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At a glance
Sales of furniture and other home goods have grown steadily in recent years, despite a soft economy. The national numbers were:
2013 – $101 billion
2012 – $97 billion
2011 – $90 billion
2010 – $87 billion
2009 – $86 billion
Source: North American Home Furnishings Association

Rough on the furniture

The only thing easy about running a furniture business lately has been the easy chairs in stock.

Home furnishing stores in Fort Wayne have had a rough time in recent weeks with three companies eliminating sales or going out of business altogether.

On July 30, Kroger Co. announced it was getting out of furniture sales in favor of clothing at its two Marketplace stores at 601 E. Dupont Road and 5725 Coventry Lane. Besides groceries, the supercenters offer general merchandise and jewelry.

By November, Kroger will stock Champion, Hanes Classics, Jockey Activewear, Signature by Levi Strauss & Co., Gloria Vanderbilt, Carhartt, Dickies, Fila and others.

Less than a week after Kroger’s announcement, Rustic Hutch said it couldn’t come to terms with potential buyers and would shutter its two locations after almost 40 years in business.

Furniture Crafts, meantime, is selling off remaining stock before it closes the doors at its unfinished and finished goods store on West Jefferson Boulevard, across the street from Time Corners.

What’s happening here?

Well, the North American Home Furnishings Association said retail sales last year rose 4.1 percent to $101 billion, but buying has far to go to reach pre-recession levels. Sales were $112 billion in 2006.

“It’s very unusual and odd what’s going on,” said Dennis Oberlin, who owned Furniture Express inside Time Corners, before closing the 12-year-old store last November. “It is a tough business to get into.”

Oberlin wanted to retire and had some health issues but sought to sell his business.

“I talked with my broker, and he couldn’t give me a set time frame for selling, so I decided to call it quits,” Oberlin said. “After the recession, it’s hard for people to come up with money to invest in a furniture store.”

Kroger doesn’t view its pullout as a failure but a response to customer sentiment.

“Our Marketplace store is an evolving format,” spokesman John Elliott said in an email. “We listen closely and value customer feedback. … Customers have told us that they prefer an expansive apparel offering to furniture. On a seasonal and promotional basis, furniture and expanded home décor items will continue to be offered in Kroger Marketplace stores.”

Jason Klopfenstein put a different spin on the news. He thinks the Cincinnati grocer might have bitten off more than it could chew in Fort Wayne.

“The Kroger Co. is a good company, but they tried to sell low-end furniture,” said the general manager of John Klopfenstein Furniture & Floor Covering, which has stores in Leo and at 1206 Magnavox Way, off Illinois Road.

“The pie is only so big,” Klopfenstein said. “What people want is high-end furniture at affordable costs, and we try to give them that.”

It’s a challenge.

Sharron Bradley, executive director of the North American Home Furnishings Association, said today’s business climate doesn’t allow much room for error, so market research and a firm grasp of customer psychology are essential.

“You’re not just selling a piece of furniture,” she said. “You’re selling home, you’re selling family. If you approach it any other way you’re probably not going to do well.”

And even success won’t come without challenges, Scott Bodecker said. He is operations manager of Rustic Hutch, which has stores at Jefferson Pointe and 10202 Coldwater Road at Pine Valley Shopping Center.

“It is not easy, but it can be done,” he said.

The retailer began a going-out-of-business sale last week. The Bodeckers are unsure when the stores’ final day will be. The retailer employs about 40 full- and part-time workers and will seek to liquidate $3 million in inventory.

Kelli Mahoney-Shook owns Furniture Crafts. Her store on West Jefferson Boule­vard employs four full- and part-time workers.

The businesswoman said she recently invested $150,000 at her leased location but couldn’t come to terms with her landlord on some other repairs to the building.

“My father started the business in 1972,” Shook said. “It’s a shame. I’d like to find another location, but it’s not that simple. We’ll see how the liquidation goes.”