Fourth-generation operator Mark Mueller takes lessons from family and industry mentors to guide the retailer’s steady growth
BELLEVILLE, Ill. — One of Mark Mueller’s earliest jobs at the family-owned Mueller Furniture was in the warehouse, unloading trucks as they came in with the latest orders. It was the late 90s, and Mueller recalls how easy it was back then to unload shipments from, say, Mobel Furniture or Cochrane.
“It was great,” he recalled. “You could open and inspect it all quite easily.”
But in the years that followed, everything changed. Opening and inspecting product went from a breeze to a time-consuming chore. And there was styrofoam waste to contend with everywhere. Mueller remembered asking his father Lynwood Mueller what was going on? Why all this styrofoam to clean up?
His answer: “It’s because a lot of this product is made in China now,” the younger Mueller recalled. “I just remember seeing that change, and then reading about it later in ‘Factory Man,’ (the book by Beth Macy that chronicles Vaughan-Bassett Chairman John Bassett’s battle against the offshoring).
“I felt it,” he said. “I unloaded it.”
Years later, Mueller, general manager of the family business, and his father started doing something about it. It was gradual at first, but eventually, Mueller Furniture would gain a reputation as the home for American-made furniture in St. Louis. This would become the theme behind Mueller’s marketing, the centerpiece of its store’s merchandising approach and the foundation for a growth strategy that would propel the retailer from one store doing $2.5 million in sales in 2008 to two stores generating about $14 million in sales in 2020. A third location is coming next month and should help drive overall annual sales to the $17 million to $18 million range in 2021.
Mueller ties past reputation to present domestic emphasis
Mark Mueller says the incredible sales growth and success of Mueller Furniture are largely tied to that shift the family-owned retailer made about a dozen years ago, but it was the store’s reputation for quality and integrity — established by his great grandfather John Mueller back in 1927 and carried on by his grandfather, father and other family members — that firmly rooted the business for the growth and change to come.
In the 1920s, John Mueller ran a grocery store in downtown Belleville, Ill., situated east of St. Louis and the Mississippi River. It was a booming area, with a lot of grand, now historic, homes, and it wasn’t long before Mueller realized there was a need in the market for a retailer of quality furniture to suit those homeowners.
“We didn’t start as a discounter,” Mark Mueller said. “We’ve always been known as where you’d go to get something that’s going to last.”
Mueller used to wonder how his great-grandfather survived, given how few new businesses ever make it past the first four or five years, especially since Mueller got its start just before a Great Depression-era that crushed businesses and families alike.
“What I came to find out after talking to my grandfather and listening to the stories, is it was all relationship-built,” he said. At the height of the Depression John, known as “Honest John” Mueller, would make his rounds to collect, or he’d send his son out on the task. They’d asked if customers had anything for them that day, record what they could afford to pay, or defer payment when they couldn’t. Mark Mueller jokes that Mueller Furniture was one of the earliest adopters of the five-year-no-interest promotion.
John Mueller “would always tell people ‘Don’t worry, pay me what you can. When it’s paid off it’s paid off, but don’t go and buy junk!” is how the history is recorded on Mueller’s website. The family business rarely got burned. More often than not, that personal, caring approach gained Mueller life-long customer loyalty.
Baseball runs in the family
John Mueller was succeeded in the business by his oldest son Roland Mueller and Mark Mueller’s grandfather Les Mueller. The latter joined after a professional baseball career that included time in the major leagues, where he was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in 1941 and again in 1945. (Among the highlights: Giving up only one unearned run, Les Mueller pitched 19 ⅔ innings during a nearly five-hour game in July 1945 — a post-World War II record — until the contest was finally called due to darkness; and he pitched two scoreless innings in Game 1 of the World Series the same year.)
Mark Mueller’s grandfather was always a tremendous athlete, but furniture didn’t really course through his veins as it does for Mark and his father Lynwood (named after Les’ favorite baseball player at the time, a pitcher named Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe). For a while, Lynwood split his time between college and the store after his father became ill, and eventually, he took over leadership in the 1970s.
While Mark Mueller (also a ballplayer, by the way) worked on and off for the family business starting in late 1997, he doesn’t feel like he really entered the industry until October 2004, when he took his first trip to High Point Market, “and I was hooked after that.”
His father had recently offered him a job “upstairs.” Mark was still tasked with unloading the trucks and moving furniture, but now he had the added duties of handling all the advertising, an area where his father needed the most help, from creative to budgeting. He also waited on customers when the sales staff was busy and eventually started buying furniture.
“I saw an opportunity to be really good at this,” Mark Mueller said. “I think my GPA was 2.96 — nothing terrible, but nothing that jumps off the page and says this kid is going to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer.
“But I liked that this was a people business, that there were a lot of relationships. And I enjoyed the fact that there were all these people to buy from and I had to pick the ones that fit the best for my store and customers. It was just this whole idea of maximizing; you have a showroom with a set amount of square footage and you have all these different vendors you’re buying from. How do I get the most out of that showroom?
“There’s no standardized test for that. There’s no A, B, C grade, but I thought I could be pretty good at it, and I liked it.”
The domestic focus begins
In 2008, an American-made bias started becoming a conscious buying decision for Mueller and the linchpin for that maximization of the store, both in terms of value for the customer and the retailer’s own top and bottom lines. Here’s how Mark Mueller remembers it:
Back then, Mueller carried an imported Mission-style dining room from A-America that was one of its bestsellers — table and six chairs retailing for about $1,499. Then one day, a representative from case goods resource Oakwood Inds. visited the store. He was dressed in the traditional plain clothing of the Mennonites — the suspenders, the black hat — and he made an offer Mark and his father couldn’t pass up.
The Memphis, Mo.-based company wanted Mueller to floor three of its dining room groups, including a solid oak Mission style trestle table with contour lumbar side chairs that, at $3,399, would retail for more than double the A-America group. If the three groups hadn’t sold after a few months, Oakwood promised to be back to pick them up at no charge to the store. Or if Mueller so chose, it could swap a group or groups out for something else, also at no charge.
The Oakwood representative was true to his word, but he didn’t have much swapping or picking up to do. The Mission trestle table that Mark Mueller compared to the A-America group is still in Mueller’s lineup as is another of the original groups, and Oakwood Inds. has become one of its largest suppliers, behind Flexsteel and right up there with Smith Brothers of Berne. The third group, a counter-height Mission set, didn’t fare as well but was swapped out for something else that became a solid performer for the retailer, too.
Suddenly, in the same space that Mueller was getting $1,499 per set, it was now making more than twice that. It still sells A-America, and didn’t stop carrying the group that had been a top performer up to this point.
“We ran them both,” Mueller said. “But we gave the customer the opportunity to select something nicer, and that started working.”
Gradually Mueller traded up in other ways and categories, often leaning to domestic producers. It started buying Bradington-Young and Temple upholstery Then it bought from Amish producer Fusion Designs, which had a bit more variety than Oakwood at the time. Lynwood Mueller went to Gettysburg on vacation one year and while there, “as any good furniture guy does, he goes to an Amish furniture show in Pennsylvania,” Mark Mueller said. “He probably bought 15 different lines at that first market.
“Now all of a sudden, instead of selling $300 coffee tables, we’re selling $500 coffee tables with all these great custom options,” Mueller said, “all made in America, all solid wood construction.”
“Category by category, (American-made product) began to take a much more prominent amount of total floor space and really became a part of what every salesperson was talking about with their customer.” So now, in addition to attending High Point Market every year, Mueller also makes its way to Amish and Mennonite furniture markets held in convention centers each year in Indiana and Ohio.
“One of the things I really like about it is I know Freeman Miller from Hermie’s Table Shop. I know Steve Raber from West Point Woodworking. I know them on a first-name basis,” Mark Mueller said.
“I don’t know who’s making my furniture from (any of the various brands importing the majority of their lineup). I can’t talk to the guy that’s making my furniture. I certainly can’t ask for customization.” And if there is ever a problem, he can’t really talk through it like he can with someone like Steve Lehman or Jon Adams at Smith Brothers, he added.
“We know each other,” Mueller said. “We have a relationship. So much of the furniture business is just driven by price and who can get you what for the cheapest. And that’s fine. That works for some people but that doesn’t work for us.”
Shortly after Mueller started making these new merchandising decisions, it also hired an ad agency and started marketing Mueller as St. Louis’s home for American-made furniture.
“Before, I’d say, we were just running promotions. There was no real campaign,” Mark Mueller said. But with the American-made story, the retailer finally found an overarching theme that worked, one that is authentic. When consumers walked through the door, the marketing message is backed up by the in-store experiences.
And Mueller is having fun in the process. In one commercial spot that features Mark Mueller as spokesman, and various pieces of furniture saying what part of the country they come from, one sofa made in Hickory, N.C., starts flirting with him, asking Mueller if he’d like to “sit on my eight-way-hand-tied springs.” Mueller said gets a lot of comments from customers for that one.
Sales success goes hand-in-hand with expansion
In March 2017, the retailer opened its second, 10,000-square-foot store in Lake St Louis, Mo., and from day one, it exceeded the company’s expectations “beyond belief,” Mueller said. “From a merchandising standpoint, we basically took the best of Belleville, our premium-end goods, a Flexsteel gallery, an Amish furniture gallery.”
Now, as Mueller prepares to roll out its third, 12,250-square-foot St. Louis location in Ellisville, Mo., Mark Mueller is keeping in mind all the lessons he’s learned as an apprentice to his father and also from the great manufacturer representative he’s learned from over the years — Bill Wendell of Flexsteel, Dave Jaros with Cochrane back then, Chuck Fairburn, who was with Hooker, and many others.
Today, reps don’t call on stores quite like they used to, Mueller said. Back then, in the early 2000s, they’d spend hours, sharing stories and intelligence about what was working and what wasn’t, and theories on why business was good or bad at the time. Mueller even credits Fairburn with planting that seed for growth that would lead to the second store and then the third.
Mueller will use the Lake St. Louis store as the model for Ellisville, doubling down on its Made-in-America story. In Lake St. Louis, all the major case pieces are U.S.-made, as are nearly all of the occasional tables and entertainment consoles, all solid wood construction and with multiple finish options. He estimates 75% of the upholstery is U.S.-made. The exception is leather motion, a category dominated by Flexsteel imports.
During the pandemic, while Mueller hasn’t been immune to the product delays (and price increases) retailers across the country are facing, its reliance on domestically produced furniture clearly is softening the blow.
When its stores reopened in early May, it saw a bump in business immediately, and Lynwood Mueller has told his son that he never saw this kind of sustained demand in his 46 years in the business.
“It’s all about having enough merchandise to stock your showrooms and back up your bestsellers and not overpromising on lead times on custom orders,” Mark Mueller said. “Be upfront with people on how long things are going to take, and they still seem very willing to wait if you have exactly what they want in regards to a custom order.”
Mueller believes 12 weeks, though, is about as long as most customers are willing to wait. (It used to be about eight weeks, but things changed this year as consumers witnessed empty shelves and racks everywhere, not just in furniture stores). Fortunately, Mueller’s suppliers have largely been keeping within that 12-week window. Smith Brothers, he notes, is averaging eight weeks or less.
“They’re phenomenal for us. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but they’re doing it.”
Mueller knows his choice in supplier partners is helping, that there are companies out 14, 16, and 20 weeks, and “we just can’t do that.” Some suppliers have even cut off smaller volume accounts because there’s just not enough product to go around currently — another reason why Mueller’s niche has proved to be a critical advantage. On its website, for instance, the retailer recently promoted a year-end clearance sale with “In-stock items in EVERY department.” The hero images include a Flexsteel fabric sectional, a customizable sofa from Smith Bros. and an Amish dining table.
Room to improve
This is not to suggest the retailer doesn’t see room to improve. Mark Mueller said the company still needs to work on ensuring its website experience matches the in-store experience through better photography, and clearer explanations of all the custom options available.
And there’s no pricing online, no e-commerce capability. That could’ve come back to haunt Mueller had the lockdown persisted, but as it turned out, sales were up last year and were off only 40% in April (with a stay-at-home order in place and both stores shut down) from a record April 2019.
“We accomplished a lot via telephone, email, virtual tours,” Mueller said. “We scratched and clawed to a nice amount of business. We had one salesperson write $85,000 that month. I know there are a lot of salespeople who would love to write $85,000 any month, and this guy wrote it during a shutdown.”
Mueller does expect to eventually sell online, but it hasn’t fallen into the camp of so many retailers who believe, or have been told, they can’t survive without an online store, that the pandemic accelerated the urgency to sell online. Plus Mueller’s niche — highly customizable furniture — makes the e-commerce shift that much more difficult, regardless of the pandemic.
“Eighty to 85% of our orders are custom orders,” Mueller said, “especially when you get in the Amish (product) with different wood species, different finishes. I’ve talked to several programmers about developing an (e-commerce site). You get them on the phone and they say. ‘We can do it for you.’ But about 30 days later, they’re ready to quit.”
That said, Mueller, who once ran a digital home-furnishings-related business on the side during his early days in the industry, is developing a separate e-commerce site, Amishfurnituredirectusa.com. Still in beta form, the website lets consumers search by category, choose from some 20 finish options and wood species, adjust sizes and customize in other ways.
But for the Mueller brand, “I just don’t have the bandwidth to do it right now,” he said. “I’ve been very happy with the amount of leads we get. (E-commerce) is something I am considering and at some point I will enter that market. It’s just not a priority right now.”
Another challenge Mueller faces that was true even before the pandemic and becomes even more critical with the third store is the challenge of scaling up.
“I have newfound respect for anybody operating multiple stores and high-dollar sales. It’s just a lot to handle sometimes,” he said.
“If you build it, they will come. Sales are going to happen. But the ordering, the delivering, the administering of it all, that’s what we’re constantly working on — trying to handle the volume in a more efficient manner.”