PITTSBURGH — Custom furnishings and design retailer Today’s Home is reinventing itself – management, facilities, marketing and all – for a new, younger generation.
Taking the lead on the changes is the Pittsburgh-based company’s new all-Millennial management team: Chief Operating Officer Alyssa Carter (38), Director of Merchandising Whitney Wagner (33), Director of Today’s Home Trade Kaitlin Holloway (30) and Director of Marketing and Design Rachel Lenchner (30).
Rachel Lenchner will be a panelist at the Furniture Today Leadership Conference session, “Reinventing Store Experience and Other Small Business Survival Strategies.”
The team’s age is important because their job is to help move the company into its next generation of leadership and into catering to its new ideal client: a busy 35-year-old woman with a family who cares intensely about her home and likes to share photos on social media. She is interested in a taste of the “good life” and controls her family’s buying process when it comes to big-ticket buys.
“The new team understands these customers because they are part of this generation,” said Jeff Lenchner, CEO and second generation member of Today’s Home. “And they ready and excited to lead.”
So, Lenchner and his wife and company merchandiser, Jill (Rachel’s parents), along with Chief Financial Officer Brian Rice, are now on the bench as coaches and mentors.
The leadership shift is akin to the one undertaken by Lenchner’s parents, Sigmund and Audrey Lenchner, who founded Today’s Home nearly 70 years ago in 1953, when they began transitioning leadership to their son some three decades ago.
“When they started transitioning me into leadership in 1987, they felt very strongly about bringing a youth aspect in leadership to the business,” said Lenchner. “That was to both help move the company into the next steps and away from some of the old norms … so I wanted to put together a team that could think out of the box like that, too. This industry demands that, and bringing young leaders in to do that was something instilled in me by my parents who were first generation. I’m trying to pass it forward to the third generation.”
Similarly, the company is continuing the founders’ reputation for innovation, started in the early 1950s with the application of the store’s Step by Step design concept to help customers with home renovations that are made over an extended period time.
Lenchner made similar innovations in the next century, creating Designer Furniture Outlet in 2000 to leverage luxury closeouts for steep discounts and opening and expanding window treatment and flooring divisions for a total design approach.
In 2005, TH Trade and TH Trade Contract were founded and made use of the company’s years in the commercial furnishings world, meeting the needs of clients in the specialty areas of commercial, healthcare, education, corporate and hospitality. At the same time, a designer trade showroom was created that now serves more than 120 independent designers and architects.
“Home decor has changed so much over the years and people have become so much more adventurous in creating their own unique spaces,” said Carter, the new COO. “I love that we can be there to help with our wide variety of choices and services that suit any design preference.”
And that mindset is facilitating this most recent change in structure. The consumer is changing, according to the Lenchners and the new management team. Citing surveys from management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., they described the new consumer and their new shopping habits as being deeply Internet focused; they stand in stores, using smartphones to compare prices and product reviews, send family and friends photos to instantly weigh in on shopping decisions via social media; and, when they are ready to buy, an ever-growing list of online retailers can deliver products directly to them, sometimes on the same day.
“These shifts have led a number of industry observers to forecast the end of retail as we know it,” said Carter. “Some predict that retail will change more in the next five years than it has over the past century and that the extinction of brick-and-mortar stores isn’t far off.
“Our view is less dramatic, and what you are seeing is Today’s Home investing in store infrastructure and technology enabling the company to act now and grow to win in the long term.”
Carter said those investments, part of the largest capital expenditure the company has undertaken in the past 25 years, started outside the store’s showroom with the reimagination of its iconic facade of blue tiled arches and white glazed brick.
The design, put in place in the 1950s and used as the model for all other Today’s Home locations when there were multiple, had served the company well for more almost 70 years, Lenchner said, but it was time for a change. So the retailer brought in the late Martin Roberts of Martin Roberts Design, a designer Lenchner lauded for his background in retail design across many segments.
And handle it Roberts, and his son, Toby, did, refreshing the series of archways and the building’s brick facade with a muted, matching tan paint job and bookending the building with large black panels. Matching black awnings now carry the darker color scheme across a series of canopies printed with information about the retailer’s offerings – mattresses, furniture, rugs and design – and an updated logo in a matching font, featuring a gable over the ‘m” in “home” to create a small house, finishes off the new exterior’s modern look.
“It’s exactly the modern look and feel we wanted to present to our customers,” said Rachel Lenchner.
Inside the 60,000-square-foot store, change is underway, too. Right now, customers will find a refreshed showroom with new room settings, all designed by the retailer’s in-house designers, with more updates coming to the store’s traffic flow and visuals over the next six months. For now, the leadership team says the biggest change inside is the wider variety of brand offerings on display.
“It’s probably been one of our biggest moves,” said Carter. “Our goal is to provide a brand and a price point for every customer, … and it’s something our merchandising team has worked very hard to spread out across our three floors.”
Among those key brands for the store are Bernhardt, Hooker, Bradington-Young, Century, American Leather, Natuzzi and Canadel.
Along with its physical enhancements, Today’s Home has evolved and re-strategized to keep up with trends in technology, including how it communicates with customers and members of its industry.
Starting with its new website, with the help of tech companies like Perq and MicroD in a process that has been about five tears in the making, Rachel said the company has successfully loaded its full set of offerings online, making virtual browsing easy to do both for customers who want to come into the store and those who want to complete transactions entirely online.
To help customers shop in store, the retailer has also integrated new technology onto its floor, providing large television screens for designers and customers to work on as they view customization and layout options on a variety of pieces and brands – a favorite new feature for designers and customers alike.
“Training the design team on the tech side was much easier than I anticipated,” said Carter. “A lot of our designers have been designing for 25 or 30 plus years, and they do things old school. I wasn’t sure they would be as welcome to it, but they found the fun in it, and now they can’t live without it.”
Being part of Furniture First the team agrees has helped make the tech transition easier. Today’s Home joined the buying group about two years ago, and it has offered key support and troubleshooting help throughout the process of setting up and getting used to the new tech in its store. There is “always somebody to talk to” in networking groups as large as those offered by the group, Carter noted, and always someone who can help connect you with other resources.
On social media, the shifting focus has let Rachel Lenchner, who joined her family’s retail operation from a digital marketing job at David Yurman Corp. in 2014, be “more herself” as she tunes the brand into their new customer base and more modern branding approach on social media. In one example of an experiment gone right, she has been able to make her dog, Bunny, a regular part of the store’s Instagram posts. Now, she brings him to work every day and customers come in asking to see him.
Future, present, past
One unexpected challenge the team has had to contend with throughout these changes? COVID-19, which shut down the store and left the future of retail hanging in the balance for several months.
“We thought we were headed straight into the abyss when we decided to move forward. We had no idea what business would look like when we reopened,” admitted Jeff Lenchner. “But I’m going to give credit to my parents again here. I was always trained and taught that, when things get really difficult, it was the important time to ratchet up the pressure and stay dedicated to marketing and your core beliefs.”
So the company’s entire team stayed devoted through weeks long shutdowns, remodel delays and more. Using the extra time they had during shutdowns, the retailer’s employees worked on the remodel by repainting and re-merchandising the showroom and focusing on learning new technology and improving delivery, receiving and communication processes.
He described the initial plan as “running straight into the fire” but said it has all been worth it now as Today’s Home has reaped the benefits of the post-lockdown surge in consumer home furnishings spending that many in the industry have seen over the last few months.
“This has also given our consumers a lot of confidence in us,” noted Rachel Lenchner when asked about the company’s changing look and management. ”They’ve been watching us changing and continuing to thrive in these unprecedented times, and that means something. We’ve been here for 67 years, and that has built a lot of confidence. But this on top of it all has really solidified our standing as the go-to place for home in the Pittsburgh area, and we’re looking forward to growing that momentum.”
Looking to the future, she said she hopes to see the business building on its customer reach, from expanding price point options to connecting with younger and older consumers through varied platforms. Carter echoed those sentiments, and added that she hopes to build on Today’s Home’s legacy and core principles; the things that have helped the retailer survive where other businesses in its area and focus have failed.
“There’s a reason we’re still here and continue to grow, so I feel like everything we do is just working to enhance that core concept.”