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Fishels Changes With the Times

Fishels has been serving the people of Portland, Oregon, and its suburbs since 1921. Over the years, this family-owned business has carved out a comfortable niche for itself as the local contemporary indoor-furniture retailer with the widest selection ofoutdoor furniture available in the area. It’s also been recognized for excellence in the casual-furniture industry.

In 1995, Larry Talbott and his wife, Dee, purchased Fishels with big plans in mind. They have spent the past 15 years easing the business out of its comfort zone and evolving it to reach the next generation of customers. Talbott says, “Any company, no matter how successful it is, needs to be re-evaluating its business plan constantly. With Fishels, the road map was there; we just had to tweak it a little.” That has paid off, he adds.

Beginnings

Founder Leonard Fishel was a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Fishel; his wife, Rose; and their sons, Martin and Howard, settled in Portland and opened Fishels Awning & Supply Company in 1921. At the time, it was primarily an awning company that sold outdoor furniture consisting of not much more than a few swings and director’s chairs.

After World War II, business took off because returning veterans and their families needed patio furniture for the homes that they were purchasing. After graduating from college, Howard and Martin Fishel joined their father in the business, and together, they enjoyed many years of success.

In the early 1970s, after the deaths of Leonard and Howard, Martin sold the awning portion of the business, changed the company’s name to Fishels Furniture, and began selling contemporary indoor furniture to offset the seasonal patio business. “The indoor/outdoor combination has been the company’s winning formula ever since,” Talbott says; he joined Martin as a junior partner in 1993 and bought the business just two years later.

Strengthening the Brand

Talbott took the reigns of the company at a time when the Portland area was going through a growth spurt in population. While many longtime residents had shopped at the historic downtown Fishels store for years, there was a whole new generation of people who had not even heard of Fishels. Talbott seized this opportunity to raise awareness of the Fishels brand.

His strong marketing background proved to be an asset as he laid out his plans. “I focused on developing our image using local shelter publications and newspapers,” he recalls. The message was simple: We are Fishels. We have been in the marketplace since 1921. We carry top brands and categories. “At the time, it made the most sense to build our brand versus promoting products,” Talbott says.

As he spread the word about Fishels, he made certain that when customers came into the store, their shopping experience—in terms of both products and sales professionalism—lived up to the branding message. “There is often a disconnect for customers when a store doesn’t deliver on what it portrays itself to be in its advertising,” Talbott says. “There is a uniformity in our whole marketing effort, from the message to our products to our service.”

As the Fishel family always had, Talbott continues to take the upper road when it comes to product quality, selection, and vendors. “People come to specialty retailers for high-end products, and I believe we have the best selection in the Portland market,” he says, explaining that he regularly adds new vendors to keep the merchandise fresh and interesting. In 2000, Fishels opened a second store (in Beaverton), in an effort to expand its presence in another major Portland suburb.

Looking to the Future

While Talbott is enjoying the steady growth in both Fishels stores, he’s not one to rest on his laurels. He is calculating his next move to expand the company’s customer base. He explains that while the company has been gaining new customers, demographic information still shows that its core customers tend to be older (because it’s been in business so long).

Talbott is revamping his marketing strategy to reach customers in their 30s and 40s who are in the market for patio and contemporary indoor furniture. He realizes that his once-successful print advertising isn’t reaching his target customers, so he’s shifted the focus to other media, including the Web, Google AdWords, and strategic television advertising. “With the advent of TiVo® and other digital recording options, television advertising has gotten tricky. People record their favorite shows and skip over the commercials,” he explains.

Talbott has begun to wrap advertising around news programs because many people watch the news live and don’t skip over commercials. He is also working on social-networking opportunities, including Facebook and Twitter. “I think social media are expanding in importance to the customers we are planning to target,” he explains.

With Talbott at the helm, there is no doubt that Fishels will continue to evolve and prosper. In 2009, he led the company to its first Apollo Award win in the multistore category, and he is a member of the Inter­national Casual Furnishings Asso­ciation’s board and its newly formed retail council. “My involvement has given me the chance to work with some of the leaders on the manufacturing and retail side of the industry. I have gleaned some great ideas that I can apply to my business, now and in the future,” he says.

Eventually, Talbott hopes to pass on the business to someone who appreciates its history and sees the same opportunities that he saw when he bought into it. “You’re a fool to get into the retail business if you don’t have a passion for it, “ he explains. “You’re not going to maximize your opportunities, and you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Owning a retail business is a labor of love that can be very rewarding, but it does not come easily.”

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