Sundays with families, no nights and no turning back for the Milwaukee retailer, even post-Covid
GREENFIELD, Wis. — For years, furniture retailers have been hearing just how important it is to meet consumers wherever and whenever they want to shop. And for just as many years, BiltRite Furniture here has been pushing back against this conventional wisdom.
A few years ago, the one-store retailer decided to trim most Sundays off the work calendar. It would go on to cut even more — up to the point that BiltRite is now closed every Sunday, or, as it promotes online and in commercials, “Sunday closed to be with family.” It’s also done away with evening hours. It doesn’t sell online. And the retailer now closes shop altogether three times a year, for anywhere from four to seven days at a time, giving its employees even more time away to rest up and recharge.
If all of this sounds counterintuitive to keeping up with the demands of today’s 24/7 society, fourth-generation operator and co-owner Randi Schachter, aka Randi K, has two words: “It’s working.”
BiltRite is coming off its best year ever, with estimated furniture and bedding sales of nearly $24 million in 2021, up more than 37% from the year before. (It missed the cutoff for Home News Now’s inaugural ranking of the top 125 U.S. furniture and bedding retailers by a hair.) Third-generation Marty Komisar, Randi’s father, who initially wanted to stay open for 19 or so Sundays out of the year, now says Randi and her husband had the better idea.
“They were right,” he said. “It was the best move we ever made going to zero Sundays and shortening hours.”
The benefits are many — from more efficient staffing to happier and more engaged employees to gratefulness and respect all the way around (customers and staff) — but more on this later. First here’s how the abridged hours and workweek transpired and how the Covid pandemic played its part.
In October 2016, about 10 years after BilRite moved into its 64,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse facility in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, the family decided its employees needed Sundays off. Initially, the midpriced to upper-end retailer played it safe, staying open on eight Sundays each year, the key ones around important selling holidays, Marty Komisar said.
But then it cut back on those, too, holding onto just the very biggest ones, like Memorial Dayweekend and Labor Day weekend, until finally giving up those Sundays, starting in September 2020.
Covid played a role, Randi K said. Like most furniture stores, BiltRite was shut down temporarily from late March of 2020 to around mid-May of that year.
“We were doing personal appointments. We were selling on Facebook. We were doing whatever we could.” she said. These were delicate times for a furniture retailer, especially one that doesn’t sell online.
When the store finally did reopen, BiltRite, like many retailers, was suddenly inundated with consumers who had an appetite to buy. The demand was much greater than most stores could handle.
“Business in June, July and August spiked up so fast, BiltRite soon realized it didn’t need to be open Sunday,” Marty Komisar said. “We didn’t want to be open. You’re going to run yourself into the ground. You’re going to burn out.”
At around the same time, BiltRite’s hours of operation were tightening up, too. Normal hours before Covid had been 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday; and then closed nearly all Sundays. Coming out of the shutdown, BiltRite again did what most of its counterparts did: it scaled back hours both for public safety and service reasons, reopening with a 10 to 5 schedule Monday through Friday. Then it added Saturday. Eventually, it added an hour to make it 10 to 6, six days a week.
But that was it. The retailer never went back to nights, and it sounds like it never will. There has just been too much gained, too many benefits to this new schedule.
“We never looked back. We’re not bringing back nights,” said Randi K. “It’s just so much easier for staffing purposes. Everyone is at our morning (sales) meetings. We’ve attracted more employees — because ‘no nights’ is truly family friendly hours. And we’re doing more volume than ever.”
BiltRite, she said, is proving “you don’t have to be open all hours of the night” to be successful. A founding member of the Furniture First buying group, the retailer has hosted drop-ins from other member retailers, usually on Saturdays. And they almost always ask what kind of promotion is fueling such a busy store, said Komisar.
It’s not so much the promotion as the abridged hours, he tells them. Since the store isn’t open Sundays, it’s much busier on Saturday. It creates a “buying sensation,” added Randi K. “People want to shop in a place that’s busy. It’s fun.”
Asked if she is at all concerned the company is missing out on business when the shorter operating schedule doesn’t mesh with the busy consumer’s schedule, Randi K said, “There’s always some were going to miss,” but the company also does what it can to mitigate that problem, including after-hour appointments available from 6-7 p.m., something else that got its start during the pandemic.
“Overall, the feedback we get is that people come to our store because they love the fact that were not open on Sunday and that we respect family time, and they want to support us.”
BiltRite promotes “Sunday closed to be with family” heavily online and in television commercials that run Thursday through Sunday. The voiceover in a recent spot says, “It’s good to be old school in our 24/7 society,” and it features Randi as the spokesperson and images of the extended family, including the fifth generation.
The changes have also helped BiltRige attract “very good people,” even coming out of the shutdown, when this industry and many others faced severe labor shortages. The retailer employs just under 50 people and with retirements and a few departures, it has had to add a fair amount of new employees this past year.
“We lost a couple during Covid, but it was minor compared to what we were hearing, and we definitely added more than we lost,” she said, adding with pride that more than half the retailer’s staff is female.
A 10-to-6 schedule also is easier and more efficient to manage. There is just one shift now. When management goes over updates and changes at the daily morning meetings, all the salespeople for the day are present; there’s no need to repeat the process with a later shift.
BiltRite has freed up employees in another way, too. Sixteen years ago, when the retailer moved to its current location, it instituted a storewide summer vacation, closing for about a week around the July Fourth holiday. This past year it added four- to five-day breaks around Christmas and Easter weekends.
Everyone knows business drops off just before Christmas, Marty Komisar said. After Christmas, “Everyone is rejuvenated, excited to be back and ready for the busy time, Randi added.
By the time this story posts, BiltRite employees and their families will be on that recently added first company-wide break of the year. Randi K thinks of the store as operating sort of like a school — with the set hours, the built-in breaks, even fun dress-up days around St. Patrick’s Day and other holidays.
Asked whether employees ever feel forced to plan their vacations around the company’s breaks, she said, “We work with them.” If someone has a planned trip that doesn’t work around the scheduled breaks, of course BiltRite figures out a way to let them go. But for the most part, they don’t think of it that way. They see it as “a bonus knowing we offer these major breaks three times a year.”
For the most part full-time employees get the breaks as paid vacation. Part-timers get the time off, “but they’re happy we’re closed, too, … because they can spend time with their families over the Easter holiday, during Christmas time and have this nice summer break,” she said.
So all the talk about being there for the consumer 24/7, meeting them wherever they want to shop, whenever they want to shop? To this Marty Komisar said, “Good luck to those that do it, because where are they going to find the employees to man all those hours and be that good.”
And Randi emphasized the “good” part. “Our employees respect the fact that we have these types of hours. So when the customer comes to our store, they’re going to have a much more positive experience from a more engaged staff.”
As for selling online — something else retailers are repeatedly told they dismiss at their peril — BiltRite doesn’t appear ready to overextend itself that way, either. Randi K noted the company has done just fine since moving in 2006, growing sales each year, even in 2020, when the store was shut down, when others quickly pivoted to e-commerce (if they weren’t in the space already) to make it through the lean period.
“We know brick and mortar, and we do brick and mortar well, and we’re ok with not selling online,” she said.
“We’re a high-volume, independent, single-store location, and it’s our choice. … the volume is there. The loyalty from our customer base is there, and we’re very busy.”
Just not this Easter weekend.