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Viking Casual Furniture: Viking Casual thinks local to combat economy

Viking Casual Furniture: Viking Casual thinks local to combat economy

Times may be tough for Viking Casual Furniture, but the retailer is showing the same resourcefulness that has kept it going for 53 years. This time, it's sticking to a local-focused strategy to handle whatever may come in 2009.

Marvin Weiss started the business in 1955, when he opened a discount toy store called Toy Riot just across the river from Philadelphia in Pennsauken, N.J. He also sold folding aluminum furniture and eventually added rattan and redwood furniture.

His product mix shifted to furniture for good when a vendor suggested he sell dinette sets for the higher margins, and the store became Viking Casual Furniture in 1965. It still sells dinette sets, along with patio furniture, umbrellas, bar furniture, entertainment furniture, game sets and other casual furniture and accessories.

Weiss remains a steady presence at the Cherry Hill, N.J. store, along with his wife, Rose, who's been involved for more than 40 years. Now his son, Stuart, and daughter-in-law, Maureen, help run the business. Eight years ago, Stuart launched a second store, Barstool City, in Runnemede, where the focus is on bar furniture and accessories. Business there is good.

Business at the 10,000-sq.-ft. Cherry Hill store, on the other hand, has been up and down all year.

"Days go by sometimes with almost no sales then all of a sudden we get a couple of big sales," he said. "You just have to be lean and mean in times like this. The hardest time I'm having is predicting what to buy next year."

To offset that uncertainty, Weiss is streamlining his inventory. Any company requiring container-sized orders from China is out. Local companies like NorthCape International in Cape May, N.J., are in. So are companies such as Telescope Casual, Winston and Lloyd/Flanders, which can ship orders quickly and efficiently. The bottom line, said Weiss, is minimizing what he must hold in his 18,000-sq.-ft. warehouse.

"The old way of doing things was buying trailer loads [of furniture] now and filling up the warehouse and storing it over the winter," Weiss said. "We still do a little bit of that, but not as much as we used to."

Weiss is particularly dubious of orders from China. "It costs close to $6,000 to bring a container in from China," Weiss said. "You have to pay upfront and you don't know what kind of condition the furniture is in when it gets here. And what if you order one color and your customers want another? It's a big gamble."

Local customers aren't safer bets, either. Weiss said he sees people opting for less expensive outdoor furniture at big-box stores and then bring it to him for repairs. Weiss will fix it and, he hopes, win a new customer when they decide to upgrade.

"We haven't studied how often that happens," he admitted.

Regardless, that's the service-oriented approach the Weiss family has long taken.

"A lot of our success has to do with our relationship with the customer," he said. "We stand behind what we sell and service what we sell. We'll go to a customer's house to fix a problem for up to a year for free."

Weiss is also working with other area retailers, including Extension Patio and Sequoia Out Back. Merchandise has been swapped and repair services rendered, for instance, and the result is a relatively stable casual furniture market in the midst of an unstable housing market and economy.

"My dad taught me it's better to have a friend than an enemy, so I try to work with other people instead of going against them," Weiss said.

Weiss has also been toying with online retail, although he plans to put a local slant on that, as well. "I want to try to sell on the Internet only to customers within two hours of our store so we can service the furniture.," Weiss said. "This business is very service oriented. And now, if you don't give good service, customers will blog the heck out of you."

Weiss hopes all these initiatives get Viking Casual through the economic rut the region — and the country — is currently slogging through.

"I'm hoping things will change after the election, but I don't know," he said. "They're bailing out banks. Why aren't they bailing out furniture stores?"

Good question. Luckily, the Weisses are too busy with their business to let it nag at them.

Viking upgraded its product mix from toys to casual furniture, Right: Marvin and Rose Weiss

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