Artis Furniture will celebrate turning 90 this month with cake, ribbons, balloons—oh, and a new store.
It’s Monday at Artis Furniture, which means another day, another truck to unload. It’s Tuesday at Artis Furniture, which means another truck to unload and lighting issues to deal with. It’s Wednesday at Artis Furniture. The lighting problem is solved, but there’s still that new point-of-sale system to master. And that truck that just pulled in? It’s not going to unload itself, pal.
HFA member Artis Furniture is opening a new store. What used to be measured in months is now measured in days, and Beth Artis is a whirling bundle of energy bouncing between the family’s store in Urbandale, Iowa, and the new one, Studio 28, in downtown Des Moines. “There are days I think we’re going to make it and days I’m not so sure,” says Beth, only half joking between tasks. “Some days we cruise right along, the next day it’s like we’re in survival mode.”
Survival mode is not necessarily a bad thing given that’s how Beth has spent most of her life after college and look what’s she accomplished so far: A successful career in commercial design, starting her own business, helping her family’s store weather the recession and now, taking over as its fourth-generation leader of a Des Moines retail institution. “Our store has come a long way,” she says. “I think I have, too—and I’m loving every minute of it.”
These coming days just might test that love. Last year Beth was thinking of ways to celebrate her family furniture store’s 90th anniversary in and around Des Moines. She played around with the usual ribbons, balloons and banner-promoting sale and wanted to invite all the current and former salespeople, warehouse workers and designers to an anniversary party.
Then the phone rang and Beth’s plans grew from an anniversary party into a grand opening as well. The call was from the owner of The Mansion, another furniture store in town. After 13 years, he was closing the doors and wanted to know if Artis was interested in taking over his store’s lease on Ingersoll Avenue.
That’s all Beth needed to hear. Artis Furniture has operated out of several Des Moines-area locations over the years before landing on Ingersoll Avenue where it spent 50 years furnishing homes in central Iowa. When Ingersoll and its downtown neighborhood began to lose its luster with shoppers, Artis Furniture and other retailers fled for the suburbs, but the Artis family never forgot its Ingersoll roots.
Beth secured a lease on the building late last year, and what was once an anniversary sale is now doubling as a homecoming. Beth has the only logical explanation for so many acts—an anniversary, a blowout celebration and a store’s closing—conspiring all at once. “I’m convinced it’s a total God thing,” she says. “You will never be able to tell me otherwise. We’re very grateful.”
“So many things had to happen to bring us to where we are,” says Beth. “Now we need to get going.”
In a sense, Studio 28 might serve as a test tube, albeit a 3,200 square foot test tube, other furniture retailers might want to study. The family is setting up the new store with two shoppers in mind. On one side, Studio 28 will cater to its traditional central Iowan consumer who has never known the brand for anything but traditional furniture lines such as Stickley, Heckman, Lexington, and Borkholder. On the other side, Studio 28 will be going after Des Moines’ 20- and 30-somethings just starting out on their home furnishings journeys with lines like Younger, Noir, Resource Décor and Adesso Lighting.
Beth credits her father, Bill, Sr., with pursuing the younger demographic. “Dad has always been very forward looking with the business,” she says. “He knows our 20-year-olds are our regular customers in a few years, so we want to go after them early on in their buying journey.”
She’s convinced Studio 28 will win over Millennials through education and reaching them where they are in their lives, which is to say on the couch. Artis Furniture tries to educate them at every opportunity whether that’s through social networking, e-newsletters or when they walk through the front door, Beth says. The new website, revamped and loaded with new product every week, is geared more toward an e-commerce strategy rather than just a catalog of what the store carries.
Artis is already seeing dividends from this new strategy and new site. These days Beth estimates 15 percent of the company’s business comes from online sales. Most of that has been local, but increasingly Beth is seeing that share move beyond Des Moines to a more national audience. “A pleasant surprise for sure,” she says. “We want to be aggressive and educate people so that they don’t always have to think about Wayfair or Perigold. Sometimes—a lot of times—you can get just what you want for almost the same price online.”
The common thinking in retail furniture is that Millennials and quality furniture will get together the day oil and water mingle. Beth isn’t buying into that theory. “The misconception out there is that Artis or any other furniture retailer is too expensive to compete with online,” she says. “I think it’s just the opposite. I don’t think online has what it takes to compete with us.”
And here Beth shares the story about a man who came into the store looking to buy a sofa recently. Beth told him she could order it, but for $400 more than what Wayfair was selling it for. She had her work cut out for her, but she wasn’t deterred.
“I told him he could order the sofa online, but what if he didn’t like it?” she said. “I told him how hard it would be to return that sofa online as opposed to how we handle returns locally. I told him we’d deliver it to his house and set it up wherever he wanted, or he could buy from the online company and someone would drop the piece on his driveway and leave. I could have gone on and on, but he waved his hands and said, ‘You’re right, you’re right. It’s just not worth the hassle.’”
Beth made the sale.
That’s nothing new for Beth. She’s been successful at whatever she’s done since graduating with a commercial design degree out of Arizona State. She never wanted to be part of the family business. Her first job was with a food distribution company helping design the convenience stores that carried their products or, as she describes it, “making Snickers bars look better.”
Less than a year later the company went through a reorganization and Beth was out of a job, but not for long. She’d squirreled away $6,000 over the year and borrowed another $4,000 from her mom to start her own commercial design business, one that lasted 22 years until she finally decided to come home.
Looking back, Beth wishes she would have come home sooner. “I love it, I just absolutely love it,” she says about her new career. “I’m a natural-born people person and not just when it comes to our customers. I love working with our vendors and negotiating with them. I know some retailers look at them as adversaries, but really, we’re helping each other out.”
When the housing crisis hit a decade ago, Beth and the business moved to a smaller space in West Des Moines for two years before moving to Urbandale. Both moves kept the company moving forward. Beth is convinced this latest move back to its downtown roots will do the same.
“It’s going to be crazy getting everything up and running,” she says, “but I think in a few years we’re going to look back on this and say, ‘This was the best business decision we ever made.’ That’s what’s driving me. That’s what makes this all worth it.”
Studio 28 is scheduled to open this month.
What HFA Means to Me
“Belonging to and supporting an association that looks out for you just makes good business sense to me, but there’s more than just that. The benefits are amazing. The financing, insurance and networking easily pay for the membership. I’m going to Insights and can hardly wait to meet other retailers to share and learn from each other. What other association provides that to furniture retailers?”
Beth Artis, Artis Furniture, Urbandale, Iowa
Years in Business: 90
Store size: 4,500 sq. ft.
Furniture lines: Stickley, Heckman, Lexington, Borkholder, Younger, Noir, Resource Décor