Huck Finn's Reels in Shoppers
Clint Engel -- Furniture Today, October 12, 2011
ALBANY, N.Y. - Most home furnishings retailers would gladly whitewash a fence in the heat of summer to get the kind of repeat business Jeff Sperber sees at Huck Finn's Warehouse here.
Flipping through a report on his desk, the president of the sprawling 250,000-square-foot home furnishings and general merchandise store offers up an example: A customer from Clifton Park, N.Y., about 20 miles from the store, was in May 18 and spent $3,400 primarily on bedroom furniture.
On March 25, that same customer had spent $148 on a rocking chair. And she was in Jan. 4 and bought two pieces of upholstery and a set of occasional tables for $1,188. She also bought additional "accessories" - which could range from housewares to hardware to books - that added another $28, $56 and $73 to her sales tickets.
"That's kind of the feeling you have here," said Sperber of these add-ons. "We got what we came for. Now let's go have some fun."
When Sperber's father, Edwin, opened Huckleberry Finn Pottery in 1963, it was a 2,500-square-foot shop, primarily selling housewares and located next door to the former Tom Sawyer Motor Inn in suburban Albany (thus the name).
Huckleberry Finn eventually grew into a housewares chain operating in more than 20 malls in four states. But those stores are history and the company now just has the one big campus here, billing itself as the largest retail home furnishings business in the area, offering bargains at every turn and new merchandise every day.
Huck Finn's down by the river - the Hudson River - sees more than 15,000 shoppers a week, said Jeff Sperber, who became president in 1987.
The atmosphere is laid back and comfortable, taking on a bit of the personality of Mark Twain's literary character. Also like Finn, the store is perceived as "always looking to wangle some kind of deal" for its customers, he said. This could be on anything from wallpaper to books to baby carriages, kitchen gadgets, furniture and accessories.
Goods in the main store are always sold at a 25% to 70% off the comparable price at other stores, the company says. (In three attached factory outlet stores, the discount is at least 20%, according to Sperber.)
He won't disclose sales figures for the company, but says it has seen double-digit increases every year since the move to its current location in 1995 - even in 2008-2009 when most furniture retailers would have been satisfied with flat results.
Furniture/Today estimates that Huck Finn's annual furniture, bedding and accessories sales exceed $30 million and that the retailer is approaching Top 100 status. The 2010 sales cutoff for making this year's list was $38.4 million.
Today's store is a far cry from the early days. Edwin Sperber didn't have money to spare for a big advertising campaign, so he named the shop Huckleberry Finn to create a literary link of sorts to the well-known Tom Sawyer Motor Inn.
The Sperbers were still housewares merchants when they got their first taste of the furniture business. In the early 1980s, at a Chicago housewares show, Jeff Sperber saw some unfinished furniture and decided a few hutches and tables would make good settings to display merchandise in Huckleberry Finn stores.
"All of a sudden my phone rings and it's someone at one of my stores saying a customer here is interested in buying the table," Sperber recalled. At first, he declined, but the calls kept coming.
"By the third day, I said the table was $199. The next thing you know we had prices on all the pieces."
He began adding pieces for sale until roughly half the store was unfinished furniture. That was Huck Finn's introduction to furniture, a category that today accounts for roughly 70% of its sales.
By the 1990s, the company was at a turning point in the housewares business.
"We were at a point where we were too big to be small and too small to be big," Sperber said. The company considered a more rapid expansion, possibly going nationwide with a partner, but he was hesitant, concerned about losing the entrepreneurial control and the spirit of the stores.
At about this same time, the retailer had a 40,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center in downtown Albany that served all the stores and had become a dumping ground for damaged, discontinued or returned items.
Sperber decided to try to get rid of the returns by holding a weekend warehouse sale. He had his doubts anyone would even find the building, which was off the beaten path. The morning of the sale, he remembered, he looked out his office window and didn't see a single car coming down the street. At 9:15 a.m., he saw just one car pulling in.
"By 10:30, we had to call in the Albany police to help," he said. "There were 500 cars coming down a street that hadn't seen five cars a day since the street was built.
"People cleaned us out of every single item we had," Sperber recalled. "We started pulling from our regular stock because we thought they were going to torch the place if we didn't give them something to buy."
On Monday his phone was ringing again with customers begging Huck Finn's to have another sale. So the retailer contacted its suppliers, saying: "You must have something in your warehouse that is old, discontinued or (not selling) for some reason, a packaging change or a finish you don't sell anymore, something you want to get rid of for a price."
"And everybody had something," Sperber said.
That's how Huck Finn's found its next and current business model.
Business at the mall stores was becoming difficult, as sales volume declined and rents went up. The success of the warehouse sale, meanwhile, was a bright spot and Sperber decided to see how far he could take it.
The company converted about 30,000 square feet in the downtown warehouse to a showroom and opened it five days a week, going by the name Huck Finn's Warehouse, differentiating it a bit from the Huckleberry Finn mall stores.
Sperber started going to trade shows looking for "opportunity buys." Huck Finn's was willing to pay up front. It didn't beat up sources for advertising dollars or freight allowances. It was a simple strategy, Sperber said: "Give us a good price. We'll pay you."
"We were able to come up with really good merchandise that we were able to sell for a legitimate 25% off original cost up to a maximum of 70% off what it ordinarily sold for (at retail)," he said.
Eventually, Sperber made his way to High Point, starting with ready-to-assemble furniture and then moving on to the more traditional suppliers of full-line, fully assembled goods.
Huck Finn's was still in business in the malls but by the early 1990s it was nowhere near as exciting for Sperber. Back then, the one warehouse store was doing about the same amount of sales volume as 22 mall stores combined and it was "way more profitable," he said.
Fortunately for Sperber, just as he was losing enthusiasm for malls, another housewares company - the former Lechters - was looking for a way in. Lechters ended up buying out Huck Finn's leases in about half of its mall stores. Another company acquired about eight other locations, and the rest of the malls stores were closed as their leases expired.
In 1995 Huck Finn's moved into its current larger digs - a 250,000-square-foot former Montgomery Ward distribution center and onetime paper mill - on Erie Boulevard. The retailer initially used only 90,000 square feet or so, but within three years the entire building was needed as selling space.
Sperber estimates that Huck Finn's receives 30 to 40 trailer loads of merchandise every week, so the store display is constantly changing, drawing customers back time and again.
Key furniture suppliers include brands such as Lane, Natuzzi, Winners Only, Klaussner, Sauder, Vaughan-Bassett, Lea and Sealy, Simmons, Spring Air, King Koil and Tempur-Pedic in bedding as well as all the top names in baby furniture. Huck Finn's also carries complete lines - not just special buys - from Bassett, Broyhill and Capel Rugs in attached factory outlet stores, which began with the Bassett outlet, which opened in 2000.
"Average consumers who consider themselves (loyal) to a furniture company shop once every two to three years or longer," Sperber said. "Our customer comes to us once every four to five weeks.
"A lot of them come just because they want to see what's new this week or because they know when its spring, we're going to have the outdoor furniture and barbecues tools and umbrellas and beach chairs. Or in winter there will be snow shovels and rock salt or other things they would use in this neck of the woods."
The store keeps consumers coming back in other ways, too - with an annual fence painting contest set up in the parking lot, for example, and visits from celebrities including figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, former New York Yankee Graig Nettles and the Harlem Globetrotters.
At 89, Sperber's father, Edwin, spends his winters in Florida, but when he is in town he comes to the store every day. It's often just for lunch, but the conversation always diverts to business.
"It used to be, ‘I've got an idea. You've got to do this,'" Jeff Sperber recalled. But in the past three years his father has softened his approach to suggestions and, "I know you probably know this, but here's my idea of the day."
"He's very lucid, has a very keen business mind and still has some pretty good ideas," the younger Sperber said.
And Jeff Sperber is always looking for ideas.