Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 4/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Scott van gorder knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of the u.s. economy. He got his start in the family business, Van Gorders' Furniture in northeast Pennsylvania, when the energy crisis gripped the nation in 1978.
"In retrospect, it's easy to say I learned to be lean and mean right from the get-go," he said.
Now, in the wake of what may end up being the most serious economic downturn since the 1970s, he hopes his three sons - Derek, Dylan and Max - have learned the same lesson. For the past four years, they all worked even longer hours than usual and kept their money in the business to keep the doors open.
The elder Van Gorder, however, had something extra to worry about back in the '70s. He and his father, Don, opened a store in the lakefront community of Hawley. Until then, the Van Gorders had a 15,000-sq.-ft . furniture showroom in the old National Hotel, built in 1860 in downtown Honesdale. Scott's grandfather, Ralph, opened that store in 1936, and it remains in business to this day.
"Even though the economy wasn't great, I was convinced opening the Hawley store was a viable opportunity for us," Van Gorder said. "But those first few years were hard. You had hyperinflation in the latter part of the Carter administration. The early Reagan years weren't too rosy, either."
But Van Gorder said he saw how a bad economy could be a positive. It forced him and his father to sharpen their focus on the business strategy.
"We were committed to the Hawley store and never looked back," he said. "It was a total investment, so failure was not an option."
Not only did they succeed, they thrived. As the economy recovered in the '80s, home construction around Lake Wallenpaupack grew. Most of the new houses were second homes of wealthy urbanites from greater New York and Philadelphia. They are still a big part of Van Gorders' customer base.
The Hawley store, located along US-6 on the northern tip of the lake, is positioned perfectly to get their attention.
"We get great drive-by exposure," Van Gorder said.
Van Gorders' Hawley store is also different from any other furniture store in the area. It has a decidedly vacation lodge look and feel thanks in part to its rustic product mix.
"If they see traditional furniture, our customers tell us they already have that back home," Van Gorder said. "They want something different this time, and they're able to find it here."
The lodge look is ideal for the location. Lake Wallenpaupack is set in the foothills of the Poconos, not far from I-84. The most striking quality of the lake is the thick forest surrounding it. Shrouded in trees, the area feels as if it's a half a world away from anywhere.
The Hawley store keeps that woodsy atmosphere alive with fuzzy statuettes of brown bears set throughout the store and decorative signs with captions highlighting fishing, golfing and other leisurely activities customers enjoy at the lake.
"I guess the look of the store is something that originated with my own personal tastes," Van Gorder said. "I enjoy the outdoors, and that's really what draws everyone else here. I figured our angle should be about bringing the outdoors in."
The Van Gorders have also done a good job of taking the indoors out. Although just 10% of their business is outdoor furniture, it's a solid category that keeps business brisk in the relatively short summer season, which lasts roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Best-selling outdoor lines include Telescope Casual Furniture, Lloyd/Flanders and Breezesta.
Van Gorder said his success with outdoor furniture, which the business has sold from the very beginning, is merely a matter of putting it out where passersbys on US-6 can see it.
"The first thing we do in the morning is set our outdoor furniture out front, and the last thing we do before we close is take it all back in," Van Gorder said.
Second-home customers have the same attitude about their outdoor furniture as they do about indoor furniture, Van Gorder said. They want something different and less traditional than the pieces they have in their primary homes.
Van Gorders' offers bright colored pieces such as slings from Telescope and Breezesta adirondacks.
"We only have so much floor space to devote to outdoor furniture," Derek said. "But we'll keep catalogs and a set or two out on the floor throughout the year to let people know we have it. I just don't know if there's any great way to expand that business."
Eventually, it will be up to him, Dylan and Max to figure it out. Dylan and Derek have worked in the family business since 2008, while Max joined in 2010.
"They all do everything, which is the right way to learn this business," Scott said. "Eventually, I'll turn over the reins to them and go fish. But truly, if I disappeared today, they'd have no troubles."
His sons may not agree. Dylan joined the business just months before the economy bottomed out in the fall of 2008. Like his father, he spent his first year in retail fighting just to survive.
"The winter of 2008 was pretty harrowing," admitted Dylan, who worked for three years as an accountant in Boston before returning home. "There weren't many people around, and the people who were here weren't buying anything. It made me worry. But I figured if I could make it through a time like that I'd be stronger for it."
Dylan said he was happy to have his father's experience and perspective to draw from.
"Having been at it for 30-plus years, he's seen a lot of ups and downs," Dylan said. "He had a lot of good suggestions to offer, like try not to experiment with too many new items. We played things pretty tight and came out of it."
Just as he and his father suspected, the family and the business are stronger now that the economy is slowly coming back. When the cyclical economy sinks again, they'll know what they have to do, whether Scott is still working with them or fishing on Lake Wallenpaupack.
|Van Gorders’ spreads woodsy visual cues such as bear statuettes and
whimsical signs throughout the Hawley store to appeal to the vacation
homeowners who make up a big part of the clientele there.|
|The love and enjoyment the Van Gorder family has for the business shines through in their service and merchandising. “The customers we deal with are
improving their lives by improving their homes,” said Van Gorder. “They’re doing something happy, which creates a pleasant atmosphere for the work day.”|
|Set along US Rte 6 on the northern tip of Lake Wallenpaupack,
Van Gorders’ gets plenty of drive-by traffi c, which is a big advantage
when the outdoor furniture goes on display in front of the
store during its short spring and summer selling season.|
|The 15,000-sq.-ft. Van Gorders’ Furniture store in the lakefront town of Hawley,
Pa., is packed with furniture vignettes. “Our showroom is big,” joked owner
Scott Van Gorder, “although there never seems to be enough room because I
don’t have discipline when I’m buying.”|
|Van Gorders’ was impacted by the recent economic downturn, although its
relatively high-end customer base helped minimize the damage. “This is not the
Hamptons,” Van Gorder said. “But let’s face it, if you have a second home you’re
enjoying three square meals a day.”|
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