Third-generation Outer Banks retailer’s three locations each serve different needs in the marketplace
KITTY HAWK, N.C. – The temperature may have cooled in the furniture industry due to slowing consumer demand, but for Ambrose Furniture the heat is still on with high sales and profits.
The retail operation of the family-owned company is in the Outer Banks (OBX), the coastal darling of North Carolina. With three locations in Kitty Hawk, Elizabeth City and Coinjock, the retailer sells furniture that graces rental and residential properties that dot the OBX coastal region.
“Each store has its own niche and flavor,” said co-owner Barry Ambrose of the 75-year-old, third-generation business, one that has more than weathered Covid and the economic trifecta that followed.
Elizabeth City, North Carolina, was the original location in 1946. Today that store benefits from its proximity to Virginia and resulting traffic from Norfolk, Virginia Beach and other towns and cities.
Coinjock is Ambrose’s largest retail space but sells the lowest volume. In a twist of irony, the Kitty Hawk store is smaller in square feet but sells the highest volume (65% of Ambrose’s business) due to tourism.
Kitty Hawk, the OBX town known as the birthplace of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight, is the sanctuary for thousands of rental properties and the bread-and-butter of the store.
“In the other stores, the inventory shifts toward different needs,” Ambrose said. “Ninety percent of Kitty Hawk sales are coastal rental property, followed by second homes and residential.”
In Coinjock, the focus is on motion furniture. The store has 10,000 square feet dedicated to retail space, 10,000 square feet for warehouse space, with 50% percent of the inventory dedicated to motion.
There is a separate additional 20,000 square feet of warehouse space at the rear of the property.
By comparison, the 5,000-square-foot Elizabeth City store primarily sells to residential customers. One thing customers will not see in the stores are home office furniture or entertainment focused case goods.
Location, location, location
Ambrose Furniture appears to be sailing on smooth seas due to a simple but effective sales strategy along with a prime geographic location. During the pandemic, its sales rose 21% in 2020 over 2019 and in 2021 its sales were 30% over 2020. Year to date, business is flat, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the double-digit growth over the previous two years and reports of an industry-wide slowdown.
“We feel so fortunate because of the tourist business that kept us afloat during the pandemic even when the economy was bad,” Ambrose told Home News Now. “A lot of travelers knew about us before Covid but had not ever visited. During the ‘great uprooting of America’ people moved here and stayed. If you can work anywhere, why not at a beach?”
The Hampton Roads region, home to Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk, is bleeding into eastern North Carolina according to Ambrose. Located roughly 90 miles north of the Outer Banks, the entire region translates into sales for Ambrose Furniture.
Adding to the good news for Ambrose is the end of seasonal selling. Some of the biggest sales occur from October through May, before the heavy traffic comes into the region during the summer months.
“We are busy year-round with a slight slowdown in the summer,” Ambrose said. “Now even the Kitty Hawk store shows consistent sales year-round.”
Sales Strategy Helps Weather the Storm
Declining consumer demand coupled with rising inflation, frustration at the fuel pump, and more directly, a cooling housing market is putting increased pressure on furniture retailers and manufacturers. However, this economic storm has not rocked the boat at Ambrose Furniture.
Ambrose credits forward-thinking during the pandemic and not hitting the panic button with high inventories.
“It was uncanny but when Putin invaded Ukraine, we had a short stand-still in sales,” Ambrose said, adding that the small bump was short lived.
He added that the company also reported record sales in 2021, along with the highest profit levels in company history.
“One of the reasons we did well was that as soon as Covid hit in 2020, I hit the ‘send’ button and ordered tons of furniture,” Ambrose said. “It was clear to me that there would be shipping delays, and without product there is not a store. I did not cancel orders unlike some in the industry. I think that is not good business to cancel orders. As a result we had plenty of inventory to meet demand. What I thought would be a ‘blow’ became a ‘boom.’”
Specializing in knowing what customers want is also a winning strategy according to Ambrose. For example, the company carries more transitional furniture in Elizabeth City, the home of one of the largest Coast Guard operations in the U.S.
“We found our niche there by showing more updated trends,” says Ambrose.”
During the pandemic Ambrose received calls from customers who were willing to make long drives for furniture. One customer who wanted a recliner drove from Richmond, Virginia. The reason? Ambrose had inventory when other retailers did not. Ambrose, for example, noted that the lead time for La-Z-Boy at one point was nearly a year and customers who were staying home wanted a recliner – sooner not later. Today, average shipping time for case goods is around two to four months, with upholstery lead times at five to six months, Ambrose noted.
As customers are often repeat buyers, due to the high level of wear and tear at coastal rentals, Ambrose does not offer high end brands. However, the store still carries well-known lines ranging from Kincaid, Lexington and Universal and upholstery from La-Z-Boy and Rowe. While sales of case goods and upholstery are dominant, lamp sales also are strong with a smaller percentage of accessories and area rugs.
Customers mix and match traditional along with coastal looks and modern and contemporary designs, creating the look they want.
Getting the Word Out
In a decidedly old school approach Ambrose advertises by TV and word-of-mouth.
“I am not a fan of social media,” Ambrose said. “The strategy is working and customers are drawn to the store’s mascot, Moxie, a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier (she is the star of the ads). “Moxie is a great ice breaker when customers come in the store and I know they have seen the ad when they recognize her.”