|RUGS AS ART: SECRETS OF A ONE-STORE REGIONAL POWERHOUSE
Rugs as Art's Jesse, John, Lucy and Carrie Murse pose for RugNews.com at a recent market shopping for new products and trends they can adapt to the tastes of coastal Florida consumers.
SARASOTA, Fla. -- A one-store regional powerhouse, Rugs as Art is an anomaly in the world of 21st century retailing. The company doesn't sell online, but it can directly attribute sales to the internet. It is reluctant to open more stores, but attracts customers from an ever-expanding area of demographic influence.
Rugs as Art likes to do business the old-fashioned way, and its success stories, as well as its best practices, serve as a model for family rug retailers across the country. In fact, says founder John Murse, fellow dealers from across the country call regularly to see what's selling and why compared to national trends; how the store is doing in general; and what he sees coming.
RugNews.com sits down with father and son, John and Jesse Murse, to explore the strategies that set Rugs as Art apart as a brick and mortar winner with true staying-power in the age of e-commerce.
Located in affluent Sarasota, Florida, Rugs as Art extends its demographic reach north to Tampa and south to Naples, a distance of about 170 miles.
PLANS FOR GROWTH
Coming off its 35 anniversary in 2016, Rugs as Art began as a local store focused on the local Sarasota community. It has since spread its tentacles across the Gulf Coast, a distance of 170 miles, drawing consumers from Tampa to Naples every day. A satellite store in Port Charlotte was recently closed when the shopping center was remodeled to accommodate a single new tenant, Ashley Furniture.
"That's okay, I don't mind. In fact, I think a lot of people are happy that we're going back to one store again," says founder John Murse. "I want to expand our store here [in Sarasota]. I want to buy the land behind us and build a new 10,000 square foot warehouse," he explained, noting that the current warehouse, now attached to the present footprint on the south side, would be converted to additional retail selling space for mid- to lower-range products: hand-loomed, hand-tufted, machine-made, and indoor-outdoor. "In the next year, we will build here. That's going to be great for us," John continues.
"The way I see it, he and I are perfectionists," adds Jesse. "We want every customer that walks out of here to think this is the best place they've ever been to in their life. If you look at our Google reviews, every one of them has five stars. For me, it's about, 'how do you take that and parlay that into multiple stores?'
"Literally, it's like I want to bat a thousand," Jesse says. "Every time we step up to the plate, I want to hit a home run. If we were okay with striking out every once in a while we might open another store. But we focus so much on the customer experience."
Rugs as Art merchandises accessories, rugs, artwork and unique furniture pieces in the front of the store to encourage add-on sales.
EXPANDING DEMOGRAPHIC REACH
"Rather than opening up multiple stores, we've focused on expanding our draw area," John explains. "We've done it through word of mouth, reputation of service, online presentation, pricing, and backing up all that with the awards we've won. We've killed every award out there that we can get our hands on."
Indeed, the store website lists those accolades, and the retailer is a consistent recipient of the Chamber of Commerce Insignia Award for customer service and the Berlin Small Business Award. Rugs as Art has won the Sarasota Herald Tribune Reader's Choice award for Best Rug Store 28 years in a row, and Sarasota Magazine's Best of the Best and Platinum retailer awards every year since they started.
"We're also on the Angie's List Honor Roll. We really work hard at it, and our customers know it. They look us up when they see these awards published -- we just got a Google report that 3,000 people looked us up online last month," Jesse explains.
More than half of the store is devoted to an extensive selection of hand-knotted rugs, which Rugs as Art sees as a growth category.
INTERNET AS A SALES TOOL, NOT FOR SALES
Although Rugs as Art doesn't sell rugs online, it merchandises social media to its benefit and can quantify calls to the store from web browsers through Google reports. "We want people to come into the store, so we're using the internet but not selling on it," Jesse continues.
"The internet experience is different from what we give people here. This is so far above and beyond an online shopping experience. It can't be matched. And our selection here is phenomenal. With 4,000 rugs on the floor, there's so much to see and touch."
"Google analytics doesn't tell us how much of that concludes in a sale, but we have a good idea, and it's a big chunk of our monthly business," John adds.
Slightly smaller than Rugs as Art's hand-knotted area, the square footage allocated to tufted and machine made rugs will be increased with Rugs as Art's planned store expansion.
ADVERTISING AND COMMUNITY OUTREACH
"We spend a lot of money on advertising that tracks back to customers coming in," John continues. "We blanket the entire area in advertising. We do the magazines, the opera, the theaters and the ballet. We also help sponsor the Orioles when they come here in the spring: our name is on the board out in the left field. Customers see it in the stadium and also on TV, and they come in because of it."
"To really get the customer experience, you should go on Google and read the reviews. We also get some residuals from all the local charities and cultural organizations that we support."
A large number of Rugs as Art customers move to Florida looking to redecorate with coastal colors and beach themed accessories.
HAND-KNOTTEDS - THE TIME IS RIGHT
A long-time barometer of national trends, Rugs as Art is bullish about hand-knotteds. "We are investing more time and money into hand-knotted merchandise in all square footage ranges from lower end to higher end," John says. "I have found that right now, in 2017, the buyer is coming back to that. For us, there has been a transition going back into better product since 2015.
"We're concentrating on making the widget better for ourselves. I want better products and colors, and I want better price points. When I say better price points, I don't necessarily mean lower price points. I'm willing to spend more money for a better product -- for better value. And so is our customer.
"We're finding our customers coming back in saying that the housing market is doing better, the government is seemingly doing better, and the stock market is up. Snowbirds and Baby Boomers are coming down to Florida and buying. And they want to buy a better product. So I'm concentrating on getting back into the marketplace in the hand-mades. We devote a tremendous amount of space to them -- more than half of the store. We work with all different kinds of product lines, and we do contemporary, traditional, transitional and modern -- all styles."
Above and below: Decorative pillows showcased on a shabby-chic fixture at the front of the store pick up colors in Rugs as Art's hand-picked artwork that is merchandised alongside the display and throughout the store.
DIVERSIFIED PRODUCT MIX
"Does that mean everything in their house is handmade? No. They want to buy the indoor-outdoor for the lanai. They need a throw rug for the bathroom, and they need an inexpensive rug for the game room -- a gun-tufted or whatever," John elaborates. "These Baby Boomers coming down here buying houses want to fill them up. But, they need different qualities in different areas that have different uses.
Based on these customer buying patterns, Rugs as Art is perfecting a whole-home strategy by quality and price point. "If you're in the market for a car, and your first car is a Bentley, you want good value for that money. That doesn't mean your second car isn't a Volkswagen or a Jeep. They're not buying two Bentleys. That's the idea," John explains.
Although outdoor living is a prime motivator for relocation to Florida, the indoor-outdoor rug category as reflected in vendor showrooms is out of whack with sales at Rugs as Art. "Their indoor-outdoor segment seems to be growing faster than ours. It's encompassing more square footage in the showrooms, probably because it's a hot product on the internet," Jesse says, noting that looped polypropylene, which used to be allocated to half a rack at manufacturers' showrooms, is now taking up half a showroom.
While the store does very well with outdoor rugs, John says every importer wants to show their indoor-outdoor first thing. "What's happening in the market is that everyone is fighting to make the best product in indoor-outdoor that's $2.50 per square foot. They're all still fighting to get to the bottom. I say, 'show me something better.'"
Rugs as Art entices rug purchasers to return to the store with regularly updated displays of small accessories that are not available elsewhere in the area.
HOME ACCENTS PIONEERS
Rugs as Art is no novice to the home accents business, having entered the category when it opened its present Sarasota location 17 years ago. Lucy Murse is the brains behind that segment of the business, John says. "When we opened this store the 5,000 square feet on the front was all rugs. Everything was rugs, and Lucy said we had way too many. She started thinking that we could soften the look and it grew from there. In 2005/2006, when the real estate bubble burst, we cut back on it a little. But when the train started going again, in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, we kept expanding it. People come in and love what we do."
Though father and son are adamant about not wanting to be in the furniture business, they are pleased with their numbers in accent furniture and accessories. Jesse points out that the segment draws customers in more frequently than rugs. "The rug is something they keep, but our rug customers come back for accessories because they love the store. They come back for the art, the accent piece, a lamp. They come in and say, 'I just want to see the new things you've got.'"
The vast display of hand-knotted rugs at Rugs as Art includes all styles: transitional, traditional, contemporary and more.
ACCESSORIES WITH A LOCAL TWIST
"The thing that separates us from everyone else is that we buy specifically for our area, where a Pier 1 or Bed, Bath and Beyond buy their art for a southeastern region. We buy things we think people in this specific area would like. Between my dad, mom, and me - we hand select every single piece. We try to have an eclectic mix between traditional, transitional and contemporary. I'm more contemporary, and my mom is more traditional," Jesse says.
"I'm more transitional," John interjects, "I like both: things that work everywhere."
Jesse adds,"We try to find pieces that are different enough to separate us from everyone else. When we go to a showroom and a vendor tells us this is their best-selling piece, I say: 'We don't want to see that.' We have to personally like it.
"It's like the rugs: we hand-select every single piece. It's time consuming, but I think that's what we're known for -- unique things," Jesse explains.
Jesse Murse poses at Rugs as Art's reception desk where customers are greeted with a few of the store's numerous awards, including two Retailer of the Year trophies from ORIA and AmericasMart.
CUSTOM ON A ROLL
John agrees. "It is exactly the same thing with rugs. We work very closely with suppliers, helping them process merchandise overseas to fit our store, which we purchase from them. But we are also doing a tremendous amount of custom work -- it's an unbelievable business for us."
Asked how its custom sales come about, John says: "Here's what happens. The customer comes in and if it's a new customer, you have one opportunity to impress that person. If they're familiar with us, it's a said-and-done sale. But if it's a new customer, a Baby Boomer, how much time do you have to impress them?
"They recognize we have low prices. They've seen online reviews that say our service is great. Then they cannot believe the selection available. We impress them with the left side, the selection and the price point, and then we bring them over here to the higher end side, and it blows them away. They see they have this wide range to choose from.
"We've found that if a customer is really serious about buying a rug, it takes four visits to this store. They come in, they're impressed; they come back and bring in the colors; they take something home, and try it out. Then they come back and try something else. It takes four times. In that process, if, by the fourth time, they're in our store and can't figure this out, Hillary [Welch], our custom rug design manager, steps in and says, 'let me show you what we can do for you. This is how we can make it for you. We can do it right down to the type of fiber you want, the color you want, and design you want - to the inch size you need. And, we can keep it in the price range you need to be in.'
"Bingo: It's done. We don't let anybody walk out of here," John concludes.