When Virginia Furniture Market’s Susan Childs came up with the idea of partnering with a local university in a home furnishings design contest, she envisioned two benefits: the first would give her eight-store chain in southwest and central Virginia some much-needed publicity. The second would give the students some much-needed, real-world experience.
Turns out there’s a bonus third benefit: The Virginia Furniture Market Design Challenge is shaping up to be a pipeline for the company to find knowledgeable, passionate workers in the home furnishings industry.
“It’s been a pleasant byproduct of everything,” says Childs. “We’ve uncovered some very talented designers and they’ve learned a lot about the furniture retail business. It’s really been a win-win situation.
For the challenge, students work in teams for four weeks to design conceptual sketches and a rendered floor plan for a room. To help promote VFM and its product, teams are required to incorporate furniture pieces from VFM stores.
Last month, Liberty students Evelyn Toderic, Maribeth Harrington, Rebecca Orth, and Alyssa Cirillo took home the top prize of $2,500 for the 2018 challenge.
One design winner from last year, Sadie Abramowicz, so impressed VFM officials the company offered her a summer internship. Last month the store made it official, hiring Abramowicz to merchandize its eight stores.
“She has a wonderful eye,” says Childs. “Sadie puts room groups together in a beautiful way. The stores look so much fresher.”
Childs knows the hiring challenges retailers face these days. The robust economy is enjoying a 50-year unemployment low, making it harder to attract talented workers to the retail furniture industry.
Childs believes her store’s furniture design challenge and the connection it’s made with Liberty students will give it an edge with recent college grads when it’s time to make a hire.
“We know we’re pulling from a talented pool and there’s competition for talent,” she says. “We need to do whatever we can to make our business stand out.”
Abramowicz says the design challenge helped her prepare for her new job at VFM. The students had to arrange rooms and order furniture—often that furniture is special order. “I had no idea how much time went into special orders and dealing with different vendors,” she says. “I never would have gotten that experience without the challenge.”
The winning designs for this year’s challenge will be installed at two of VFM’s Bedford and Rocky Mount store locations before Black Friday.
Since 2016, VFM has awarded $15,000 in scholarships to Liberty students. Child’s said the store can’t wait for next year’s contest.
“Before the challenge, a lot of (interior design) students had the idea they would graduate and go start their own business,” says Childs. “That’s great, but we want to show them there’s another world of design and retail out there for them to think about.”