A family-run chain that's still growing

Small beginnings: Once an appliance repair shop, Gardiners is about to open its fourth furniture store.


April 13, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Shoppers who ventured into Gardiners in Baltimore during World War II could have had toasters or washing machines fixed but would have found no sofas for sale.

The wartime repair shop on Polk Street in Northeast Baltimore rode the postwar boom and began selling new appliances, before evolving into a furniture showroom in the 1960s. While others have shut their doors, Gardiners Furniture has grown into the state's largest independent furniture dealer.

Now with stores in Towson, Westminster and Catonsville, the family-run business will open its fourth location in mid-May in Bel Air, in the former Bibelot books and music store in a center behind Harford Mall. Within two years, Gardiners hopes to open in Glen Burnie as well.

"It's a very hard business to be successful in," said Greg Mullaney, president of Gardiners. "We knew you had to grow or be swept aside."

Mullaney has seen plenty of evidence of that in 30 years with a company that his uncle, George Gardiner, founded in 1942. Mullaney now runs the stores with his brother and vice president, Gary Mullaney, and a controller, Bob Iwanowski.

Over the years, family names like Shaivitz, Fradkin Brothers and Levenson & Klein have disappeared from Baltimore's furniture retail landscape. In 1994, four independent Thomasville Home Furnishings stores in Maryland abruptly closed their doors. More recently, Royal Furniture Co. Inc., and Stafford Bros., a family operation that started in 1900, closed for good.

Even big, national companies have struggled against competition and changing consumer tastes. Levitz Furniture Inc. said late last year that it will pull out of Maryland and seven other states, closing 27 stores in a bid to return to profitability. The nation's second-largest home furnishings retailer has operated under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since September 1997.

It's no wonder many have struggled, as furniture retailing has become increasingly cutthroat, analysts say. Today's consumers expect stores to look like a Pottery Barn catalog. Or they seek out deals a click away on the Internet.

"We've seen a lot of decline in the furniture business these past 10 years because of a lack of awareness that change was necessary to keep the consumer entertained," said J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group, a Seattle-based retail consulting firm that specializes in furniture retailing.

Some thrive

"The strong have gotten stronger, separating those that were going to make a step into the '90s, and those that had formats that were old and dated and the consumer passed over," Owens said.

But many longtime, family-run regional retailers have thrived, she said. Many have been in the same location for years and keep overhead low by owning their buildings or paying below-market rents. Family-run stores also tend to be good at establishing loyalty among employees, which helps customer relations, she said. Loyal customers play no small part, either.

"They have to have enough people in the area who've always shopped there, whose family has shopped there," Owens said.

For Gardiners, expansion came slowly but steadily. Gardiners converted from appliance to furniture dealer in 1964 and opened its first furniture store on Joppa Road in Towson, where it stands today. Gardiners moved into the Westminster market in 1989, acquiring Towne and Country Furniture's inventory and space when the retailer went out of business. A third opportunity came along in 1992, when Shaivitz Furniture closed its last store on U.S. 40 and Gardiners took over the lease.

Several moves have contributed to the chain's ability to boost sales each year, to $23 million in 1998. Mullaney said he continually pours profits back into the stores to increase inventory.

Last year, he switched to noncommissioned sales, which he believes has improved customer service. He tries to stock everything displayed on the selling floor for immediate delivery. He tries to update the showroom with the latest fashions, with input from a relatively young staff -- the average age is about 34. And for years, he has run the business based on a team concept.

Price not everything

"We try to make everyone feel like they're on the same team," he said. "We try to take care of a problem when we see a problem."

By developing solid relationships with factories to get good deals on large volumes, Gardiner stores have remained competitive, keeping prices down even when competitors have left the market, Mullaney said.

Price is key, but it's not everything, Owens said. Furniture stores of the future will have to become more like Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel and diversify, supplementing big-ticket items that shoppers buy less frequently with clocks, pillows, frames, end tables, mirrors, lamps and framed art, she said.

Gardiners is considering selling alternative products, such as antiques. Already, the chain features a Thomas Kincaid gallery of paintings and solid wood furniture.

Remaining agile enough to change with the times, such as by introducing such "lifestyle" items, will be crucial to survival of regional dealers like Gardiners, Owens said.

"Then you'll see the frequency of visits go up -- and the average size of the transaction," she said.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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