Marc Levin founded The Ultimate Backrub Store in 1995 so that people suffering from neck and back pain could benefit from convenient and inexpensive massages. The store offers professional back massages, as well as healthy lifestyle products.
Then, while making deliveries to high-end executives, Levin made an important discovery: Even in the most lavish of homes, office furniture looked like it belonged at a corporation. Residential office furniture was not an option in the marketplace at that time, something Levin decided to change.
In 1998, he founded Home Office Solutions, which specializes in high-end, ergonomic home office furnishings. Levin’s idea took off, and today, Home Office Solutions Group consists of three retail stores around Chicago and three Web stores: www.UltimateBackStore.com, www.OfficeDesigns.com and www.HomeOfficeSolutions.com.
Gross sales have increased from $5 million in 2001 to $20 million in 2004.
Smart Business talked with Levin about the importance of the Internet in the growth of his company and how he plans to continue growing Home Office Solutions Group.
How did you use the Internet to grow your company?
The Internet is an international market, not just a local market. In January of 1999, we moved our store to Yahoo and became part of Yahoo shopping.
Back in those days, the Internet was still in the Stone Age. People were hesitant to shop online, but they trusted Yahoo. Getting on there was our first exposure. We also advertised on other search engines. So that brought our product to the marketplace nationally and internationally. In the spring of 2000, we really started to see an increase in online orders.
With 90 percent of your sales made over the Internet, how do you ensure quality customer service?
When we started Home Office Solutions, our motto was, ‘Service to exceed Nordstrom.’ Being a retailer and a shopper, I felt that Nordstrom had the highest level of customer service and had highly trained employees dealing with their customers. I felt that if, on a bad day, we are just as good as Nordstrom, then we are going to be successful.
Being a smaller company, we were able to micromanage every word that came out of our associates’ mouths. We gave them extensive training. We have 90-day training for sales and customer service reps before they are allowed to talk with customers. In the retail industry, that is like years.
We also use successful people who know the techniques to train the new people. Sometimes your best people don’t want to be training other people, they just want to be selling or dealing with the public, but we force them to train.
You sell Herman Miller products and have a good relationship with the company. How do you establish relationships with other companies and turn them into profit?
The way to establish relationships with other companies is to be able to bring their product to the marketplace in a venue that is superior to other dealers. One way is to have phenomenally trained staff on their product and product knowledge.
Another way is to have a large inventory of their products and not have to rely on them to ship products for you. The third way is to give them input from our customer base on what people are looking for and questions that they ask.
We have around 3 million unique visitors a year to our Web site. There is a fair amount of communication coming from the public to us that we forward on to Herman Miller. They need to know what is going on in the marketplace, too. They can do marketing studies, but the best study is to talk to your high-profile dealers.
How has your company grown to meet to the changing needs of consumers?
We keep adding products all of the time. Every month, a new product comes out online. With us being No. 1 in high-end ergonomics products on the Internet, the manufacturers like Herman Miller and Steelcase come to us with their new products in the development stage. They ask us how we feel about the product and where we think it would be in the marketplace compared to their competition.
How we continue our growth is we are doing a complete new software platform, which is connected to all of our stores and our warehouse. It is going to help us grow the company in the future.
How did your company continue to prosper after Sept. 11, while many others suffered?
When Sept. 11 happened, I started to hear about how people were afraid to leave their homes and afraid to go to the shopping malls, and all this hysteria that the media created. This led me to believe that people were going to nest.
One of the rooms that I thought people were really going to spend time in was the home office. I just knew that was going to happen. And it is actually what happened. The home remodeling business went crazy. People stopped taking vacations and they took that money and put it into their homes.
We were right there ready for people to upgrade, redo or for the first time do their home office. We were already there with the products, ready to go. We were also able to ship furniture in the same time frame that Amazon ships a book.
What are your growth goals for the future?
We are looking for about 25 percent growth for this year. We are already exceeding that.