Slater's Drexel Heritage employee Nick Sanders helps load up furniture for delivery on a recent morning. After 98 years in business, the store closed last Sunday.
But when a moving sale didn't produce the income needed to pay for preparing the new store and stocking it with inventory, they decided to call it quits.
"It's become a financial strain and you sort of wonder, why am I doing this?" said Dewey Slater.
Sales of all kinds of furniture -- including the popular $2,500 mission-style Morris chair in black leather -- had dropped. Trading down for less expensive items happened across the spectrum, including among lower-priced furniture retailers. One of the only furniture stores to open in recent months was Ashley Furniture, which is known for its low prices. It opened in the Marketplace at River Park in January. The company is the No. 1 source of furniture for the U.S. market, with $2.7 billion in sales last year, according to Furniture Today magazine. "You cannot drive down [Highway] 99 from here to Modesto without seeing an Ashley truck," said Mark Slater. For the Slaters, relief is overshadowing the sadness of closing the company their grandfather started downtown and that spent almost two decades at Shaw and Blackstone avenues. The Slater's Home Furnishings stores run by their cousins in Modesto and Merced will remain open. The Slater brothers hope to return to the Fresno furniture scene someday, possibly opening a store that sells Stickley furniture in the future, said Mark Slater.
A failed revival Bernie Siomiak, owner of two World Furniture Direct locations, is enduring similar struggles. He owns the building that houses his West Shaw store and will keep that store open. But he has been locked into a five-year lease for the store near Herndon and Blackstone avenues. He will close that location in the coming weeks when the lease expires. "It's a money loser," he said. He had a going-out-of-business sale before, when he changed the store to Modern Furniture Direct, selling contemporary lines favored by younger families in 2009.
It didn't work. "We sold nothing for the first week and a half," he said. He pulled down the "modern" signs and reverted back to his original concept. To compete, he now hires six sign twirlers to stand on street corners every weekend. Sign twirlers from several furniture companies are a common sight even on weekdays, with several positioned near competing stores. It's a situation Siomiak likens to a post-apocalyptic scene from Mad Max 2 where barbarians battle for gasoline. "You could go two, three days without selling a stick of furniture" after the housing crash, he said. At Blackstone and Shaw, Home Design Furniture will close in the coming months. The owner could not be reached to comment. The other store he owns across the street, Lifestyle Furniture, will remain open.
Waiting for an upswing The furniture industry has probably hit bottom, said Steve Rontell, a retail specialist and principal at Colliers Tingey International commercial realty firm in Fresno. An upswing for furniture stores will happen eventually as the city continues to grow and the Hispanic market is underserved, said Skip Rollf, a Sperry Van Ness senior investment adviser specializing in retail. He said the three closing furniture stores will be refilled relatively soon as they are in high-traffic areas. Although it appears there are new furniture stores opening, they're really moves by players who have been in the market for a while, Rontell said. Furniture City, which opened last October in the former Circuit City store, was what Hi Life Furniture renamed itself after moving from Blackstone and Shaw, he said. The Ramos Furniture that showed up on Blackstone Avenue several months ago opened under the name Primo Furniture, but has always been run by the same owner of the longtime Ramos Furniture store on West Shaw, he said. And Furniture One, celebrating its grand opening near Blackstone and Shaw avenues, is the former Furniture Zone. The new owner removed the "z" from its sign and the truck.