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Retail Success Story: Harkness Furniture

Furniture World Magazine


This Tacoma, Washington based furniture store doesn't worry too much about the competition!

Just ask anyone! If you happen to find yourself in Tacoma, Washington, and you’re in search of the Harkness Furniture store, there’s no one in the city or environs who can’t direct you to their graceful and dynamic arched neon sign, emerald green, red and gold! It’s an official local historic landmark. And behind that beckoning and memorable sign, there’s a family of friendly people to meet, and about 70,000 square feet of outstanding showroom and warehouse space to explore. That sign is an original architectural element of the business founded in 1920 by David Harkness’ grandparents, James and Margaret, after their arrival in Washington State from Scotland.

Named the “City of Destiny” when the area became the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 19th century, Tacoma, the State’s largest port, sits on the edge of Puget Sound. It’s been described as “the most walkable and picturesque city in the United States”. A promising place to settle.

But there were lean days, pre-neon, for James and Margaret. Better, though, than the economic and cultural darkness of the old countries still in the shadows of WWI and the Russian revolution. Young, energetic, optimistic, the couple learned the rug weaving and cleaning trade and, with their great expectations intact, they opened the South Tacoma Rug Shop in their garage.

Their grandson, David Harkness, now leader of the Clan, told us that James, “Not having a vehicle, would jump on the streetcar traveling up and down the center of South Tacoma to knock on doors to see if residents wanted their rugs cleaned. Or, in a best case scenario, weave them a new one. If cleaning was requested, he would roll up the rag rug, put it on his shoulder, jump back on the street car to clean it in his garage. He would then deliver it back to the customer, reversing the entire process.

“I have their original sales journal from 1920 in my grandmother’s own handwriting, showing a $6.00 sale, $2.00 per month for three months.”

The couple had four children and, during the ‘30s and ‘40s, all were part of the store’s evolution. “During that time,” said Dave, “no fewer than 15 Harkness family members worked at the store. Our grandfather and one of my uncles passed in the 1940s and my father, Jim, and mother, Dorothy, helped take the store into a variety of other categories, including draperies, wall-to-wall carpeting, custom upholstery, vacuums, appliances, televisions and new and used furniture.

“Mom did all the advertising and Dad the overall management. One by one, they phased out everything except new furniture sales. My brother, Jamie, and myself both came into the store after graduating. My father made sure I had a college degree with accounting and management. He was right on the money with the education needed to help our store flourish.”

Updated Look

The effervescent Miss Connie Post, CEO of Affordable Design Solutions, arrived on the Harkness’ scene a few years ago, “An exciting time for me!”, she remembers, her first project to redesign their store’s second floor, and, said Dave, “Our original Stratolounger Gallery, complete with a snoring Rip Van Winkle, glass blocks and turquoise and teal neon tubes and all! It was the showcase of our store.

Miss Connie added, “It was a 2500 sq. ft. gallery. I designed an amphitheater with risers, a ramp down the middle with mirrored walls behind, showcasing 40 to 50 recliners. The mirrors made it look like 100 chairs! And there were also five or six motion sofa sets gathered about.

“But smack dab in the middle, sitting on his own riser with five recliners surrounding him, was Rip Van Winkle himself, as Dave said, snoring away, top decibel, in his featured Stratolounger!
“The entry to the gallery had stair-stepped glass blocks with all that glowing neon behind them. It was a very energetic and compelling environment for customers, Rip got lots of laughter and Stratford sold thousands of recliners! It totally ‘innovated’ the industry and retail floors across America!”

Mattress Store Remodel

Dave recalled, “We did a complete remodel of our Harkness Mattress Store next door. Plus, Miss Connie allowed us to update and keep our large, much-loved and unforgettable 1950s outdoor neon arrow sign!
“The recently converted mattress store was a 1930s house originally purchased by my parents in 1955. It underwent five separate additions with the final one incorporating the garage as display space. Over the years it was the Harkness Colonial Shoppe, Country Furniture Store, La-Z-Boy Showplace, Ashley 123 and, finally, the Harkness Mattress Store. Connie helped us open up the store, level the floors and redisplay the whole facility. It turned out better than I could have imagined, changing from a chopped-up house to beautiful open displays.”

Connie told us, “The design concept for the mattress portion of the store was based on the lovely natural resources of Washington State. It’s a modern, clean, cool spa vibe. The over-sized murals throughout are used in place of manufacturers’ posters or logos. And this is done to re-enforce the Harkness brand.
“There is a separate area for luxury products, showcasing Tempur-Pedic. The area is set apart with a rich, luscious wallpaper, cost effective string curtains and chandeliers. And there’s also a dedicated area for Furniture First’s ‘Mattress First’ department, showcased with a red circular header and stripes on the wall.
“Beyond the mattress department is the newly designed sleeper department with family oriented lifestyle graphics and blue striped walls. This department leads you to the new youth department in the back portion.

Harkness Exterior

“Just last year we remodeled the exterior of the main store, transforming it from a dated 1960s look into a modern, sleek, urban look. The new design incorporates a rich bronze corrugated metal on the upper portion of the building accented with warm stacked stone around the lower portion. New, sleek bronze light fixtures surround the entire building and there are fresh awnings with a sofa emblem design. The overall new design concept took what was a lackluster store into a rich updated urban concept that accentuated that original very important neon Harkness sign.

“Dave is justifiably very sentimental about that sign due to its significance in the family history, and he invested significantly in its rehabilitation. And I was all about keeping it,” Connie grinned, “due to the fact that it’s flat out cool!”

She added, “We did save money, though, by re-roofing the area around the store that showed from the street, leaving the back side the original color. The original roof shingles were the wrong shade to work with new branding. It’s all about the details!

“This new brand positioning statement was also used on the freestanding mattress store, located in the parking lot connected to the main building by a painted, lined sidewalk."

Big Fire

The story of any enterprise inevitably ranges from comedy to tragedy, especially when almost a century of history is involved. “It was Christmas, 1992,” Dave recalled. “Tragedy turned into a mixed-blessing as a fire destroyed our entire warehouse just before the holiday. We had other retailers pitch in and help provide us with merchandise to cover our lost sales orders and even a little extra for stock. A mattress manufacturer provided the transportation at no charge to back-haul the goods from furniture dealers all over the Northwest so we could cover our sold and stocked merchandise in time for Christmas.”

Company Values

We asked about the Harkness’ secrets of success. “Our staff is our secret weapon,” Dave said. “We try to treat each and every person as we wish to be treated. In turn, we expect them to pass that along as they interact with our guests. Our mission statement includes our intention to operate our business as a Christian organization. I think this permeates everything we try to do at the store. We try to extend these values to our staff and then to our customers. With all deliveries, by tradition we place an affirming bible passage in a logo’d coffee mug filled with M & Ms. We seem to attract employees with generally the same value system as our family and I think they, in turn, offer superior customer service in all their interactions with customers. We have a diverse staff, but our common theme centers around mutual respect.

Media & Technology

“We have weekly training/education meetings conducted by either reps or our sales manager. The staff is constantly observed and counseled by our sales manager. We try to get e-mail information from all customers and prospective customers both in-store and through our website. We are also very active on our Facebook page and have weekly giveaways. There is an up-sheet where the sales staff lists the number of customers, their successes, interests and any other pertinent facts. This information is compared to an internal camera system which is also counted daily. My sales manager oversees this information.

“We’ve used Myriad Software for many years to get all of our merchandising and management information. I do all the buying for our store, and it is very effective at inventory management and analysis. I base most purchasing and reorder decisions on SKU GMROIs. Our CPA accesses our system remotely to prepare monthly financials."

It’s the twenty-first century and competition abounds, but Dave doesn’t “worry too much about competitors. No one can really match the environment we’ve created. We have a price-match guarantee that provides peace of mind for the customer. If you can verify a lower price under the same sales conditions, we will instantly match it. We have a huge number of loyal return customers, even into second and third generations. A number of comment cards returned to us state that because of our service, pricing and selection, they would not shop anywhere else.

“A large percentage of our advertising budget has been switched to social media in addition to our traditional media selections, newspaper, circulars, television and direct mail. The combination of all these seem to be working well together. Harkness' advertising is aggressive around the major holidays, and those tend to be our highest volume times of the year. The majority of ads are store-wide theme events. We also do mattress only and Ekornes circulars inserted into Sunday newspapers.

Two Buying Groups

“One of the best decisions I ever made was to join a performance group 20 years ago! It was originally through the Shepherd Group, they were then purchased by Impact Consulting. How do you put a value on 15 separate business owners giving frank advice to you with no other motivation than to improve your operation? There has been nothing that has added more to our current success than our participation and input from my performance group.

“In addition, we belong to two buying groups, Pacific Furniture Dealers and Furniture First. Both have been instrumental in our success. The benefits are both in the sharing of information and the rebates received from collective volume buying. I am the Past President of PFD (twice), and I continue to be on the Board. My father was instrumental in its origination in 1969.

“I was also President of the Western Home Furnishings Association and on the Board of the NAHFA national association. I currently serve on the HFA Board, a merger of the two organizations. We had the honor of being named Western Retailer of the Year in 2000, and National Retailer of the Year in 2014. They were both acknowledgments of multiple Harkness’ generations that have given back to our community and the industry. HFA has been a great organization to help us in just that objective, to give back to an industry that has been so good to our business and all the families it has supported over the years.”

David does all the buying for the store, “with the help of my sales manager, John, and our son, Kellen, attending the Vegas Market twice each year. We partner with core vendors with whom we have ongoing relationships, planning jointly with their reps to put together a six-month basic stock line-up. Our decorator goes to Vegas once a year to look at current fashions and help plan floor displays. She gets great ideas from Market spaces and then incorporates them into our vignettes. Selective pricing is listed on the Harkness website, but we've struggled with how to implement selling online.”

Generational Change

Succession has been and is an important factor for multi-generational, independent businesses, particularly those that have survived and prospered for almost a century. Said David, “Kellen, who formerly had no interest in the furniture store, decided in his Junior year of college to try out the family business. He joined our operation after graduating from Ohio State University with a business degree. I wrote up an internship program and sent him down to a friend’s store in Oregon to learn all facets of a retail furniture store operation in a place where he wasn’t the ‘son of the boss’! This internship lasted eight months and it was a good trade for the education he received. He joined me soon after and then did a similar internship at our store where he again served in all departments. He spent time in various areas of the operation, including years in the office and warehouse.

“After sufficient time, when I knew he was committed, my wife and I started transferring stock to him so he would have a vested interest in the business. We did a complete estate plan that provided for compensating assets for our daughter who was never in the business. We continue to transition stock on an annual basis, so he continues to share in the success and management of our operation.”

Giving Back

A Harkness tradition, “We believe in giving back to our community. As we have been blessed as a business, it is our privilege to bless others. We have committed 10 per cent of our annual net profit to local charities and education, and an equal amount back to our staff in quarterly and annual bonuses.

“We are very involved in Rotary as a conduit to plug our resources directly back into the community. I am the Past President of our local Rotary Club, and host an annual fundraising event at our store. We set up 18 holes of indoor putt-putt golf in our store with charities highlighted at most holes. We host a dinner, bar, live jazz band and 18 fully decorated golf holes. For fundraising, we have sponsorship of the holes, a ‘raise the paddle’ event, an auction and raffle. Over the past 25 years, a small group of Rotarians have raised over half a million dollars donated to local charities and scholarships. Our little Rotary group has done numerous projects locally and globally.

“I am also on the Board for a local domestic violence shelter, and have been on the Foundation Board for Clover Park Technical College for many years. I’m delighted to give back to the community that has supported Harkness Furniture for almost 100 years!”

A moment of reflection. “I’m probably in a position to retire after starting part-time 50 years ago in the warehouse as a teenager, and full-time 42 years ago. The problem is that I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy doing more than what I do! I look forward to going to work each and every day. No two days are alike and I can truly make a difference in the lives of my staff, customers and community. I love the furniture business!”

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.