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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Power list interview: Furnitureland South CEO and co-owner Jeff Harris speaks with Nido Qubein

Jeff Harris joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with some of the state’s most influential
leaders. Interview videos are available at www.businessnc.com.

Jeff Harris is CEO and co-owner of Furnitureland South, the nation’s biggest single-location furniture store. Furnitureland South has about 600 employees, including 160 consultants who advise customers on how to buy furniture that fits their particular needs and homes. He earned a marketing degree and played baseball at High Point University. He and his wife, Stacey, have three children. Harris and his brother, Jason, also own The Design Network streaming service.

This story includes excerpts from Harris’ interview and was lightly edited for clarity.

Give us a capsule view of
Furnitureland South.
It is a 54-year old business.  I am second generation. Our daughter is now third generation.  We’re the largest furniture store in the world and we are
located in the furniture capital of the world. High Point. We have 1.3 million square feet of display space and showrooms at one location. That’s the world’s largest.
Customers come from all over because you offer tremendous choice and better pricing, right?

Absolutely. North Carolina has long been known as a place to get great prices on furniture. There’s so much manufacturing that has taken place in our great state of North Carolina, and over time, retail spawned out of that. Our cost of materials and labor was lower, so we were able to offer tremendous pricing to consumers that would travel here. Probably 65% of our business comes from consumers who reside outside of North Carolina.
How do you strike relationships with furniture makers? How does
the system work?

We represent over a thousand brands of furniture, accessories, rugs and lighting that are made all over the world. The High Point Furniture Market is the largest trade show in the industry and it’s held every April and October. It’s buyers and sellers, interior designers. The people that are in the business. It’s not open to the public. When our parents started the business, one of their goals was to bring this incredible market that’s not open to the consumers. That’s one of the reasons that we built the buildings as big as we have so that it allows for this broad array of furniture categories: different brands, products, styles and price points. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get solicited for a new brand or product.
 Tell us about the decision to expand to your current location?

Back in the late 80s, we built the same time they were building the new Interstate 85 My father was accused of being a bit crazy because they thought the traffic would dry up.  Now, it’s the only stoplight between Atlanta and Washington, DC, right where our store is.  I was in high school when this happened. This was a decision that my father made at the time, and he really took a little bit of a risk because at the time we were on Main Street in High Point with about 8 or 10 of our competition.

But my father saw these manufacturers were putting restrictions where you could not
have access to their brand unless they had dedicated space to display a certain amount
of their product. Our location was nowhere near big enough. Now, we have close to
100 acres and we’ve built not only our showrooms there, but we’ve built our distribution center. our warehouse.

You have a Starbucks and a Subway. What about a hotel?

We thought about that. We are actually neighbors with Grandover Resort, which is a wonderful thing for our people.

Why has Furnitureland South remained successful when so many competitors have disappeared?

We are very blessed. We stay very close to our clients, and we want to know how they want to shop for furniture. Filling your home with furniture is not an easy process. So we continue to invest with our consumers to ask them how they want to shop for furniture? We invest in our people. We care about them. We want them included in the decisions.

Have you quantified your economic impact on the Piedmont Triad?

We have not, but it has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year just based on the business that we do, and the amount of people that come to the area. 

How are you different from Wayfair or Amazon? You don’t
do e-commerce, correct?  

No, we don’t. My first response is, we have the good stuff at Furnitureland South. We have the very best that this industry has to offer. 

We carry the very best brands in the industry — that a lot of these brands don’t even do consumer advertising or marketing directly to consumers. There’s an education that has to take place for people to really understand what quality furniture really is.

We have tried to sell high-end goods online and, to my knowledge, there’s not many furniture retailers that have been successful in doing that. So, we really try to use our website for information, for inspiration, and connect-ability. We want to connect them with a professional. You need someone that can listen to the style you want, the function that you want for your room.  

How do you connect customers to your 160 designers?

We create video bios for our design consultants, so you choose who you want to help you with this process. We have a 90-second video bio that tells about their personal style. We really encourage you to select that person before you just show up in North Carolina. 

I hear that young couples don’t want furniture that lasts 25 years. They’re interested in speed, price, convenience, and quick delivery. Is that right?

There are cycles of the consumer shopping experience. You see a lot of marketing with people like “Rooms to Go” and “Ashley.” I think once they go through that process, they see, hey it may not last 25 years, but some of this doesn’t last a year. So then they’re out there again. You know, they’re not inexpensive.  Although they’re not the greatest quality, they’re not inexpensive. And so we have a lot of people that find us, and they’re wanting better quality goods. But we talk about this a lot, and we continue to have an entryway for people to shop with our brands.

What is the profile of your customers? Surely you don’t promote to 350 million Americans.

We’d love to be able to have a budget to do that.  I like to tell people we’re the best kept secret in the industry.  People don’t really know that we exist because, even though we are the largest furniture store right here in the furniture capital, people want something that’s convenient. So we do try to reach people within a 200-mile radius of the store. They can drive up for a weekend.

Our sweet spot is the East Coast. Now, we do business west of the Mississippi, but the bulk of our business is done here on the East Coast.

Why didn’t you expand with a Furnitureland West?

We’ve had these discussions for decades. We had a prototype Furnitureland design center that we were going to locate in Charlotte that would be our first parlay into a new market.  But then the pandemic hit, so we pulled back. Business exploded over the two years during the pandemic. Who could have seen that coming? So we put those plans kind of on the shelf for now.  

One thing that we know happens when you expand is you spend a lot of money. You’re taking big risks.

Tell us about The Design Network.

My brother Jason and I own the network. It’s almost 10 years old. You can find it on Roku on Apple TV, and Samsung, Vizio. We’re streaming millions of hours per month all over the world right now, and it’s pretty incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish. Now, Jason runs that business. It’s a completely separate business that sells advertising. We don’t
sell furniture through the network. We’ve built an incredible network of home enthusiasts and designers. 

What is most challenging in the furniture business now?  

The biggest challenge is what is this new normal that everybody talks about? We’ve had to go out and lease additional warehouses just to handle the volume that we grew over 2021 and 2022. Being able to right-size your business to handle that growth continues to be a challenge. We’re really blessed in the fact that people are really moving to the Southeast and when they do, they’re able to buy more home for less money, and they’re wanting to start over with the furniture.

Do other retail stores like you, or hate you?

Hate’s a very strong word. We have earned a lot of respect in our industry, and I’m able to participate with a lot of other leaders in this industry. There’s mutual respect. At the end of the day, we have to do a better job of educating the consumers on the value that the whole industry can bring them.  

What’s ahead for the furniture sector?

I think the industry’s going to be pretty good for the next couple of years. I don’t have
a crystal ball. But we can control the level of service and the connection that we make
with our consumers. We have products that everybody needs. When times get tough, we work harder.

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