With four large stores slated to open here over the next two years, Houston’s Exclusive Furniture has a big challenge on its hands.
With the tagline “Where low prices live,” you might think that challenge would come in the form of American Furniture Warehouse, the Top 100 low-price leader of Colorado and Phoenix that has confirmed it’s considering a move into Houston and, in fact, negotiating for a tract of land in Webster, Texas, just a stone’s throw from where Exclusive will open a 52,000-square-foot store at the end of the year.
But that’s not it, said Fawad Zavary, vice president of operations for the family-owned retailer celebrating 20 years in business in June. Sure, AFW would present a challenge, but Exclusive has seen tough competition before, with the entry of Rooms To Go and Ashley HomeStore, for instance. And in each case business only grew.
The company his brother Sam started began as one small store inside a mall doing about $60,000 a month. By 2011, the brothers had grown Exclusive to a $10 million business. And in 2017, with a little help from Hurricane Harvey, sales reached nearly $40 million at six stores and a clearance center. (Exclusive is now owned by the brothers and sister Fauzia, who joined a few years ago.)
Competition has been good for business. The added marketing muscle drives customers out to shop. So if AFW does comes to town, “We’re just going to put our heads down and go to work,” Zavary said.
The biggest challenge, he said, is a people problem — recruiting the right talent across the board, from the warehouse all the way to the store manager.
“The workforce in Houston in the retail industry already is very tight,” he said. Part of the problem has been the improving energy market. This is oil country, and higher oil prices mean the energy companies around here are fishing the labor pool, too.
So finding quality people who can follow Exclusive’s strict processes so the retailer can execute on all the other things it’s trying to accomplish in this changing market place (like building the average ticket size in a retail world of declining foot traffic) remains a difficult proposition.
“We constantly recruit and constantly train,” Zavary said. “I’ve had some salespeople who came from other stores or different markets say, ‘I’ve never been trained this much in my life.’
Exclusive has two 15-year veterans dedicated to training new employees and current ones. For the new sales hires, it’s a two-week program — one week to get familiar with the backend and procedures (how to schedule deliveries, check stock, write an order) and a second on product knowledge. All salespeople receive additional training throughout the year, usually during morning sessions and especially in categories where they may be struggling to close the sale.
“The consumer already knows a lot because of the Internet. They’re able to shop and kind of know what they want.” Zavary said. They come into the store, hold up their phones with a product they saw online and say they’re looking for that or something similar. “They didn’t buy on the Internet because they really want that extra help,” he said.
And Exclusive needs salespeople who don’t hesitate, who can steer them in the right direction knowledgeably, providing that better experience and added touch they came to the store for in the first place.
For now, Exclusive will continue offering bonuses to existing employees for good referrals, advertising its benefits and the sliding scale commissions on the sales side that Zavary said adds up to better than standard market compensation.
“We’ve been holding our own” on the warehouse side, after losing several late last year to the Hurricane Harvey cleanup and construction efforts, he said. “But I could use another five or 10 salespeople and probably a couple of drivers.”
It’s a challenge that’s only going to be multiplied by Exclusive’s appetite for growth.