Comfy Couch Aims for Fun
Clint Engel -- Furniture Today, July 22, 2011
COLUMBUS, Ohio - David Thompson, former leader of retailer American Signature here, has returned to the home furnishings arena with a new format living room specialty store.
Last year, Thompson opened his first 34,000- square-foot Comfy Couch Co. store in a Columbus shopping center on Morse Road that he purchased for an undisclosed amount. The focus is primarily on midpriced to upper-end U.S. upholstery brands - promoting the idea of lean operations, including low overhead, as a way to save customers money.
Through Comfy Couch, Thompson is taking advantage of his longtime industry connections and experiences. But he also is forging a new path with a format he plans to perfect before eventually rolling it out as a licensed store or franchise concept.
After 40 years with the promotional to midpriced American Signature, formerly Value City Furniture, Thompson left the Top 100 company in July 2009 only to realize he wasn't the retiring type.
"I'm just a type A person and it wasn't in my DNA to sit around the house with the most important decision to make being what would be my tee time the next day or dinner reservations," he said.
Thompson said he received offers from Top 100 retailers and manufacturers, but had a non-compete clause to consider and said the "corporate world just wasn't exciting to me at the time."
At American Signature, Thompson had been a pioneer in importing and private label branding, making trips to Taiwan and China in the 1980s and 1990s. He understood the complications that go along with imports, from tracking containers to quality issues to product flow and infrastructure support.
In February 2010, he took a first step easing back into the industry when he went to the Tupelo Furniture Market just to walk the halls and talk to people he knew. He heard all about the tough times in the industry, and he knew many companies were having difficulty flowing containers now that business had slowed dramatically.
"And I knew, going to market and understanding some of the great manufacturers in this country, that it would be very appealing to the public and very competitive in the marketplace to eliminate all those complications associated with importing and utilize the great manufacturing base that's here in America," he said.
While the non-compete clause with American Signature tied his hands in some ways, it did allow Thompson to start his own business from the ground up.
Soon after returning to Columbus, he acquired a rundown and mostly vacant shopping center - which he said others saw as an eyesore but he saw as an opportunity.
He remodeled the property, attended the April High Point Market to select product, and opened Comfy Couch Co. in about half the center's space in September. The 34,000- square-foot footprint includes about 8,000 square feet of racked warehouse space.
The store offers a middle- to upper-middle-priced assortment with sofa and loveseat combinations ranging from about $799 to $1,999. Signage, such as "Here today, Home tonight," plays up the store's ability to deliver quickly.
Most goods also can be custom ordered, with prices starting at about $599 for a fabric sofa and topping out at about $2,000 for leather. The bulk comes from American manufacturers, shipping within 30 days of an order.
Key suppliers include Klaussner, Hillcraft, Palliser, Lazar, Albany, Comfort Design, Franklin, Jonathan Louis and Washington. The store also carries Natuzzi leather upholstery and is adding Bernhardt at the top of its line as well as an Ekornes Stressless chair gallery.
Thompson wouldn't disclose sales or projections, but said business has been good since the opening, even though he intentionally limited marketing while he worked to understand the scope of the consumer base the store appeals to.
"We plan on really opening it up (with marketing) this fall," he said, adding that Comfy Couch has identified its core customer as one shopping for moderate to high-end goods.
The company has started limited television and radio commercials, and plans to use more direct mail and newspaper advertising as well as enhancing its online presence - despite an economy that's still difficult, Thompson said.
"We just believe it's a great opportunity to start a company with a freshness, (with an approach) that eliminates a significant amount of the overhead and capitalizes on the very best manufacturers in the U.S. with lean manufacturing and quick shipping and cost controls," Thompson said.
He added that the retailer's attention to value while carefully controlling costs, and its narrow focus on what Thompson called family room furniture, separates Comfy Couch from small independents as well as the industry's biggest players and their large distribution centers.
"If you look at some of the marketplaces and the extraordinary markups some retailers are working on these days, it just doesn't make any sense. I really don't believe that it is necessary and if it continues the way it has been going, the percent of (consumer disposable dollars) going to furniture is going to continue to decrease.
"It got to the point where there was too much markup for the consumer to consider it a great value, and there's no fun in buying. The buying experience is just excruciating."
Comfy Couch is aiming for a more pleasant buying experience with touches such as home theater set-ups and programs running on about 16 big-screen TVs throughout the store. It's also simplifying the shopping process for consumers by not charging extra for special orders, for instance, and editing the assortment so that it's manageable.
"Furniture can be boring and confusing," Thompson said. Comfy Couch "is fun and it's not so boring."
This first store is a test lab, where Thompson said he is refining the concept. The next step will be to open more stores in Columbus - with plan for the second within 12 months.
Simultaneously, Comfy Couch will be building a financial track record and honing its marketing and other materials, procedures and systems needed to eventually offer the concept to others as a franchise or licensed store. Thompson hasn't decided which route to go yet, but he said he leans toward licensed stores and expects to be in a position to market them within the next year and a half to two years.
He said it's too early to discuss terms of the retailer agreements, but said he understands that "profit needs to be at the store level." He said the deals won't include exorbitant costs, but rather will follow the lean operating plan he is building at the corporate level.
"The cost that would be paid by a licensee ... would be much less than it would cost an individual retailer to create and maintain themselves," he said.
"Branding and marketing, support of a website and supply chain take a lot of money to support," Thompson added. "That's why so many independents have gone out of business. We'll leverage that cost over many stores."
This red power motion sectional, retailing for $1,699 and covered in a high-grade, leather-like material, is part of Comfy Couch Co.’s U.S.-made private label lineup.
A Klaussner sectional gets prime play in the new Comfy Couch store. Klaussner and other domestic producers are promoted as quality U.S. made brands that will save customers money.
The first 34,000-square-foot Comfy Couch Co. opened last year on Morse Road in Columbus, Ohio. Founder and President David Thompson plans to open more in the market and eventually roll out the format across the country as a licensed or franchised store.
Comfy Couch Co. highlights a Jonathan Louis sectional made in California. In the background is part of the Columbus, Ohio-based retailer’s accessory and television display.
Signage in the store plays up the Comfy Couch’s emphasis on speedy delivery and a shopper-friendly environment.
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