Steve Kidder is always on the move and has no intention of slowing down
It is snowing in Vermont and Steve Kidder is sitting in his office, which looks a lot like a Ford F150 pickup truck, ready to start his day. It’s barely 9 a.m. and already Kidder has had two meetings over the phone. Sitting behind a wheel and not a mahogany desk makes life a lot easier when your four stores are constantly vying for your attention.
The truck is parked, but Kidder is talking 55 mph.
“I’ve got another call I have to make this morning and then I’m headed to Burlington where I‘ll probably have a few more meetings and calls to make before lunch,” he says. “Just another day at the office I guess.”
In Steve Kidder’s world, there are no speed bumps or yellow caution lights—not even deep breaths to slow him down. A writer wonders if running so many stores can get a little crazy at time.
“Crazy?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “Have you seen my hairline lately? Sure there are times life would be a lot easier for me if there were two of me, but that’s not happening anytime soon. And I’ll tell you this: as crazy as it gets with work it’s what I love. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. One reason I like it so much is because of the pace. Work brings me a lot of pleasure no matter how busy or hectic it gets. Can other people say that about their work? I hope so because I’m having a lot of fun.”
And with that, Kidder and his office are rolling down the road.
Of course, it’s easy to have fun when your stores are performing as well as (take a deep breath) Kidder’s SuperStore and Ashley HomeStore in Williston, his Total Home Store in St. Albans and Novello Furniture, which Kidder recently bought and hopes to convert to an Ashley store next month. Part of that success can be traced back to the service and dependability that Kidder’s stores have offered its customer for more than four decades now. But another secret to Kidder’s success is the not so insignificant fact that he and his staff know just what Vermonters want. Here, it should be noted, we’re not talking product.
Vermont is one of the nation’s most progressive states. Its residents embrace renewable energy and all shades of green. It was the nation’s first state to approve same-sex civil unions 17 years ago and recognized same-sex marriages in 2009. But as progressive as they are with social issues, Vermonters tend to be wary of big business.
Two decades ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state on its list of endangered sites, citing big-box developments as a threat to Vermont’s signature greenness. The state, with its famously strict land-use laws, held onto its retail virginity until 1995 when Wal-Mart finally opened a store there—the last state to hold off the retail giant.
“It might be slowly changing, but for the most part there’s still an anti-big box sentiment in this state,” says Kidder. “We’re a state of small towns and villages and we like that. I think people like that in their businesses, too.”
Kidder and his staff know this well. When shoppers enter his stores it’s as though they’re dropping by to meet old friends. No, really. One of Kidder’s employees has been working for him for 35 years. The manager of Kidder’s SuperStore has been there since 1990. His warehouse manager has been a part of the company for more than three decades. “People walk in and they’re walking into a place that’s familiar to them,” he says. “The stores might seem big, but they don’t have that big-box feel to them. That’s the way we like it.”
In keeping with Vermont’s belief that bigger is not always better, Kidder said it’s been a purposeful strategy that each store grow its own individual brand. Every time Kidder talks about incorporating a singular brand for all four stores, it never goes any further than just talk. “Each of these stores has developed into its own store over the years,” he says. “They’ve created their own brand that our customers are happy with. I’m happy with that, too. I don’t see a reason to change right now.”
That doesn’t mean Kidder, the incoming president of the Home Furnishings Association, has sat back and not progressed with the times. Kidder is a strong believer that HFA members—all furniture store retailers, really—need to adapt to the rapid changes washing over the industry or be left behind. Nowhere is this more urgent than with technology, he says.
Kidder is a fan of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote in his book, The World is Flat, that all information is now available to everyone. “We need to recognize that everyone has access to the power of information,” Kidder says. “We see that every day in our stores. Ninety percent of the people who walk in have already gone online and done their research. Heck, there are customers who come into our stores knowing more about the product than our sales staff.
“The work environment used to be customer driven from the top down, but now it’s completely the other way around,” he says. “If you’re not prepared you’re in trouble.”
Kidder likes to tell the story of technology and how that customer-driven ethos was on display when a customer recently called his Ashley Home Store in St. Albans after finding the sofa she wanted on Ashley’s website.
“There was only one problem,” recalls Kidder. “We didn’t know if we had the sofa and she wasn’t going to buy it unless we could deliver it that day.”
It was a Saturday morning. The store manager went to work. He checked his inventory and got lucky by finding the exact sofa in the warehouse. Because it was a Saturday the store’s trucks were out making deliveries. The manager checked his company’s DispatchTrack software to find a truck that was nearby and would soon be available to return to the store. By 4 p.m., the sofa was in the customer’s living room.
“Was it a big sale? Probably not,” Kidder says. “But that’s how we need to respond as retailers today. The old days of being in control are gone. When the customer says ‘Here’s what I need and when I need it’, you better be able to make it happen or they’ll find someone else who can.”
Kidder’s stores sell at a variety of price points. His SuperStore carries La-Z-Boy, Palliser, England, Ashley, Vaughan Bassett. He tried his hand at higher-end furniture with a store that did well until a local IBM branch closed in 1994 and hundreds of high-paying jobs fled the state. He closed the store a year later, but not without learning a valuable lesson. “What you want is not important,” he says. “You have to give people what they want.”
Kidder and his wife Marian live on a 45-acre farm. A few years ago he bought a 48,000-pound excavator in hopes of one day carving out a nice pond on his property. He will be 65 in March, a time in one’s life when you think about slowing down and enjoying retirement sitting next to a pond perhaps.
All of this seems foreign to Kidder, who enjoys his fast and furious life. “So many people yearn for retirement and then when they get there they find out it’s not all they thought it would be,” he says. “I’m not ready yet. Why should I quit doing what I’m doing just because I’ve reached a certain age? The truth is I take what I do very serious because it’s my livelihood. But I don’t take it that serious. The truth also is that I have fun every day. I’m not about to give that up.”
What HFA Means to Me
“The biggest benefit to the HFA is meeting people who might do things different than you and sometimes better. The association is filled with highly intelligent people willing to help you. I know this because I’ve helped others and so many others have helped me. I’m convinced any member who invests a small amount of time in talking with other members and getting their advice can add 2 or 3 points to their bottom line.”
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