St. Louis Park furniture store perseveres through changes

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2013 - 11:18 AM

Nancy Newcomb of Odds & Ends Furniture in St. Louis Park saw the store through big changes in a volatile market while keeping a low-markup philosophy.

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Last year, Nancy Newcomb, owner of Odds & Ends Furniture, began handing over ownership to her son Gary Newcomb, who has worked at the store for years.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER , Star Tribune

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Nancy Newcomb, owner of Odds & Ends Furniture, says fast turnover of manufacturer’s closeouts, regular merchandise and showroom samples help drive sales at her St. Louis Park warehouse. Rapid change has been a necessity for Newcomb, too, as she has quickly adjusted to volatile market conditions.

Indeed, almost everything has changed since Newcomb launched what would become Odds & Ends Furniture in 1997: The store’s name, its more upscale product offerings and its location (its third) all are different. An evolving customer base, meanwhile, has helped see the company through the housing market bust and recession. Last year, the ownership changed when her son, Guy Newcomb, became part owner after working at the store since its early days.

Back then Nancy Newcomb got into the furniture business because of an abrupt change. Previously a women’s clothing buyer for department and specialty stores, she resolved to work for herself after losing her job when her employer went bankrupt.

“It’s turned out to be good,” Newcomb said of starting her own venture. “The fact we’ve been able to make it through a tough time … makes me feel very proud I didn’t want to be pounding the streets of New York in my 60s.”

A few things have stayed the same: Odds & Ends maintains a low markup, with prices 20 to 40 percent less than at other stores. (The low markup applies to everything in the store, from closeouts and regular manufacturers’ furnishings to prime showroom samples from the industry’s major High Point Furniture Market trade shows in North Carolina and special orders.)

Low overhead

As always, Newcomb insists on keeping overhead low, with the store open only Thursday to Sunday, just five employees on staff and little to no advertising because she never runs sales. Her 16,000-square-foot showroom is in a warehouse. And that fast inventory turnover allows her to work on lower margins, which also helps keep prices down.

The biggest challenge of late has been losing about a third of her sales since the housing market crashed, Newcomb said. Revenue, which had been close to $3 million a year during the boom years before the crash, has fallen to about $2 million a year.

But helping to fill the consumer void has been an increase in sales to home stagers and designers, who often need a roomful (or houseful) of furniture to stage a home or condo for sale or rental. This business now accounts for 30 percent of the store’s sales, up from 10 percent during the housing boom.

When Newcomb first opened the store, she called it Scratch N’Dent Furniture because she sold slightly damaged merchandise from top manufacturers. A friend who worked in furniture sales suggested the business idea. Another industry contact gave her a list of manufacturers who sold furniture to department stores here.

“Most of the manufacturers produced the furniture down south back then,” Newcomb said. “Whenever any stores received damaged merchandise it was cost-prohibitive for the vendors to have to send it back. So I made deals with manufacturers to take it for 50 cents on the dollar.”

When furniture manufacturing went offshore a few years later and the supply of damaged merchandise dried up, Newcomb took the business upscale and began buying manufacturers’ closeouts and showroom samples from High Point.

She later added manufacturers’ regular merchandise and then changed the store’s name to Odds & Ends Furniture in 2006. She began offering special orders a couple of years ago.

Mary Murray of M.C. Murray Decor & Design said she has chosen Odds & Ends to furnish properties ranging from an $800-a-month apartment to a $4 million house.

“Their stuff is just wonderful and is at an absolute great price,” said Murray, who recently shopped Odds & Ends to furnish two model units at a Brooklyn Center apartment complex. “The other thing is, they’re so knowledgeable. I wasn’t finding that so much in other places.”

The expert says: Ritch Sorenson, professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Family Business Center at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, recommended that family business owners like the Newcombs develop a transition plan and even an estate plan to clarify roles and responsibilities through the ownership change.

“The rule of thumb I’ve heard is that you should spend about nine years at least preparing for the transition and preparing the estate plan,” he said. “There are a lot of things to put in place for the business to continue to run.”

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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