Industry legend Rose “Mrs. B” Blumkin founded Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM) in the basement of her husband’s store in 1937, selling home furnishings at rock-bottom prices. Over the course of the next 60-plus years, the innovative businesswoman shattered conventions to build one of the largest dollar-volume independent retail businesses, selling everything for the home—from furniture to flooring to electronics—in giant retail spaces.
She built and operated the business on the foundations of honesty and integrity, even to the point of selling a majority share in 1983 to another “big B” in Omaha, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, on a simple handshake. The deal, based on a two-page written agreement, completed the sale without any audit of the books or inventory.
Seventeen years after her passing, Blumkin’s grandson, Ron, helms the business and still adheres to the simple tenet of the company’s matriarch: “Sell cheap and tell the truth.” Today, he utilizes the approach in all four of the company’s giant showrooms in four states: Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Texas, as well as through its online storefront. And, like his grandmother before him, he works hard to stay in contact with his team, making a point to reach out to every last employee day in and day out, remembering always that as big as it has grown, NFM is still a family company at heart.
Helping Blumkin to manage the category most relevant to us here is David Snedeker, division merchandise manager, flooring. With more than 22 years at the company, and almost 30 in the industry, he has worked from the sales floor up to buyer and now division leader. He has helped grow one of the company’s key categories to well over $50 million in annual sales, staying focused on the core tenets while embracing all the options available in a world vastly different from the company’s beginnings.
Although there is continued success for the company in traditional marketing forums—direct mail, television, radio and circulars—Snedeker is quick to note the company is continually moving forward. As an example, he offers, “This year we are putting our circulars online versus sending them out.”
It has been an effective change for the brand because access to the Internet has and is becoming more prevalent every year. “Five years from now, it will be a lot more mobile than it is even now,” Snedeker explains. “How many people do you see even today that don’t have an Internet-capable phone? Already in today’s world you can market to them as they walk through your store.”
The Internet has also provided NFM a distinct competitive advantage in operations with the company’s use of proprietary technology to actively price check its inventory against the competition and update prices daily throughout all its storefronts to be lower than anywhere on the web.
An advantage primarily utilized with its electronics and appliance SKUs, the retailer is moving toward the same approach in its furniture and flooring categories, according to Snedeker.
To ensure the company’s team across the four locations is ready and capable, a set training program with clearly defined operating procedures for every position is used. At the same time, he points out everyone is empowered to help resolve issues.
“Nebraska Furniture Mart is a good company to work for that just wants to sell product and do it in the fastest and best way we can—and, at the same time, make it easy for customers to buy from us.”
“When a problem is identified,” he says, “one of the first things we do is go to the person handling the process and ask them how to fix it as they are closest to the issue. Our operational excellence team will [go so far as to] start from scratch and build the whole thing out with those team members closest.”
“There is a lot of autonomy,” notes Patty Wojtiewicz, soft surface buyer, rugs and carpet. “There is always support from upper management without micromanaging. They tell us what they need and put us in a position of taking ownership in whatever we are working on.”
“It is about constant improvement and finding ways to take waste out of the channel,” Snedeker adds. “Nebraska Furniture Mart is a good company to work for that just wants to sell product and do it in the fastest and best way we can—and, at the same time, make it easy for customers to buy from us.”
It’s an effective method that builds loyalty. Well over 300 of NFM’s employees are in the 20-Plus Club representing a minimum of 20 years with the company.
Another factor in the low turnover rates is the personal touch brought in by the Blumkin family. Every one of its employees gets a call from Ron Blumkin on both their birthday and work anniversary. As well, unlike many of its competitors who look for every opportunity to make an extra buck, NFM is closed on major family-oriented holidays—Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas—allowing its extended family time to be with their immediate loved ones.
The no-nonsense approach it relies on with customers and staff is also how the company deals with vendors. While Snedeker notes strong growth with partners like Shaw and Phenix, “We have a hard time singling out any vendors because we do business with all of them.”
“Our perspective towards vendors is we don’t mind if you are one of the big dogs,” states Wojtiewicz, “but everybody is equal and we are going to look at what you offer with everybody being equal.”
Even with the continued growth of the company, Snedeker notes there is always opportunity for more. Like many of its compatriots in the industry, the company has moved to remove rent from the equation by purchasing its properties where possible. Unlike others, though, the company has moved into the development segment with the opening of its store in Texas.
Anchoring the Grandscape development about 25 minutes north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is NFM’s largest store to date at 560,000 sq. ft. In addition, Nebraska Furniture Mart is developing the entire 400-plus acre property for mixed use retail, hospitality and entertainment.