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Small family business evolves into Texas chain

When Marvin Barish purchased Houston-based The Chair King in 1973, 23 years after it was founded, he was running two very small stores. Today, The Chair King boasts 18 locations across Texas with plans to continue growth.

The Chair King 

Furniture is displayed according to material in the showroom, surrounded with accessories and carefully vignetted with faux backdrops, like the brick above.  

The Chair King 

 Hammocks are playfully displayed hanging from the ceiling at The Chair King's Lakeway location.

 The Chair King

Cushions and umbrellas line the store in an organized fashion.  

"At the time my father bought the business, it was a 'boom' time in the city of Houston," President David Barish said. "Oil went up in price because of the oil embargo, and sales were great."

When the younger Barish entered the company in 1980, the family began expanding the business. The chain boasts more than 100 employees — "I lost count," Barish said — across 18 locations, including one design showroom which caters to the trade, in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin. Included in this is a fourth location that opened in Dallas, and a relocated Austin store, just this month alone.

Austin is the home to three stores, and the largest can be found in the affluent community of Lakeway. The 27,000-sq.-ft. store opened in June 2004 in a strip mall surrounded by $1 to $5 million waterfront homes near Lake Travis. The store is impressive, with vignettes organized by material within carpeted zones and pathways. A smaller interior furnishings section, which makes up about 20% of sales, is devoted to dinettes, couches, barstools and wicker/rattan furnishings.

"The outskirts of Austin are growing faster than Austin itself," said Cynthia Rivera, sales manager at The Chair King. "It's a transient town. A lot of people still find our real estate affordable."

The Chair King's Lakeway location is benefiting from nearby home construction. Many of the homes are being built with the outdoor room concept in mind, "which helps us," Rivera said.

"Austin is a smaller city, a very well-educated, highly tuned city," Barish added. "The market is different because Austin is a high-tech city that employs hundreds of thousands. It's a very good market for us, and has shown increases as far back as I can remember, and we continue to do well."

The top three selling categories at the store include cast aluminum, due to its weight (Austin experiences high winds), resin wicker and deep seating groups. Large tabletops adorn the floor, catering to the massive homes and outdoor areas.

"If you put out a 48-inch table, they're lost," Rivera said.

Top vendors include Hanamint, Mallin, Tropitone, Landgrave and Castelle. Also on display are outdoor rugs by Trans-Ocean, umbrella lights by Treasure Garden and outdoor accessories such as throw pillows, umbrellas, hammocks, outdoor clocks and thermometers and tiki torches.

Darker finishes are popular at the store, and earth tones, muted stripes and solids sell best. "One of the challenges in the industry is color trends — what's next," Rivera said.

Barish attends the Casual Market, High Point Market, National Hardware Show and travels two to three times a year overseas. He also anticipates attending the Las Vegas Market in the future.

"We are unique in our ability to shop the world, offer values to our consumer base and provide product at price ranges that do not lock out any of our consumers," Barish said. "We can offer from $199 up to $10,000."

Like many specialty casual furniture stores, The Chair King's customers are mostly women between the ages of 35 and 50. Radio and television ads, monthly newspaper circulars and weekly ads highlighting specific groups help bring in the customers, who Rivera said aren't as brand-committed as they used to be, "which is a good thing," she said.

Competition between other specialty retailers in the area and mass merchants doesn't seem to bother Rivera or Andrew Guajardo, manager of the Lakeway location.

"The more, the merrier," Rivera said. "Mass merchants have a more sophisticated product mix (than they did in the past), but can't sell on service. If (customers) come in here, we're getting them."

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