John Ewoldt: Plug into a hot outlet

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2005 - 11:00 PM

It's a scene like no other in Twin Cities bargain hunting. Take any Saturday, rain or shine, hot or cold, and at about 10 a.m. you'll find 100 to 200 shoppers in line waiting for the doors to open at the Room & Board furniture outlet in Golden Valley.

Shoppers hail from surrounding states, too. The Twin Cities-based retailer has stores in five states, including Illinois, Colorado, California and New York, but in a nice role reversal, all of those customers have to come to Minnesota to shop Room & Board's only outlet store.

Early birds arrive by 9 a.m., often with lawn chairs, coffee, magazines, newspapers and cell phones to pass the wait time. For anyone new to the game, it's a bit like watching an English fox hunt. Take a group of civilized, upwardly-mobile professionals and put them in a working-class environment -- hunting for bargains in an outlet.

Mothers drop off their kids to stake a place in line while they park the Lexus RX. Thirty-ish husbands drive to the end of the line to let out their wives, then drive away for coffee, returning just in time to rejoin their spouses before the doors open.

As the parking lot fills with Audis, Volvos, Mercedes, Passats and the occasional Honda Civic and Dodge Caravan, the well-dressed crowd stands or sits restlessly in Puma and Prada, thumbing through Town & Country, Minnesota Monthly and Vanity Fair. The newly introduced divulge some (but not all) of what they're hoping to score while others ask a friend to hold their place in line while they peek in the windows to eyeball exactly what they want.

John Lenker of Minneapolis has been to the outlet more than 50 times -- often enough that he recognizes many shoppers he's chatted up in line. "I'll see people whose names I don't know, but I'll ask them how the couch they bought the last time is working out," he said.

Lenker describes his Saturday visits as a hobby and the shoppers as a community. He's also smack dab in the Room & Board demographic -- a young, sophisticated professional with an appreciation for good design.

President of a Web design firm, Lenker thinks that many of the outlet's shoppers could afford furniture at triple the outlet's price, but they're there for the thrill of the hunt and the soft, clean-lined, contemporary furniture.

He furnished his entire downtown Minneapolis loft from the outlet for about $20,000. His most recent bragging rights? An entertainment console for $499 that sells for $2,000 in the store. "I waited a month for it to show up at the outlet and it doesn't have a scratch on it," he said.

Jill Lloyd of Minneapolis isn't such a veteran. Several weeks ago, she starting shopping the outlet to furnish her new house. But like Lenker, she fits the profile. She's young, single, owns her own company, drives a Mercedes E320, and loves the prices even though she's doesn't shop a lot of other outlet stores.

They're part of what's upending the interior design biz. Tom Gunkelman, president of GunkelmanFlesher, an eminent contemporary interior design firm in Minneapolis, found that younger clients with serious money often pay for the design expertise but want the freedom to buy the furniture on their own, not at the designer's marked-up prices. Designers may take a client to the Edina Room & Board showroom and put together some ideas, but in the new world, they lose any commission on furniture to the store. Clients choose either to pay full price at the retail store or wait for those items to show up at the outlet at 30 to 50 percent savings.

How it works

Part of the reason that the outlet is so busy is that the chances are fairly good that most items will show up at the outlet eventually. Vice President Bruce Champeau says that 50 to 70 percent of the merchandise turns over every week.

Items come to the outlet from the nine stores. Many are special-order returns (Room & Board charges only a 10 percent restocking fee on special orders, possibly resulting in more returns). Others are discontinued items, floor samples and scratch and dent.

Outlet discounts are usually 30 percent off the retail price, which is significant because the showrooms never have sales.

Although customer service at the full-price retail stores is among the best in the industry, outlet policies cut to the quick. There is no haggling for additional markdowns, no repairs, no replacements for missing parts and no guarantee or warranty.

Yet the place continues to draw hundreds of people each weekend. When the doors open, shoppers make a beeline for the area of interest. Regulars know that beds and night stands and mattresses are to the right, dining tables and chairs to the left and upholstery in the back.

If anyone doubted the strength of this furniture cult, consider the advice of "Jonny5Alive," a guy who was selling a newsletter of R & B outlet shopping tips on eBay for $2. "You will NOT have time to circle the store before you land on the deal you're looking for. You simply MUST head DIRECTLY to the area you're looking for." Jonny even included a map of the outlet's departments to facilitate shopping. It took him eight weekends to furnish his house. Get there by 9 a.m., he advises, or you'll be left with seeds and stems by noon.

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