Gail Galea has a benchmark for whether Art Van Furniture is pushing itself enough in new ways, and it hinges on punctuation.

Galea, Art Van's new chief merchandising officer, wants guests to the new Art Van, the Warren-based furniture chain, to be so blown away the next time they visit one of their many locations, that they'll "turn around and double-take and say, 'That's Art Van?'"

"Everything we did, we ran it through that filter," says Galea, a former Sears Canada and Walmart executive who started at Art Van last November. "If it was, 'Oh yeah, that's Art Van,' we weren't pushing hard enough."

The "new" Art Van is changing nearly every way it does business to reach out to customers in a multi-faceted way, from a revamped website that'll eventually allow buyers to put together digital wish-lists to reorganized showroom floors with new collections and even home accents like rugs and window treatments.

Starting this fall, 65 percent of Art Van's showroom floors will be different, said Galea. Gone are showrooms divided by commodity, such as dining room sets or sofas. Furniture will now be divided by six "lifestyle" categories: casual, farmhouse, urban, modern, traditional and mid-century to make shopping for the entire home easier.

And gone are the clearance centers, which have been replaced by an outlet department in each store. The retailer has also revamped its website, which will soon allow customers to set up registries and wish lists.

And for the first time ever, each Art Van store will now have a new Home department where customers can pick up everything from accents to window treatments and rugs to help "finish a room," Galea says. In the past, Art Van only sold some accents.

"What we heard loud and clear from our customers is you’ve got great furniture, help me finish my room because you have a vision of how that room should look,'" said Galea. 

The "new" Art Van will celebrate with a big kickoff party at its Warren headquarters on Thursday. The theme: "Our New Story Begins."

Executives say the new Art Van is about making the buying experience easier for time-pressed customers but also better connecting digital elements to their stores.

"Eighty-percent of customers start online," said Galea. "...The customer experience needs to be consistent. And it should be a seamless experience." 

A private equity firm, Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Partners, bought Art Van in February 2017. The changes come as a new leadership team continues to reshape Art Van, which will celebrate 60 years in business next year. A new chief executive officer Ron Boire (pronounced Bo-air) started May 1, replacing longtime CEO Kim Yost.

Boire, an upstate New York native who has decades of retail experience at places such as Sears Canada and Barnes & Noble, admits he'd never heard of Art Van before he interviewed with the retailer. He says the changes aren't about making the retailer more competitive with online furniture retailers, or e-commerce.

"Going toe-to-toe with e-commerce makes less and less sense for a lot of reasons," said Boire, 57. "Amazon is buying retail stores. We have retail stores. We have a great delivery service and awesome salespeople. And that’s our asset." 

Her way, her time

Art Van has come a long way since it was founded by Art Van Elslander with one store in Eastpointe in 1959.

Today, Art Van is considered the No. 1  furniture and mattress retailer in the Midwest with 188 stores in nine states operating under several brands, including Art Van Furniture, Art Van PureSleep, Art Van Flooring, Scott Shuptrine Interiors, Levin Furniture, Levin Mattress, Wolf Furniture and Gardiner Wolf Furniture. In May, the retailer opened its seventh location in the St. Louis area.

And that growth — all within a 650-mile radius of its Warren headquarters and warehouse — will continue, says Boire, who says one of his main goals is to better integrate their supply chains across the Midwest, especially as they deal with tariffs.

In a spacious conference room around a large round table just off his office in the retailer's Warren headquarters last week, Boire drew a picture of a fictional female shopper to explain the new approach. That shopper may see some type of Art Van ad on Facebook or Google. He then drew a picture of a store and a truck. 

He said the goal is to better connect all of those experiences for Art Van's customers and part of that is through digital media. He said the company has doubled its investment in digital marketing, which includes social media, online search engines, even digital billboards.

It’s about connecting “her stuff, her way, her time," said Boire. "We want to be able communicate with her in a way she wants to be communicated with."

"This connection is really new – and digital marketing emphasis is really new," said Boire. "...That’s all an evolution of the digital marketing strategy."

Another big change customers can expect is how Art Van advertises. The goal is to do a better job through marketing and advertising of telling "our story," said Boire. He said founder Elslander told a great brand story about "great products at great prices" but the story has been lost a bit with endless ads and sales.

"I think the company kind of got away from that over the last few years and it’s been almost constant promotional cycle," said Boire. "We’re not telling our story. You’re going to see our branding come back into the story and talk to that millennial customers and you're doing to see that in unexpected ways."

 Even though Van Elslander died in February, his presence is still very much a part of Art Van. A large photo of him hangs in the company's headquarters spelling out the retailer's vision and mission.

Lab stores

More changes, meanwhile, could be down the road.

Boire says they're testing out marketing messages in a test market "isolated from Detroit." He said they also plan to create "lab stores" where they'll test new selling and customer-service models.

"It's not a secret that what got a company to where they are is not going to help them in the future," said Boire. "We're constantly trying to re-invent our future. The theme for 2018 is innovate. The theme going forward is transform."

In five years, Boire says he sees Art Van "as a super regional player" in the furniture industry "potentially poised to go national."

And Boire isn't worried about the "new" Art Van potentially alienating old customers. He thinks what appeals to millennials will also appeal to older customers. A good example was when a group of people from the retailer watched a preview of an ad and people in the room from all demographics were blown away.

"Every person in the room went 'Oh my, I want to buy from that company,'" he said. "...Our story hasn't changed. It's great stuff, great values. It's about telling the story in a new and fun and compelling way to a new audience."

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Twitter: @mfeighan

Art Van Reinvented

Several changes are afoot at Warren-based Art Van Furniture.

  • Furniture on showroom floors will now be divided into six lifestyle categories: Casual, Traditional, Urban, Modern, Farmhouse and Mid-Century.
  • Six new collections will be introduced including the Art Van's Detroit Collection, an expansion of the Detroit Sofa Company. It will offer dining and bedroom sets.
  • Revamped website that will soon allow customers to create wish lists.
  • New Home department that will offer rugs, window treatments, tableware and other accents.
  • Continued expansion into other Midwest states.
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