This is a story that has been brewing for over thirty years. Like many business stories this one takes place in multiple locales and the characters have interesting backgrounds. But the focus is not on them alone or even how they got here. The real focus is about where they are today.
(l to r): Greg Stinson and Chet Stoler
“Substantially (the secret of my success is due) to luck,” said Don Thompson, Vice President of Bourne International. “And good people,” he added with a smile. I heard a lot about loyalty and sharing during my recent visit. Don is not your polished shoe and suit type. He prefers jeans and a well worn leather jacket. He looks like the kind of guy who picks stuff up and moves it himself, rather than pointing his finger here or there and having someone else do it for him. Thompson started his business career in 1970, when he was only a senior in high school. His business of choice: the then exploding waterbed industry. He still has several waterbed stores among the sixty or so retail outlets he owns or is a partner in, in five states (OR, WA, CA, ID, and NV). But as I said, that is only part of the story. I’ll call it the Retail Part. You can’t fully appreciate Bourne International without looking at its roots.
The Retail Part of Futons
“We have two basic groups of stores,” said Thompson. One group comes under the heading “specialty store.” These outlets carry a narrow product line and tend to be in the 3,000 to 4,000 sq. ft. range. The other group of stores run from 6,500 to 14,000 sq. ft and carry a broader range of goods. Here’s the kicker (and I don’t mean the mechanism), Thompson may have up to five different stores in a single destination location, each with a totally different product mix, median price point, merchandising theme, etc.
We drove over to the Van Mall in Vancouver, WA, the city where The America Group has its headquarters and warehouse distribution center, to see some of the retail operations. “This is a great opportunity to see several of our concept stores,” said Greg Stinson, VP of the Futon Division. As we walked into the busy mall environment the first thing to come into view are two striking solid wood facades at the entrance of two different retail furniture stores. One is a higher end bedroom store called Bedrooms West, and the other (joined at the hip via an opening in their adjoining wall, an opening undetected from the entrance point) is The International Furniture Fair. The stores’ merchandising themes are striking and strikingly different. The International Furniture Fair carries an ever-changing, exotic, and one of a kind mix of living room, den, occasional tables and accessories with whimsy as the only constant. “The products in this store are one of a kind, and that’s the theme,” said Chet Stoler, President of Bourne International, a major supplier to the America Group and a cadre of other retailers in twenty states from the East Coast to the West.
The Futon Supplier Side of the Story
Stoler, a futon sofa sleeper and furniture import pioneer and futon retailer from the Twin Cities, is working on building the Bourne brand and product development process while reworking the channels with Thompson to bring all this cumulative experience to bear for the benefit of Bourne’s dealers. Stoler along with his wife Kathy operated Casual Lifestyles and was very successful as an importer and manufacturer during the late eighties and early nineties.
Spanish influence and Craftsman style reproductions are a big part of Bourne’s bedroom lineup.
“It’s like this,” said Stoler. “We are taking things we are successful with, including real world experience in retailing, futon manufacturing, wholesaling, and importing, and we are slowly and deliberately taking it to a broader base of dealers.” Bourne International, in other words, is being built on a model of slow, deliberate growth. Not growth for growth’s sake but growth built on narrowly targeting specialty niches and then developing each niche in its own environment, an environment with a particular kind of consumer in mind.
By building Bourne on this successful model Stoler and Thompson hope to expand their reach nationally as a major supplier of bedroom, case goods, armoire and entertainment centers, futon sofa sleepers, and occasional pieces just as they have done in the Northwest and with other futon retailers all across the land.
“We were at last year’s (Futon & Specialty Sleep) show in Chicago with our first offerings,” said Thompson, “and it is going very well.” He stressed that Bourne has spent the past eighteen months preparing for this major push into wholesaling. But unlike some other suppliers Bourne’s foundation is based on a proven and very successful retail model. A model that opens the door to specialty dealers who sell a majority of the higher margin goods, and to full line dealers as well. Many of whom are now being drawn into the category by consumers asking for futon furniture by name, not to mention the fact that futon sofa sleepers have significantly eaten into the market share of both the traditional sofa sleeper and day bed sales as well.
Bourne International — A Proven Model and a Proven Team
“We have learned that if you show rooms of furniture you sell rooms of furniture, or at least you give yourself a fighting chance,” said Stoler. He told of “high ticket” competitions among retail sales associates at some of their dealers where sales of $2,000.00 to $2,500.00 were the average sale per month, and of the $7,900.00 ticket that won for the year. “That was for several rooms of furniture but the principle remains the same,” he said.
All this translates into the development of lines that include futon sofa sleeper frames in multiple sizes (including chairs), tables, chairs, and entertainment centers for dens and living rooms, along with headboards and foot boards, bedroom armoires, night tables, and casegoods for the bedroom. All coordinated. All in one design look, and in all the hottest styles too, like the Spanish look of the “Rustico” line and the Craftsman look of the solid teak “Macintosh” group (on the cover).
“We don’t intend to go promotional,” said Thompson. Like The America Group retail experience, where people shop for furniture in room group vignettes, Bourne International will focus on selling a program that works in the gallery venue. “We have been very successful with a proven program that has its focus on not just selling a futon frame with a mattress, but on selling furniture that adds comfort and fashion to any room for a real value,” Stoler said. “Just like we experienced with Casual Lifestyles.”
Another element of the Bourne plan is POP, and few do it better. “We have always tried to provide tools to futon retailers that help them sell roomfuls of furniture,” Stoler said. “Partners In Retail,” Bourne’s program, provides futon dealers with newspaper ad slicks, story boards for product groups with vignette pricing, pre-made pricing hang tags, an arm display rack with a light box showing up to four room groups, and a company culture geared to helping futon retailers sell the higher end goods and more of them.
Bourne International has moved slowly and deliberately, a Don Thompson trademark, towards bringing a broad product line to the marketplace. From bedroom groups that shift to futon sofa sleeper groups, youth bedroom groups and alternative sleep products, Bourne is helping to shift the industry into high gear again. By focusing on quality workmanship, and innovative styles, and with the added advantage of Thompson and Stoler’s cumulative fifty years of futon retail experience, Bourne International can fulfill the needs of any specialty dealer and also help new full line futon retailers understand how to make the most of their commitment to a category many don’t even yet fully understand. Hey, that’s my job.
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by Joe Tatulli
Bourne International - The New Kid Is A Seasoned Winner