Good Ideas Keep Sunnyland's Business Bright

By Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 2/1/2009

Despite disheartening news about the U.S. economy, David Schweig began 2009 feeling pretty good about his store. In fact, he felt energized. In mid-January, the president of Sunnyland Furniture wrapped up the third of his three annual meetings with employees. Operations, sales and warehouse personnel each have their own no-holds-barred brainstorming session, and useful ideas always come from them. 

"We block out a whole day with a full agenda, bring in breakfast and lunch and talk about every part of the business," Schweig said. "I tell (employees) these are open discussions. If feelings get hurt, get over it." 

Thanks in part to these meetings, Sunnyland Furniture has been a model of consistency for the past four years, winning three Apollo Awards and hundreds of new customers with exceptional customer service, and breaking annual sales records. 

Still, he can't ignore what is happening around him and how it may affect Sunnyland. The demise of electronics big-box chain Circuit City, for instance, hit the trucking business hard, which may trickle down to the retailer. Whether or not it does, Schweig isn't waiting for it to happen.In the short term, Schweig is mining the brainstorming meetings more thoroughly. 

"In our meeting with our sales people, we tear floor apart verbally," he said. "What is the most effective selling area? What part of the store is destined to die? If we could sell anything there, what would it be? We get diverse opinions and the reasons behind those opinions." 

In 2007, an employee suggested installing a fax machine in the warehouse to confirm order pickups in the store. Before, the sales staff summoned the warehouse via intercom, which couldn't always be heard clearly. Now, warehouse employees verify invoice numbers on documents faxed from the sales floor, eliminating all the back-and-forth — and wasted time — with the intercom system. 

At another meeting, Schweig's team of drivers suggested carrying digital cameras to help them deal with warranty issues. They used to drive to a customer's home, pick up damaged furniture and ship it back to the manufacturer from the warehouse. Now, they take a digital image of the damage at the customer's home and e-mail it to the manufacturer for evaluation. The new process saves time for Sunnyland, and customers spend less time without furniture. 

"These meetings have helped me recognize things I do over and over because it's easy or it's worked before," he said. "I'm not on the floor all time. But if I talk to people in the trenches, I know what's going on. I can start tweaking things or recognize when I should leave well enough alone." 

The meetings also go a long way toward improving employee morale. 

"I think the meetings are important in the sense that everyone feels like they have ownership in the store," said Nick Nickell, a buyer who's been at Sunnyland for more than 20 years. "A lot of owners feel that since they own the store, they can do what they want and no one else's opinion matters. So it's special that we're all invited to sit down and voice our concerns and ideas to better our work environment." 

That sense of empowerment carries over to the everyday business. Sunnyland employees are free to do whatever they need to optimize a customer's experience in the store. Schweig has to keep close watch on everything, but he said it's better than how he used to run things. 

"For years I did it all myself," said Schweig, who opened the store in 1977. 

At that time he ran operations, deliveries, advertising and sales and said he did an average job at everything. So several years ago, he made the decision many small business owners struggle with at first. He delegated. 

"I bit bullet to empower them and support them," he said. "If they make a decision I don't like, I back them up but later tell them why I didn't agree with them. I instill our business principles and ethics, but I have to be willing to take some crap with it." 

For instance, he said a couple of power-hungry employees took "early retirement." But other than that, the business model has worked, creating consistent, high-caliber customer service at a time when service is more valuable than ever. 

"People who are scaling back are still shopping," Schweig said. "Whether they're spending $1,000 or $100, that money is even more important to them. They want to maximize their expenditure." 

By creating value with service, Sunnyland has enjoyed a higher sales volume, which is compensating for a lower average sale. Business has been solid so far. But again, Schweig also sees the big picture for the industry, and he's not pleased with that picture. 

Retailers, said Schweig, need a year off from new product trends, and he has developed an idea that would have seemed crazy just one or two years ago. According to Schweig, manufacturers should take a year off, reallocating money for product development to maintain or decrease wholesale prices. 

"People are looking for bargains and my prices are up 10 to 15 percent," he said. "How can I offer value to customers if I've had to increase prices?" 

The concept makes sense from a retail perspective, but new product development is the lifeblood of the manufacturing base. Schweig understands. But he insisted he'd rather have the same colors and price points than new shades and higher prices. 

"I sold green last year, and if it worked then it will work now, too," he said. "If suppliers aren't dropping it, just leave it be for a year." 

Schweig asked the International Casual Furnishings Association President Joe Logan to explore the legality of the idea. And the retailer knows the challenges don't stop there. 

"I listened to David's ideas in Dallas and subsequently talked with our attorney," Logan said. "It gets into restraint of trade issues, which we cannot delve into. Retailers are certainly open to talk with their individual suppliers and vendors about it. I think you'll see in times like this, companies typically do pull back on their new product introductions. I think you'll see it occur naturally." 

"All it would take is one renegade manufacturer to blow the whole thing," Schweig added. "And I realize the Casual Market has a stake in this because buyers go there looking for new. But we're in an economy we haven't seen in 50 or 60 years as far as business closings and the ripple effect from that. Right now the industry is in turmoil." 

And even though Sunnyland Furniture is doing well now, Schweig is well aware that turmoil can trickle down to include him.

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