generations have built this top-100 single-store operation into Chicagoland’s largest furniture & mattress store.
When Louis Darvin started his business selling furniture door-to-door from catalog pictures in 1920, the carnage of World War 1 and the tragedy of a world-wide pandemic were recent and painful memories. The 18th Amendment had been ratified in 1919 banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages and the economy was in recession. Times were tough.
Through hard work and perseverance Louis became known as a furniture expert, offering high-quality furniture at low prices. His customer base grew through the boom times of the 1920s and he persevered during the Great Depression.
Business was starting to look more promising in 1939 when Louis’ son David entered the business. Father and son opened a 5,000-square-foot store in the West Pullman neighborhood located on the far south side of Chicago.
Marty and Steve Darvin
Experiencing success, Darvin Furniture moved to a 50,000 sq-ft showroom in Chicago in 1962. That’s about the time the third generation Darvins, Steve and Marty, were first exposed to the family business. Under the watchful eye of their father David, the two worked throughout the store, learning every aspect of retail.
Taking care to put the right shoppers and salesperson together for appointmentsmakes shopping here a more enjoyable and a more professional experience.
~ Will Harris, President
In 1969, Marty Darvin was the first of David’s sons to officially join the family business. Then, following his service in the U.S. Navy, Steve Darvin came onboard. The brothers soon opened a second location in Matteson, a south suburb of Chicago.
David Darvin retired in 1987 leaving Steve and Marty to take over the reins of the business. In 1980, Darvin Furniture consolidated operations to a single location in Orland Park, Illinois, 25 miles south of Chicago.
“Our father, David Darvin, taught us to run the business with an unwavering attention to providing our customers with a great shopping experience and to always remain close to our family of employees,” said Marty Darvin. "Our employees are really part of our family. It has always been that way and we know that in order to ensure a true Darvin experience, we have to have employees who care enough to provide that effort every day in the showroom and behind the scenes in the office,” he concluded.
“Our relationship with our vendors and business partners has always played a huge part as well in our ability to offer the quality and value Darvin is known for,” added Steve Darvin. “Right after World War II, there were governmental limits and restrictions put on the availability of merchandise. However, these didn’t hit our customers too hard because we always paid our bills on time and ended up receiving full access to merchandise because of that commitment to our vendors.”
From 1980 through the mid-1990s, Darvin Furniture underwent four expansions, each one increasing the size of the store’s capacity to showcase more furniture and accommodate additional business operations. In 1996, Darvin landed on the Top-100 list of US furniture retailers and has remained there for the past 24 years, one of only a handful of single-location furniture retailers in the top-100.
In 2000, Darvin Furniture opened a 218,000-square-foot Distribution Center in Mokena, Illinois, located just minutes south of the Orland Park showroom. Additional expansions to the campus included a mattress store in 2009, a 35,000-square-foot Clearance & Outlet Center in 2015 and a Rug Gallery.
One hundred years since its founding, Darvin Furniture & Mattress encompasses 13 acres in Orland Park, making it Chicagoland's largest furniture and mattress store.
“A lot of people have asked about Darvin having just one location. We have customers who travel from Indiana, Wisconsin and from all around Chicagoland to shop with us,” said Steve Darvin. “With our Orland Park store, we really have everything in one place, including our interior design consultant services, our mattress store, Clearance and Outlet Center and one of the largest furniture store-based rug galleries in the Midwest.”
Looking back, Steve Darvin reflected, “While we have experienced many changes in 10 decades, including five different locations during those 100 years, one thing has always remained a constant. Our commitment to running Darvin Furniture has always been anchored by a heightened focus on integrity."
After selling furniture door-to-door from catalog pictures in the 1920s, Darvin's founder Louis Darvin (pictured) moved to a 5,000 square foot store in Chicago's West Pullman neighborhood (center). In the 1940s he moved to a 25,000 square foot location (left).
COVID-19 & New Leadership
Integrity was a big consideration in January 2020, when Marty and Steve decided to step back from day-to-day operations a bit. They chose Will Harris, a fourth-generation veteran of Harris Family Furniture to lead Darvin Furniture & Mattress as president. Will's LinkedIn profile describes him as “A leader by example, who strives for constant transparency, he is driven by achievement that comes from inspiring every employee, at every level, to create the very best possible Darvin experience. With a focus on behavior – not just outcomes – he brings the spirit of the family-owned commitment and a proven track record of success to the daily Darvin operation.”
Marty and Steve looked to Harris in part because he understands first-hand the importance of family-owned furniture businesses. “We have always remained focused on our family-owned principles in order to earn the trust and confidence of customers,” observed Steve Darvin.
Leadership & The Pandemic
Furniture World asked Harris to comment on what has sustained Darvin Furniture & Mattress through the past 100 years.
“It may sound a little bit cliché,” he observed, “but teamwork is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Darvin. Our people build bridges to each other, the different departments work together towards the realization of common goals and ideals. It’s a very exciting place to work.
“We have one of the best leadership teams in the industry; very experienced and professional, willing to change and grow. The attitude and acceptance towards change separates Darvin from a lot of other companies. I’ve been here for a relatively short time but have a strong feeling that as we emerge from this pandemic, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish."
Commenting on recent events related to COVID-19, Harris recounted a defining moment for the store. “One of the initiatives we are most proud of was the establishment of a critical care call center sales hotline during the pandemic. People in the communities we serve called to get items such as lift chairs, adjustable beds or any other essential furniture items.
“We believe that it was a mistake to classify furniture businesses as non-essential and close them down. Our industry didn’t do a good job of explaining to government officials that furniture is an essential item—integral to their lifestyles. Families who had recently moved into our trading area needed mattresses for their kids to sleep, plus furnishings to sit on and eat. People who had to work from home needed workspaces, and students needed places to study.
“The group of salespeople who worked on the critical needs call center sales hotline really believed in the value of what they were doing for their fellow human beings. They worked extra hard to return phone calls, set up meetings on Zoom and Facetime. Most of our store lights were turned off and the doors were locked, but even so it was a great experience for Darvin."
One hundred years
since its founding, Darvin Furniture & Mattress encompasses 13 acres in Orland Park, making it Chicagoland's largest furniture and mattress store.
“Given the fact that the store was closed, advertising expenditures were at about 10 percent, so we primarily used video and digital to drive our business. Most of it was produced internally giving us an opportunity to go back to our roots, explore guerrilla marketing and drive business our way. We let our well-known 100-year-old brand shine through and had some fun from a marketing perspective. We also purchased a fair amount of TV advertising shot with our own cameras featuring me as the spokesperson with the help of some of Darvin’s salespeople."
Darvin’s Magic Sauce
“One interesting lesson we learned from the COVID-19 experience was the value of taking appointments. They’ve become a big part of Darvin’s sales culture. There were other interesting things that happened as well. Just about every department became more efficient. We had time to work on some very nice improvements and changes store-wide. Every successful retailer has its magic sauce. It’s something you can’t fake. An important ingredient in Darvin’s magic sauce is its wonderful merchandising team that worked throughout the pandemic to make store vignettes even more beautiful. And perhaps the most important ingredient are team members—the people who interact with customers—who look forward to coming to work every day and-thrive by embracing change and overcoming challenges. I think that’s really what drives the bus."
Furniture World asked Harris to comment on what retailers—especially family furniture businesses need to be thinking about right now.
“Companies like ours need to periodically redefine and reinterpret goals and core values to keep current with the changing needs of our customers and communities," Harris replied. "Many family-owned furniture retailers have had years to perfect their magic sauce, but multi-generational companies need to accept the fact that not everything they currently do is perfect.
“For continued success, historically successful behaviors and processes need to become better, more customer and team member focused. Leadership must be willing to change and be able explain the necessity for change to every member of the team.” Harris says communication is key. “Everyone who works at a furniture store should feel like they are an important part of the business. From a leadership perspective it is really important to let team members know where the company is, where you want it to go, what challenges they can expect, what team member roles and responsibilities are, how they will be evaluated, and to thank them for their participation. Don’t just tell them what their duties are. Instead explain your expectations for how they should perform those duties.” That gives individual team members an increased opportunity to become successful."
What Might Retailers Do
Many family-owned retailers have been struggling in this new business environment. Furniture World asked Harris if he had any advice: what should they do to get up to speed and thrive going forward?
Retailers often feel
like they should be in their stores selling furniture instead of attending conferences or networking events.
But in reality they
miss super-important opportunities to gather new ideas and meet suppliers who can help bring retail operations to the next level."
~ Will Harris
“That’s a big question,” observed Harris, “but my advice for managers in family businesses is first of all to make a mental choice not to become overwhelmed. Take a breath and make a list of the three most important areas that need attention. Address them individually, then put your attention on three more.
"The Darvin operation is in great shape, but this isn’t the case for some family-owned operations where so many important projects have been left undone.
Here at Darvin, we set goals for projects we expect to be completed, for example, in June, July and August. Specifying a time frame helps managers to plan their weeks and not let important projects drag on forever.
“Sometimes extra help needs to be brought in but what really helps from a leadership perspective is making time to network with other furniture retailers and the wider business community. Retailers often feel like they should be in their stores, selling furniture instead of attending conferences or networking events. But in reality they miss super-important opportunities to gather new ideas and meet suppliers who can help bring retail operations to the next level.
Another opportunity for any furniture retailer as the economy opens up further is to actively recruit. There are people out there who are available and can help build teams and companies. Now is the perfect time to build for the future.”
“Right now at Darvin we are seeing more families shopping together, which is nice. They are showing enthusiasm for their homes and making joint decisions. Whole families are coming out together as an adventure. We’re happy to receive them that way and hope it lasts. Darvin Furniture and Mattress is a compelling store, a place where people can have fun as well as make their purchases. It’s not your typical shopping experience. Our showroom galleries are nicely vignetted so shoppers can envision how they might want their homes to look.
“We work hard to match the right salesperson to each customer who comes in for an appointment. This seems like a rudimentary idea, but taking care to put the right shoppers and salesperson together for appointments makes shopping here a more enjoyable and a more professional experience. The process for doing this depends on how the appointment is made and is based on industry experience, getting to know the customer as well as salespeople. And, having team members who look forward to coming into work makes doing this possible.”
In 1960, Darvin Furniture moved to a 50,000 sq-ft showroom on Halsted Ave. in Chicago and David’s sons Steve and Marty begin working in the family business. Pictured above (left to right) is David Darvin with his sons Marty and Steve.
Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.