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Retail Success: Couch Potatoes & Furniture Mall

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Design & Designer: Michelle Lamb Trend and design consultant Michelle Lam

DEEPER PURPOSE AT RETAIL

Couch Potatoes and The Furniture Mall

A n unlikely story of grit, faith, and a belief that there is nothing—people or furniture—that cannot be loved or repaired.

 

The story of Couch Potatoes is an inspiring study about the power of trust. Talented partners Brian Morgan, Dan Anthony and Travis Morgan built a unique retail and manufacturing operation based on faith in their abilities, faith in people and a belief that there is nothing—people or furniture—that cannot be loved or repaired.

A Unique Beginning

Before Brian Morgan co-founded Austin’s Couch Potatoes with his best friend Dan Anthony and brother Travis, and way before they partnered with Jeff and Jamie Winter from the Furniture Mall of Kansas, Brian and Travis were kids from a rough and gang-violent area of Austin, Texas.

People came in after hours to shop at our obscure, abandoned warehouse. We used flashlights and wore headlamps to show them around.

“My brother Travis and I had always been scrappy because we grew up in a rough part of town,” recalled Brian. “I think that became our superpower. We had nothing. We had to work hard and be creative.”

Brian got his formal education in business while studying to become a minister. “I landed a job working for a couple of salvage guys/liquidators who wanted to sell the salvaged stuff they bought online. They also hired my friend Dan who worked alongside me to run the internet portion of the business.

Most people make a baked potato by adding butter and maybe bacon bits. Dan, Travis and Brian (l-r above) are known for building the world’s largest potato with an added sofa (34x22 feet). A new wild and weird character will be added, joining the sofa for the Weirdest City in America (Austin, TX) to enjoy.


“That’s how we obtained behind-the-scenes knowledge of how big-box retailers bought, sold, moved and returned products in the early 2000s.

“By the time we were 20 years old we had sold over a million items on eBay and were known as the ‘eBay guys.’ We sold some unusual items including a ton of women’s plus-size lingerie. I laugh about that all the time because I was putting myself through Bible college selling women’s plus-size lingerie on eBay.”

Brian and Dan loved to identify niches and pick best-sellers. “We got in on the ground floor of e-commerce but I decided to return to my philosophical roots, left the business with Dan and went to India to work with orphans, then moved to New York City to join the Bowery Mission, the oldest Christian rescue mission in New York City serving homeless people. I also helped found The Lower Manhattan Community Church.

“The biggest thing I learned through that adventure was to never give up on people. And that’s the core value and mission of Austin’s Couch Potatoes.”

When family health issues took Brian back to Texas, Brian and Dan’s eBay business folded. They weighed their options. “We had experience buying and selling truckloads of scratch and dent groceries on eBay,” noted Brian. “So,” we thought, “how much work will it take to make four hundred bucks selling cans of peas versus selling a sofa? With that in mind,” he recalled, ”we opened an online Craigslist-only appointment-style furniture store in Austin.”

But when their first truckload of damaged furniture arrived, the partners wished that they had bought a truckload of peas. “The truck was packed to the gills,” said Brian. “After unloading, we felt like we were about to die. We had rented a 5,000-square-foot abandoned bathtub manufacturing facility on the outskirts of town for $400 a month. No power, electricity, heat or running water. We thought, ‘Perfect, let’s do it.’ Since we didn’t have the funds to rent an apartment we lived there as well.”

The partners learned how to fix all the broken furniture they purchased by watching YouTube videos. “We hired a leather repairman who coached us. We also advertised on Craigslist to bring in traffic. People came in after hours to shop at our obscure, abandoned warehouse. We used flashlights and wore headlamps to show them around. We told them, ’Here is the damage we tried to repair. Can you live with it? If not, find something else.’ Purchases were delivered in a 1985 Volvo hitched up to a trailer borrowed from a friend who used it during the day to move equipment for his gardening business.

“People always ask how we got our name. Our dad was a Vietnam vet, the son of a ranch hand. And when, as kids, we weren’t out working around the house on Saturdays, he would call us couch potatoes. It had become kind of a joke, so Travis and I put the name ‘Austin’s Couch Potatoes’ at the bottom of our Craigslist listing. The name stuck.

“By this time Dan had finished college and could not find a job in finance. Travis and I had started the business, but we felt that Dan would know how to make the business grow. He would be our secret sauce. Before Dan joined the company, if people needed a sofa and were short on cash, we might give it to them for free because that’s just the way we’re wired. He helped us build a business.”

In 2012, the trio moved the business into a 12,000-square-foot metal barn off a nearby highway. “The access road to the building wasn’t great, it didn’t have air-conditioning, but we were happy to have a toilet and electricity,” Brian recalled, “Just imagine selling furniture in 110-degree weather inside of a giant metal building.”

Pictured are happy guests sitting in a big green chair and on a tricycle (adult and kid sizes available) at the newest Furniture Mall Store. Beer and other beverages are offered to Couch Potatoes customers.


They had some bad luck in the first month doing business there due to a 70 percent drop in their supply of scratch and dent furniture. “Fortunately, a Coaster rep told us about this thing called a furniture market,” Brian recalled. “At that time, we had never heard of High Point or the Vegas market.” The trio couldn’t scrape together the funds to all go together so Travis was chosen to make the trip. “He didn’t know what to expect,” said Brian. “Imagine a surfer-looking dude with long hair and sandals strolling into the Las Vegas Market courtyard. Security pounced on Travis thinking he was a homeless guy. He did manage to tour the Ashley space with supervision. Luckily, an Ashley rep, Gay Hines, helped him out. She’s still one of our best friends. That’s how we started selling Ashley.

“As time passed, our Ashley reps loved us because we were selling so much. But we wondered why we were selling so much Ashley and had so little to show for it. It was David McMahon, the founder of PerformNow, who pointed out that furniture retailers can’t survive with margins in the low 30s.

“McMahon said, ‘you’re doing a really good job. People love the experience they have here. I don’t know why because it’s 110 degrees in your store. Nothing about what you’re doing makes sense. But it’s working. Your best seller is Ashley’s 452 sectional, selling for $699. Everybody else in town has it marked at $999 to $1299. What do you think about raising the price by $100 dollars?’ And I replied, ‘Are you kidding me, David? You’re going to kill our business.’ But his observation was the best advice I got that whole year. We learned that people are willing to pay for what they want.”

We still offer beer to every guest to break the ice,
as well as sodas, juice and wine. Instead of asking, ‘what are you looking for today?’ It’s ‘can I get you a drink?'

Staying Alive

In 2018, Austin recovered from the great recession. Samsung, Dell and Apple had moved into town, taxes increased, and five mom and pop furniture stores that had operated for generations closed their doors.

Store owners gave up because they were all doing the same thing—fighting over dollars, price shopping, competing with each other and doing private label. We realized that we had to do something to differentiate ourselves or we would become a statistic as well.

“Dan had been on a few factory tours, so after much thought, he decided to make the furniture we sold. He ordered a sewing machine and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He replied, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ Dan went home, took apart a sectional and learned how to build upholstery. He taught himself the basics of sewing and how to make frame templates from chipboard. Voilà, we were in the upholstery manufacturing business.”

At this point Couch Potatoes started looking for people who knew how to sew a straight line, source materials, make frames faster and design furniture. “We couldn’t find any seamstresses in this market. We had no idea how to get parts.”

“Then we met a guy at a sandwich shop who said he was from New Tazewell, Tennessee, and had worked at La-Z-Boy building furniture. He stayed on for a while and taught us how to build frames. Then we finally found a lady who could sew a straight line.

“You might think we were lucky to bump into skilled people when we needed them, but it’s my view that it was like God was saying, ‘Yeah. You’re supposed to do this.’

We wondered why we were selling so much Ashley and had so little to show for it. It was David McMahon, the founder of PerformNow, who pointed out that furniture retailers can’t survive with margins in the low 30s.

“We started to connect all the dots and scale-up. Our bank turned us down for a small loan. They looked at us like we had three eyes. So, we went to a another local bank, Southside Bank, who gave us the loan in 20 minutes over the phone. I urge all furniture retailers to develop strong relationships with local banks.

“We placed an order for a CNC machine we didn’t know how to use. Then took out another loan to purchase a $130,000 cutting table.

“Help wanted ads were placed to try to find someone who could run the equipment. We didn’t get any response for weeks. Then, the week we started to install this big, expensive equipment, we got a call from a woman who was looking for a job for her father who was at that time working for a company delivering beverages. It turns out he had been the lead sewer at Jonathan Louis. We love J.L. by the way. Amazing people!

We were in the middle of moving our factory and desperate for workers. Travis heard that it might be possible to hire workers who were recently released from a nearby prison. When he visited the facility, he found about 300 men and many women looking for work. That was the start of a beautiful relationship between Austin’s Couch Potatoes and The Austin Transitional Center.

“Luckily for us, inmates in the state can get certified to make upholstery.

“Brian posted job offers to help with the warehouse move. Prison officials wanted to make sure that we were comfortable hiring ex-offenders, so I took some time to watch other companies as they interviewed people at the Center. It didn’t take long to realize that people who were being interviewed for jobs were already defeated. Some employers couldn’t hire them because they were felons. They couldn’t find housing, they didn’t have ID, a bank account, transportation or a place to live. They were at risk to fall back into crime because no one would give them a chance to become law-abiding citizens. The odds were stacked against these people, in massive ways.”

Brian found that instilling trust at that interview table changed everything. “There’s no greater joy,” he said, “than seeing a man who’s been told he’s not good enough by his family, his state, and his employers turn things around. All we said was, ‘If you can show up on time and do the job, we will teach you, walk alongside you and mentor you.’ We hired a pretty rough gang, some with tattoos on their faces. There were felons of the worst kind, former drug addicts and repeat offenders.”

Brian explained to Furniture World that at Austin’s Couch Potatoes, they used to buy damaged furniture considered undesirable. “With a little bit of attention that furniture became beautiful again. Our passion changes lives. We just happen to sell furniture as well.”

A Transformative Experience

“The Furniture First buying group welcomed us in 2016. It was a transformative experience.

“It was there that we met the owners of The Furniture Mall of Kansas. They are engineers, thought leaders and our mentors. We were able to join a performance group with them and became great friends.”

Brian told Furniture World that a drawback of the Couch Potato model is that with a name like that, designers didn’t take them seriously.

“We thought that it would be good to develop a classier store, so we asked Jeff and Jaime Winter to partner with us to create a Furniture Mall of Texas store. Before they agreed, we took a leap of faith, found a suitable property. Finally, they agreed to do something crazy with rookies who didn’t know much about selling higher-end furniture and had never done anything by the book. We opened our first store in Texas together, The Furniture Mall of Texas, in March of 2021, during the pandemic. They sacrificed so much to open the store with us. I cannot imagine a better partnership. It’s been a great experience.”

Working with Customers

“Back in the early days of selling furniture out of our big metal barn, customer service was easy. It was, ‘what you see is what you get.’ When we started to migrate to better goods, offering fabric options and brands like Jonathan Louis and Southern Motion, we realized that we had to do a better job to be able to sell custom furniture in 120-degree weather. So, we investigated installing air conditioning in our rented building. It was $130,000 just for the AC, not including installation. And we just could not bite that off.

“We had to do something in that hot barn, so instead of the HVAC system, we set up a bar in the store (please don’t tell my mom). We noticed that when buyers go to the High Point and Vegas markets, their favorite spots are the spaces that have the best food and drink! So, we started offering customers a nice cold beer, knowing that they wouldn’t leave until they finished it—and it worked. Serving cold beer might sound tacky to some in the industry but it’s right for Couch Potatoes. We still offer local beer to every guest to break the ice, as well as sodas, juice and wine. Instead of asking ‘what are you looking for today?’ It’s ‘can I get you a drink?’ People are just caught off guard. It’s as if they are walking into our Couch Potatoes home as a guest. And, in Texas, because we offer it to everyone of legal age, customers don’t have to show an ID or license.”

Mask Initiative


When masks were scarce, the partners were summoned to meet with Homeland Security, part of an emergency task force. Couch Potatoes gave out over a million masks free of charge. Pictured above is Dan’s mask design created from polypropylene and rubber bands.

“At the start of the pandemic,” Brian continued, ”health professionals, as well as other folks in Texas had trouble getting masks and PPE. So, Travis, who has the biggest heart in the world suggested that we make some to give away.

“Dan, being Mr. Engineer took up Travis’ challenge. He found all the materials he needed in the factory except for elastic. So he used rubber bands to tie the masks on.

“We posted online to try to give them away. In just a few hours we had 50 requests. Dan did his nerd math and figured we could make 100,000 masks with materials we had on hand.”

“Since Austin’s Couch Potatoes stores were forced to shut down, we ran with a skeleton crew consisting of our management team and one or two people working online chat,” recalled Brian. We didn’t know if we could sell or deliver. Most of our people had been sent home. So, we called them to see if they wanted to volunteer.

“People we recently hired, who were just released from prison showed up to help their community. It was probably the greatest church service I’d ever attended in my life. They are heroes in my book.

“We sewed like crazy people. Then, we received a call from the Department of Homeland Security. The voice on the other end of the line said, ‘I need you to come to my office.’

“I immediately called my wife, Dan and Travis, to let them know that we were probably going to jail.


The Couch Potatoes website www.couchpotatoes.com touts its two dedicated locations in Austin and a third at their first Furniture Mall of Texas location. The stores feature a shop local message, no haggle pricing that’s fair, easy returns and a no pressure sales staff that’s “there to help you day or night.” Plans are under way to roll out stores nationally.

“When we arrived at the Homeland Security Office, we were ‘wanded’ by commandos and the doors locked behind us. We met with an emergency task force made up of medical professionals including the heads of EMS and hospitals in town.

“It’s a long story but we went from being a misfit gang of mask makers to supplying the entire city of Austin and 13 other counties with all their PPE. Our friends at Podium set us up with an account to enlist volunteers to register to be drivers. The Austin Stone Community Church and The Disaster Relief Network helped us coordinate nearly 250 volunteers to sew mask kits at home. We gave out over a million masks free of charge. The City of Austin bought PPE gowns from us, which kept all of our people employed.”

Whatever It Takes

Couch Potatoes has an everyday lowest prices model. “We don’t care if it’s Black Friday or President’s Day, it’s the same price. This policy came about because we got tired of changing tags. We then found out that it made life so much easier because we didn’t have to play the price game with customers. And, you know what? Our margins landed where we needed them to be, and our customers appreciated the honesty.

“I can tell you story after story about people who have fallen in love with us because of the way we do business. We do whatever it takes to make customers feel happy and become part of our family. We do what we can to help, for example, giving away furniture to folks who’ve had challenges or experienced disasters.

“It’s a culture of giving back company-wide. Every month, we give a paid company day of service so our people have an opportunity to be agents of good and model that behavior to their families. “We now measure and set goals for giving as business metrics. How many lives have we impacted this year? Can we impact 50,000 lives in a positive way this quarter?”

The Future

Brian, Dan and Travis plan to roll out the Couch Potatoes brand nationwide. Brian told Furniture World, “we will open more Furniture Mall stores in Texas and throughout the country with our partners at Furniture Mall of Kansas.”

“The Winter family focuses on three things. Happy family, happy guests and happy business, in that order. The idea is that if your people know that you love them, appreciate them and serve them, they will be happy and your business will be healthy.

“We refer to Furniture Mall of Texas’ customers as happy guests and work to provide over-the-top service. As in the Winters’ Furniture Mall of Kansas store, homemade cookies and custard are served. Tricycles are available for customers to ride around in the store. It’s our belief that if our industry wants people to come into the brick-and-mortar stores, the experience has to be lively and exciting. And nobody does that better than Jeff Winter, Jamie Winter and family. It’s just crazy, fun.”

The five partners at the Furniture Mall of Texas Grand Opening in 2021 (Dan Anthony, Travis Morgan, Jeff Winter, Jamie Winter and Brian Morgan) all sitting on the signature scooters customers use to ride around the store.



Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.