and wholesale furniture business. We feel Stefanie has the talent and skill to guide the company over many years and to build on our success to date.”
We were talking about challenges? Early in her career, Stefanie co-founded an ad agency, affirming her skills in marketing and brand building and working with a wide range of clients. When the agency was sold, she jumped into the role of Director of Marketing with Chico’s Casual Clothing. It was a publicly traded women’s fashion chain based in Florida and, during her tenure, the company grew from “about 60 stores to about 120” locations across the U.S. “One of the most successful specialty retailers in the industry based on top sales per square foot and overall profitability.”
Next in the Boston area, Stefanie joined Reebok International, working her way to the position of Vice President of Global Marketing, the Rockport brand, around the world. She interacted with top retailers like Nordstrom, Macy’s and led promotional initiatives, partnerships with Sony Pictures, Nissan, CARE, and was responsible for marketing in 29 countries.
Ten years ago she was recruited into Rowe Furniture’s management group, and fit well into the SVP position, leading all marketing, sales and merchandising. Then Rowe was bought by Sun Capital Partners. Stefanie became President and CEO. She worked closely with many home furnishings retailers during her nine year tenure at Rowe, including Pottery Barn, Haverty’s, Scandinavian Design and, Boston Interiors!
Stephanie spent two years with HTL International centered in Singapore, a $500 million dollar global furniture company. She helped them improve growth and business strategy in the North American market as well as head Domicil, their luxury brand, wholesale and retail, based in Germany.
Boston Interiors was sold to both private equity investors and key management including, of course, challenge-seeker Stefanie Lucas.
Stefanie agrees that “Boston has some of the biggest competition in the furniture category of all the cities in the U.S. I don’t mind competition because I think it is good for the marketplace and good for consumers.”
Image & Personality
We heard that Boston Interiors had received special recognition. She’s proud they’ve been voted “Best of Boston” in several local publications over the years.
“What we focus on, to stand out, is really our own image and personality and staying true to that. We don’t want to carry something just because a competitor does, or try to beat a competitor just on price. We think we have a special kind of store (s) and we stay focused on who we are. Every single customer may not want to shop us and that's OK, but for the ones we appeal to, we think we are the best.”
In February this year, Stefanie announced the opening of a new 21,000 square foot store in Bedford, New Hampshire, their eighth location and the first outside Massachusetts, “We know we have a strong customer base to the north, so Bedford is a great location for us and we feel that the community will love having access to a Boston Interiors store close to them."
This was followed by another new store in Dedham, Massachusetts, 16,000 square feet, in the Legacy Place Shopping Center in the Boston metro area. “This very mature, high traffic shopping center hosts many great retailers and we know we’ll be in good company.
“This is huge for us this year! With the new ownership of the company comes a tremendous emphasis on growth. We are very fortunate to be an extremely profitable retailer. Now we want to spread this effort into new growth and we have the funding behind us to do this. Next year we will be looking for additional growth.”
And a brand new outdoor furniture line was launched in March, just in time for the busy summer season. Unique, painted designs, customizable in dozens of finishes and colors, the line is made in the United States and ships quickly with roughly a four-week lead-time. Other designs include modern styling with elements like concrete resin, teak and wovens. Said Stefanie, “Our customers have been asking for outdoor furniture, especially in our coastal locations, so we’re happy to be able to fulfill this need for them. And because more and more people are using outdoor spaces for entertaining on a regular basis, we also see a need for more unique looks in this category.”
Dedication to Sustainability
Yet another announcement, in conjunction with Boston Interiors' sustainability efforts and total design offerings, Stefanie expressed her excitement about their new paint collection. Low-emission, the paint uses recycled, chlorine-free packaging and other environmentally conscious practices. The line, 128 colors, is available to order in all their stores as well as online. “The reason we went into this venture is because we so often help people with the design of their home, and color is such an important part of the mood of the home. It really grounds the design overall. We can pick fabrics, wood finishes, shapes and sizes, but the walls surrounding everything make a huge difference! We often are asked our opinion on paint color, so it made sense to add this to our assortment. We also wanted to make it easy for our customers to actually get the paint, rather than having to comb through rows of colors at their local hardware store. The beauty of this program is that we have the paint color cards in our stores, customers can match it right to their furniture, then the paint ships directly to their doorstep in a matter of days. So it is very simple. And we are happy to say it’s also eco-friendly!
“We became members of the Sustainable Furniture Council a couple of years ago and we are serious about our efforts. Whenever possible we buy from SFC Certified Suppliers and we do things internally to focus on our own responsibility, including major recycling programs, our tie-in to ‘One Percent for the Planet’*, buying recycled goods for re-sale, mattress recycle programs and printing our catalogue on recycled stock.”
Marketing: Boston Interiors
Stefanie’s demographic target? “We focus on women ages 35-54 as a traditional advertising target, however, we really see a wider scope to our audience so it depends on where we are ‘talking’ to them.
“We have a great in-house team of marketers including creative, photography, PR, social media, e-commerce, online marketing and direct mail. We use an outside agency for traditional things such as TV, but our in-house team is closest to our business and can be very proactive in pushing what works for our communications.
“Probably our favorite means to communicate with our customers is to talk directly to our Boston Interiors’ customer base, such as through e-mail or direct mail, to the people who know us and already love us. They are a great group of people who appreciate what we do and offer, and we so appreciate them back!
“Our catalogue is also a top priority for us as it is the best way to showcase our look and feel to people visually. We often have people come into one of our stores and say ‘I’ll take this grouping just the way it looks in this photo’... and that is the biggest compliment we could get! We mail it, plus we have it online for customers to see on our website.
“Advertising has and is changing so much so I don’t think there is one simple answer as to how we break through the clutter of advertising within the “big city” marketplace. We use a mix of media and have grown things like our online presence to shift with changing consumer habits. To break through that clutter we, as always, try to be consistent with our brand and our personality. We like to think we are friendly, approachable and hopefully inspiring, so we will put everything through this filter before we implement it.”
And their website. “Our website was redesigned a few years ago with the help of our ad agency. We do, however, run the majority of it with our in-house team, experts at e-commerce, social marketing and online marketing. We continue to evolve the site and are working on new things now to continue to make it more and more robust. This is a big growth area for us and we recognize that consumers want to buy furniture in the place that is most convenient for them. We know that most times they come to our stores for large purchases yet, even if they did a store visit, they may choose to make their final decision from home. And that is fine with us. We want to be anywhere our consumer wants us to be.
“We started our online sales efforts quite a few years ago and this continues to grow very rapidly for us. When we sell on-line, we offer to ship anywhere in the U.S.”
The all-important customer service. “We do, of course, have a strong customer service team. We have an extremely good record of keeping our quality issues to a bare minimum. As part of this effort, we’re one of the few retailers in the country that inspect every single piece of furniture before it goes out the door. We do not just inspect one out of dozens or the first run of product. We check EVERYTHING, and I think this attention to detail allows us to stand out as a leader in delivering top quality products to our customers. In all of my years in the industry I have never seen this attention to quality.”
Inspiration & Display
A quality statement naturally leads to an overall vision. Says Stefanie, “’We are a beautifully curated collection of comfortable, livable furniture that will inspire your home. I think that sort of captures the essence of what we do. Hopefully we show this in our stores.
“Our own creative inspiration comes from lots of places, not just one place or one person. But I will say that the gathering of this inspiration is really important to me, personally, in pulling together the vision of our stores and the products that we offer. On the manufacturing side of the business, you have the luxury of being ultra creative in your showroom because it is just that, a short-term showroom. But when you are working with a store, you have to take all of these creative ideas that you have collected and find a way to pull it all together in an inspiring manner, but also a realistic manner. In a way that someone could actually see it in their home. This means that we start the process at the truly inspirational, trend-defining level. Then we edit it down to our personality and ultimately curate a collection that we see as on-trend, beautiful and also very livable. What I see many retailers do is take the inspiration they may have seen but be very afraid to keep that in their store. And they tend to go down to a very ‘safe’ level of display. Ultimately, I think consumers coming into your store want to be inspired the same way we, as buyers, want to be inspired, so we are careful not to lose that something special. Or should I say, we are careful to FIND that something special and be sure we show that to our customers."
Sales & Design Team
“This is a never-ending challenge for our interior design team because we always want to stay fresh. Therefore, what we may have done last year now has to be even better. Accessorizing is critical to us and I think that when I see the growth in that category of sales for us (which has been tremendous!) we are proving we do a good job of this.
“We have a stellar training program for new sales associates which lasts for weeks of detailed preparation. We have a great internal trainer who works with each person side by side and that follows with in-store training.
“Much of our in-store team has a design background and truly loves interior design and what they do. They are passionate about design and are not just sales people. Our design services are truly important to our store experience. We offer a range of levels of help, from in-store assistance to at-home assistance. We have a wide range of people who respond. It is not really a specific demographic but more psychographic, based on who feels comfortable with design and who feels like they want help. There is a wide range who are also in the middle who just need assistance with ideas or colors, or a specific piece. But we want to offer the level of help that someone feels most comfortable with, without any pressure. We like to think we can help bring their ideas and their thoughts to life at an even better level than they may have imagined.”
Stefanie acknowledges that “We do standardize our product training because we definitely want everyone in our stores to know our products inside and out. As for style, however, that is personal. We encourage our team to be creative and to use their personality to connect with their customers. Often times, that connection becomes a longer term customer relationship or even a friendship which is wonderful!”
Buying & Trends
An up and coming product category? “I think that accent chairs are something that may have been underutilized by consumers in the past and that the more people move away from set groupings (matching sets) to eclectic looks, the more accent chairs with pattern or color will come into play. Style trend-wise, I see the definition of media pieces being completely opened up and no longer so defined. What people are using to place a TV on or put under a TV is so different than it was 10 years ago and I think this is a great thing for opening up creative solutions.”
And the exceedingly important role of store buyer. “I think furniture buyers stand out when they are passionate and have a left brain-right brain balance. I know lots of buyers that just buy looking at numbers but, to me, you also have to have a great eye and love what you do. I think everyone on our merchandising team truly has this kind of passion for our business and, as they grow over time, it gets stronger and stronger. I hope I can give the team some of that inspiration and vision for our company and where we are going in the future. Right now, with two new stores opening this year, I think everyone is very excited about our future and giving it their all to help us be successful.”
In the highly competitive arena of bedding, Stefanie commented, “We offer bedding in all of our stores because the bedroom category is important to us. We may never have as wide a selection as a dedicated mattress store but we have a vast enough selection to give our customers solid choices with excellent quality and very fair pricing. Knowing this, we also can make it very convenient to put the whole package together, furniture and mattress, for our customers, so they do not have to sift through dozens and dozens. Again, a great pre-edited collection, making the process simple and pleasant.
Beyond The Furniture Industry
“As I think about products that we carry and what consumers may want, I often find inspiration NOT in the furniture industry. Fabrics, colors, patterns, often come from what I see in apparel and fashion trends, then we determine how to edit that for your home. I never think your home should be ‘trendy’, but people want to look current, they want their home to be a current statement on their take on fashion.
“I love to travel and see what furniture retailers are doing around the world. Often you can find inspiration in places like the desert or the sea. Boston Interiors is certainly close to the sea, but we need to find ways of taking coastal influences and making them unique. Everyone does not want to live with overt coastal things like anchors or starfish, but most everyone loves the feeling you get from the beach. We look for things that are airy, serene, fresh. These are things that appeal to everyone, I think.
“I often get asked if I think Boston Interiors stores could be anywhere else, I suppose because of our name. But I think that what we offer goes way beyond New England. Our concept, our product, our environment, I believe is the way people want to shop. So we see the brand certainly having the ability to go beyond our current geographic locations.”
Our conversation with Stefanie turned to Boston Interiors’ outreach programs. “We began a relationship with Rosie’s Place, a women’s homeless shelter, years ago, through our founders. The basic reason for our tie-in to them, aside from them being a very strong charitable organization in the Boston area, is that they help in finding people homes and stability in their lives. As a furniture company, we want to tie into the very basic need of everyone deserving a place they can call home and feel safe. Rosie’s focus is on this mission.
“In addition to Rosie’s Place, over the last couple of years we have expanded our charitable giving to two other areas. One is with ‘One Percent For The Planet’. We feel a responsibility, especially these days, in being aware of our environment and the footprint we leave behind. When we do a promotion with ‘One Percent For The Planet’ we highlight lots of products that we buy using sustainable materials, recycled materials and things bought from suppliers that are part of these efforts such as SFC Certified Vendors. And then we give support back through this percent of sales. It is a small effort, but we feel every little bit helps.
“Lastly, we have begun to support organizations related to cancer research. Sadly, we had several women in our company over the past year who were going through cancer treatment and it really hit home. Cancer touches almost everyone in one way or another and anything we can do to help research or cure-finding efforts we see as an all-important responsibility also."
“I cannot say enough positive things about our team in the stores. I was at an event last night and I told someone what I do. They, along with the two people next to them said, ‘Oh, I love Boston Interiors!’ I get that response all the time and it is because of our team. Sure, our products need to be right and our service and follow-up need to be stellar, but it all starts with the interaction between our team members and the customer and I go back to what I said earlier... we want it to feel like you are shopping with your best friend. That is not an easy thing to achieve. It is so much about culture and a feeling you get in the stores. That is what makes us who we are and what makes me so proud to be part of Boston Interiors.”
We focused on the future of the home furnishings industry. “I think this is a challenging time for traditional home furnishings retailers because they must keep up with the way consumers want to shop. Traditional big box retail stores with rows and rows of furniture are not enough. Especially with the huge millennial group of consumers who are so used to buying online and buying just the way they want it.
“The days of buying furniture for the rest of your life, with many trips to many stores, may be over. Consumers now think differently about how they purchase and what they purchase. They do not want any less quality, however, they are very happy to mix and match, to continue to ‘build’ on their purchases, to be always seeking newness and freshness in their home... and they want to be inspired! This is very positive for our category as long as we evolve as an industry.
“I see Boston Interiors' concept as a particular way of shopping that I think many people like/prefer. I think that our footprint, our style, our pre-curated collection, our service, all have the ability to continue to grow and to attract consumers all over... perhaps into other markets beyond just New England. I think this is an exciting time for us because we are so focused on growth!”
Stefanie laughed, “I came into the furniture industry with an apparel and footwear background, and I have often been asked about the differences. Other than getting my hand slapped for calling a sofa a ‘couch’, I’ve been lucky! Yes, there are the nuts and bolts of the furniture ‘product’ side of the business that one needs to know, but the reality is that there are a lot of similarities.
The Emotional Side
“When I started working in this business I still saw the very emotional side of buying furniture and sometimes I think manufacturers and retailers forget about this. It is scary to decorate your home. It is a major reflection of one’s self on display for their closest family and friends to see and the biggest obstacle we face in getting people to buy is fear of making a mistake. As a retailer, we try to make them feel comfortable with their purchase. That is why the environment, the people helping them, the relaxed experience, is so important. Price becomes secondary. And our industry so often forgets this.“
*One Percent for the Planet is an international organization founded by Yvon Chouinard and Craig Mathews in 2002 to “encourage more businesses to donate one percent of sales to environmental groups”. Defined “Issue Categories” include alternative transportation, climate change, energy and resource extraction, environmental education, environmental law and justice, environment and human health, food, land pollution, water and wildlife. For more information see http://www.onepercentfortheplanet.org.
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.