A good philosophy never grows old

Mike Bitzer joined the family business when he graduated from college. Today, as a fourth generation owner of Bitzer Furniture in Painesville, he continues to build sales and customer loyalty with a philosophy established 85 years ago by his great-grandfather, Baldwin Bitzer.

Stressing just how little the business has changed over the years, Bitzer proudly claims, “We still have the exact same payment plan from 1915.”

One-year interest-free financing is available, with payments made directly to the store. It’s an old-fashioned service style that appeals to consumers as an alternative to high credit card interest rates. Bitzer says the company holds between 500 and 600 active accounts at any given time.

Unlike big box retailers who sell their accounts receivables, sacrificing a small percentage for immediate cash returns, the privately held firm owns its receivables, as well as the inventory and the building. While typical of businesses of the early 1900s, Bitzer’s way of operating would be nearly impossible for a start-up business to duplicate in today’s financial climate because it would be difficult to get a positive return on investment.

Payment practices are not the only relic from the past. Walking through the front door is like stepping back through time. From the well-worn wooden floors to the open-front cargo elevator, the store has not wandered far from its original design. Three floors display home furnishings under dim lights hanging from engraved cathedral ceilings.

But Bitzer recognizes that the $65.1 billion furniture market is highly competitive, and he needs more than the charm of a building from the late 1800s to bring customers through the door.

Bitzer’s competes against numerous big name, high volume bedding and furniture stores within a 30-mile radius, including Ethan Allen, which features its own label and last year ranked second nationally in sales, Pier 1 Imports (fifth) and La-Z-Boy (sixth).

That doesn’t mean there isn’t space for a smaller independent retailer — overall last year, the furniture market rose approximately 8 percent — but how does the family-owned company survive, let alone compete against its larger and more well-funded neighbors?

Bitzer says it does it by ignoring both the high-end and low-end sales and creating a trusting relationship with customers.

“We position ourselves most squarely in the middle,” he says, adding that he works with manufacturers such as Flexsteel, Smith Brothers, Peters-Revington and Crawford to maintain a strong reputation for quality.

The tricky part of the equation is creating a price structure to meet or be lower than comparable retailers. That helps draw customers in; service does the rest.

“My feeling is, if we do everything right, they’ll (customers) come back,” Bitzer says.

Doing it right begins with the low-key atmosphere, possible because the nine-person sales staff receives a salary instead of being paid on commission. That, says Bitzer, reduces competition among salespeople and allows them to focus on receiving high customer satisfaction marks instead of strictly on achieving high sales numbers.

Bitzer says high pressure tactics are not only uncomfortable for customers, they’re uncomfortable for employees. He prefers to promote the store as a place to go and comfortably browse around.

While outside the industry norm, the practice has always been a company standard, as has a team approach to service.

“No one has a job description because everybody has multiple functions,” says Bitzer, adding that that includes everything from dusting to correcting scratches to more extensive furniture repairs.

A majority of furniture is damaged in transit from the manufacturer or during the creation process. From open fabric seams to drawers that stick, today’s furniture reflects the fact that 90 percent is still mainly man-made, with room for mistakes.

Bitzer says every piece of furniture is unpacked, checked and repaired prior to delivery to the customer. Every employee is trained in repair methods to minimize returns and maximize customer satisfaction.

There’s another factor that’s come into play in recent years, challenging Bitzer’s ability to compete. The retail business in the heart of Lake County drew heavy traffic in the late 1970s when a discount department store took over half a city block. But by the late 1980s, the discount house was gone, and so were the downtown mall specialty stores.

Lake County Administrator Ken Gauntner recalls how the stores drew traffic in, and the tough economic blow the city suffered when they left. The multilevel New Market Mall was renamed Victoria Place, but an attempted revival in 1991 proved futile. Retail in Painesville began a steep decline, and today, fewer than a half dozen stores remain in the city limits.

With few other shops to bring in traffic, Bitzer relies on repeat sales and referrals from customers who come from Ashtabula, Geauga and Cuyahoga and Lake counties.

He says he’ll continue to compete head-on for sales in the mid-range market, and he’s not concerned with big box retailers. As long as he remains on the path his great-grandfather blazed, the store’s service does not end with product delivery, it starts there. How to reach: Bitzer Furniture, (440) 354-4622

Deborah Garofalo ([email protected]) is an associate editor at SBN Magazine.