Northwoods Commerce: ?Work hard, be there and take care of your customers?
Jeff Dibbles, co-owner of Al’s Furniture, maintains that he isn’t all that comfortable with media interviews regarding his business. For Jeff, who owns the store with his dad, Al, and approaches day-to-day operations with a basic, no-frills style, discussing how he has helped make Al’s Furniture a Rhinelander institution isn’t something to which he’s accustomed. But as he wades into a discussion of how he has managed to keep the store successful when conventional wisdom dictates that high-quality furniture would be low on cash-strapped consumers’ priority lists, it becomes apparent that Jeff’s understanding of the market and his customers keeps his business moving forward, even as many others have closed their doors.
It’s also apparent that he has done so by making decisions that may seem counterintuitive in a time that hasn’t exactly been a bonanza for the furniture industry. “I just do what I do,” he says, “and I don’t worry about what [other stores] are doing. We’ve got our own little niche going.”
The fortunes of the furniture industry are closely linked to home sales and consumer confidence, two things that have withered, thanks to the economic downturn. With fewer houses to fill and less discretionary income in consumers’ pockets, the furniture industry has taken it on the chin in recent years. In the aftermath of the economic meltdown in 2008, many furniture stores, including many that were independently owned, disappeared.
Al’s Furniture, however, did not. That’s not to say the company hasn’t felt the effects of the recession-it certainly has. Sometimes more isn’t better, and in order to focus on maintaining the quality and service for which Al’s Furniture has been known, the decision was made to redeploy assets and capital by closing the store’s less profitable locations. But the main store, located in Rhinelander, remains open, and so does the Ironwood, Mich., location.
In a complicated time, Jeff has chosen to take a fairly simple approach to his stores. Al’s Furniture has survived in part, he explains, “Basically, by cutting back our expenses.” With fewer stores, the company employs a smaller number of people than it did in past years. “I’m doing most things myself,” says Jeff, who runs the Rhinelander store with his wife, Linda, and five employees.
While that frugality and work ethic have undoubtedly contributed to the store’s success, so has the company’s emphasis on customer service and quality. The store still offers layaway and free delivery of furniture, and the products on the showroom floor are well made.
“I do like selling higher quality products that you don’t have issues with,” Jeff says. The preference for stocking his showroom with higher quality furniture that costs a bit more may seem counterintuitive at a time when money is tight for many consumers. But a reputation for selling quality items is another reason Al’s has remained prosperous while many other independently owned furniture retailers have fallen by the way. As discretionary income and consumer confidence have fallen, and uncertainty about the economy has risen, consumers have naturally reprioritized their spending. Many go out less and spend more time at home, putting more emphasis on home comfort and style. Consumers also are much more careful about how and where they spend their money.
“People are more willing to spend a little more money,” Jeff says, “for furniture that is well made because they don’t want to have to replace it anytime soon. Even though there was a downturn in the economy, people coming in still wanted a nice product.
Another important trend that works in the store’s favor is that more consumers are specifically looking for products made in America. Much, although not all, of the furniture sold at Al’s is made in this country. Some furniture items, Jeff explains, simply aren’t manufactured in the U.S. anymore and are necessarily imported. But, he says, “I try to deal with a lot of companies whose products are American made.”
At Al’s Furniture, keeping quality a high priority appears to be working well. Mattress sales lead the furniture industry, with bedding being the most purchased furniture product in 2010, according to a Sept. 3, 2011 article by David Perry in Furniture Today. Sitting at a dining room table on the showroom floor at Al’s Furniture, Jeff marvels at the sales of his own store’s high-end bedding. While it was rare several years ago for customers to be willing to pay several hundred dollars for a mattress set, it’s a different story now. “It’s amazing how many $2,000 queen sets we’re selling,” he says.
Despite the dismal economic news, Jeff says, “We’re seeing some positives.” Although building permits and housing starts were down in July, according to the US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, there was good news recently from hoovers.com, a business research company. The site reports that American durable goods manufacturers’ shipments of furniture and products related to furniture were up 8.3 percent during the first half of this year, compared to shipments during the first half of 2010.
A hallmark of a successful entrepreneur is the ability to recognize opportunity where others see only trouble. Because of the economic downturn, some companies have reduced or even stopped advertising. Others recognize this as an opportunity to dominate their markets, reasoning that when consumers are ready to buy, the companies that have continued to advertise are the ones that will be in the forefront of consumers’ minds. Al’s Furniture has adhered to this principle, having been consistently marketed through good times and times that aren’t so good. “You have to keep letting people know you’re still there,” Jeff says.
The full-page ads, the large showrooms, the vibrant panorama of wood and upholstery that stretches before customers in the Lincoln Street store, and the location in Ironwood belie the humble origins of Al’s Furniture.
Back in 1974, Al Dibbles, who was living in Crandon at the time, opened a small used furniture store across the street from the Forest County courthouse.
“He’d go around and buy used furniture out of the classified ads in the Hodag Shopper,” (now the Hodag Buyers’ Guide) Jeff recalls, “and haul it back to the store.”
The Dibbles family eventually moved to Rhinelander and the store found a new home in a building, now gone, on the corner of Stevens and Davenport streets. In the early 1980s, the senior Dibbles bought the Lincoln Street building in which the store is currently located, and Al’s Furniture has been housed there ever since.
Jeff’s tenure with his dad’s business began when he was in his teens. “I started on the delivery truck when I was a freshman in high school,” he says. He worked on the delivery truck evenings and Saturdays while school was in session, and during summer vacations it was a full-time job.
After high school, he seriously considered leaving Rhinelander so he could go to school to become a telephone line repairman. “Luckily, my dad talked me out of that,” Jeff says with a laugh, noting the popularity in recent years of cell phones. Instead, he opted to stay in this area, except for a stretch in Michigan.
“We actually opened a store in Ironwood in 1993,” he says. He and Linda moved there to run that store and returned to Rhinelander in 1995. His dad, who is still involved in the business, has since moved to Florida. “I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me with this place,” Jeff says. But it hasn’t been a cakewalk.
“Basically, it’s a six-day work week, 52 weeks a year,” Jeff says, adding, “I might take a day off to go snowmobiling once in a while.”
One gets the sense those days are probably few and far between. But it seems that, like many other entrepreneurs, Jeff Dibbles accepts it as one of the costs of doing business. Dedication to the family enterprise is one of the reasons, he feels, that Al’s Furniture is still going strong. “Focus on the things you can control,” he says. “Work hard, be there and take care of your customers.”
Note: This story first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Northwoods Commerce magazine.