Small-town store, big-name reputation – HFA Member Profile: Charlene Firth

Firth

March 2017—

The residents of Altus, Okla., expect big-city service from their retailers. Every day Charlene Firth and H&H Furniture deliver.

Some people are born into the home furnishings business. Some find their way in through marriage. Still others start out at the bottom and slowly work their way up to signing the checks. Then there’s Charlene Firth’s story. It’s more of a journey, she’ll tell you, than a story. It’s a journey that leaves even Firth herself scratching her head trying to figure out how her small finance company in Altus, Okla., transformed into a body shop, insurance agency, used furniture store and, lately these past 33 years, H&H Furniture.

“There’s a lot of history here, some fond, some not so fond,” says Firth with a laugh. “But where we are right now with the furniture? It’s a good place to be and I’m happy.”

Firth never imagined she’d be running a furniture store when she first went to work for Altus Finance, an independent financing company that lent money to farmers from the southwest corner of the state and military families from nearby Altus Air Force Base. But over the years, Firth learned a valuable business lesson she still believes firmly in today: If you’re not looking for ways to move forward, you’re either stuck or moving backwards.

“Neither one of those is a good way to run a business,” says Firth, whose sassy wit and southern charm are on display the moment a visitor walks into her store, which had a previous life as an old Ford dealership.

“We try to keep thinking and moving forward with what we offer our customers whether that’s in terms of value, customer service or delivery. Anything that has to do with our customers and their experience in the store is important to us so we’re constantly focused on changing for the better when that’s needed.”

Change, it seems, is the only constant where Firth is concerned. She started as an employee at Altus Finance in 1959. As the company grew, the owner of the business decided to branch out. Over the years, the business used its profits to open an auto body repair shop in the building and later sold insurance and used furniture. Firth liked the large margins that came with selling used furniture, but the labor that went into finding pieces, cleaning them up and selling made store officials think about yet another iteration to the company: new furniture.

Firth eventually bought the business in 1990.

H&H Furniture started selling new furniture in 1984 and has been growing ever since. Early on, Firth says furniture sales accounted for about 25 percent of her company’s profits with the finance company accounting for the rest. These days, furniture sales make up half of her business and continue to grow.

That’s an even more impressive feat when you factor in the demographics of Altus, whose population (19,501) has dropped by about 10 percent the last 20 years as younger residents graduate from high school and head to larger cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City after college.

“It’s a reality we have to live with here that we don’t have the jobs for our children to come back to,” she says. “They’ve got college degrees and they want degree-paying jobs. I completely understand that. It just makes my job a little harder here.”

Firth draws most of her customers from three demographic groups that populate this area: farmers, the immigrant workers who tend to the farmers’ fields and livestock, and military families just arriving to Altus Air Force base.

“It can be a little tricky buying for each because they usually have very different tastes,” she says. The farming community leans to more traditional, American-made furniture, while immigrants want something with a little flair while remaining cost conscious. Firth says military families—many of whom arrive from overseas for a stint at the Air Force base—are young and drawn to the streamlined look offered by contemporary pieces.

“They keep me on my toes at market because there’s such a huge difference in taste and buying habits,” says Firth. “I’ve always got those three groups in mind when I’m buying.”

Like many retail rookies, Firth made the usual mistakes when she first started selling furniture. The most common being buying what she liked and not what her customers wanted. “That’s a real expensive mistake to make. I guess you have to go through it and be stuck with a lot of (inventory) to learn your lesson,” says Firth. “I’m a lot smarter now. A little poorer, but a lot smarter.”

Some of the lines H&H carries are Ashley, Lacrosse, Riverside, Crown Mark, AFD Home and Crestview, but, as Firth is quick to point out, “I’m never afraid to add a line if I think we need to mix things up.”

Selling furniture in a small farming community has its own set of unique challenges. When customers buy a bedroom or living room group from Firth, she knows there’s a good chance she won’t see them again for another 10 years. “When our customers come in to buy a living room suite or a bedroom suite, as a rule they’re going to take care of it so they want something that’s going to hold up for a long time,” she says.

“They’re looking for value and quality. If that tractor of theirs breaks down, they’re going to replace it or have it fixed because that tractor makes them money. That tractor puts food on the table. We know we’re not as important as that tractor, but we’re needed in a different way. We’re trying to provide them with an experience they won’t forget so they’ll tell their friends about us. That’s how we’ve stayed around so long. We’re a small community. Our customers are our neighbors. If we treat them right, they’ll tell others about us. Of course, that works both ways. If we don’t treat them the way they deserve, word gets around on that, too.”

That type of referral service works well with the town’s permanent residents, but Firth has to work hard to pull in the military families arriving at Altus Air Force Base who have never heard of H&H before.

The store is part of a Chamber of Commerce group called the Committee of 100, which serves the men and women of Altus Air Force Base. Firth says the group is designed to give back to the service members by hosting quarterly events and welcoming newcomers to the area. Every three months the Committee of 100 holds some sort of function such as a reception, dinner or picnic.

“It lets (military families) know just how much we appreciate them, and it also puts the store in front of them,” says Firth. “A lot of families coming to the base are coming with only a few belongings and very little furniture. We want them to know as much about us as possible.”

Firth finds that military families, unlike many in her community, are walking into her store having already done their homework online. “They know what they want and what we have and so we better be ready to answer their questions,” she says.

Firth turned to Ashley, one of her biggest manufacturers, to beef up her store’s website. “There’s a lot more to see and do on the site,” she says. “I’m really excited about it and the direction we’re going.”

And, as Firth said, there’s only one direction for H&H Furniture: forward.

What HFA Means to Me

I like being part of an organization that has my business interests at heart. I already handle a lot of financing, but the association really opened a lot of doors in that area. I was not aware I could sell my paper to other institutions, but now that’s a big part of my business. It’s really helped with my cash flow.

Charlene Firth,
H & H Furniture, Altus, Oklahoma

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