Family pride and persistence: Macon Furniture Mart marches on
Like many women, Karen Buchanan Bacon loves to shop. She loves skimming through Pottery Barn and Southern Living magazines looking for home décor pieces that mesh together to create the perfect room.
“When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an interior designer,” Bacon said.
Growing up in her father’s business allowed her to realize that dream — in a roundabout way. Macon Furniture Mart has been serving Western North Carolina since 1954, and Bacon has spent the last 27 years learning the ends and outs of the business.
She took over ownership of the company in 2007 when her father Branch Buchanan retired. While some kids are reluctantly groomed to take over the family business, Bacon happily stepped into the role because she loves every aspect of it.
“I love to go to the market and I love to buy all the different things for the store — setting up displays and helping people create a room,” she said. “From a blue print to a finished product, I just love seeing it come together and the idea of creating something.”
Bacon enjoys what she does, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy career. She lives, breathes and dies to keep the furniture store going — perhaps at the expense of a personal life — but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love it, but I work hard. I’m here six days a week,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle, not a job.”
The industry has changed over the years and the economic downturn in 2008 forced Bacon to make some tough decisions just as she was taking over the business. Macon Furniture Mart once had three locations in the area but is now consolidated into one building on Depot Street in Franklin. A franchise that once employed more than 50 people is now down to about seven employees. Letting employees go that have been like family for many years was one of the most difficult things she’s ever had to do.
“Talk about laying awake at night and crying,” Bacon said. “But I see it rebounding now — we’re having a good year so I think it’s starting to turn around.”
What women want
The economy isn’t the only challenge Bacon has overcome during her tenure at the furniture store. She’s spent years trying to earn the respect of many customers who expect the store to have a man at the helm.
“When I first started, people would come in and ask, ‘Where is the man in charge?’” Bacon said. “It’s gotten better as time has gone by. I feel more respected than I did years ago and also I think the clientele has changed.”
At one time, men made more of the large purchasing decisions in the household, and a majority of furniture store sales employees were male. These days she’s found that women are now the primary shoppers in the family, especially for home furnishings.
The sales team at Macon Furniture Mart reflects that changing trend — two of Bacon’s best sales people are female.
“I think women in business are more respected now than they used to be,” she said. “Even our sales reps coming in are women now — the La-Z-Boy sales rep is a 26-year-old woman and that has always been a male-dominated business.”
The image of a stereotypical, aggressive male salesman hounding customers as they walk in the store is something Bacon has tried to overcome. She doesn’t want her customers to feel pressured when browsing the wide selection at the store. In her experience, Bacon said her female clients feel more comfortable with a female salesperson.
“Women enjoy colors and making a house a home while men are more functional — they want to sell you something by how well it will hold up — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “But women sales people want to know if you have kids and how good something will look. They are just more artistic and nurturing.”
Keeping customers in mind
Bacon always keeps her customers’ needs in mind when purchasing items for her store and even with how items are displayed in the showroom. She does a lot of research before making purchases and tries to offer a variety of price points to make her furniture obtainable for anybody’s budget. During the economic recession, she purchased mostly inexpensive furniture because she knew her customers weren’t able to invest in expensive pieces.
Bacon sets up her 22,000-square-foot showroom much differently than her father did during his tenure with Macon Furniture Mart to accommodate the new age of home décor shoppers. The store is setup to show customers the design possibilities using the furniture as well as distinctive touches using decorative pillows, lamps and other home décor.
“I make it more of a lifestyle store with different rooms styles displayed instead of trying to see how many brown chairs I can cram into the store,” she said. “We also try to keep everything modern. We just installed more energy efficient lighting in the showroom.”
Every little detail is important to keep up with her competition. It’s become increasingly difficult to keep up with the big chain stores even though Macon Furniture Mart carries many of the top brands — Ashley Furniture, La-Z-Boy, Simmons Beauty Rest and solid wood Amish furniture.
To keep a competitive edge, Bacon said she offers custom design furniture, upholstery services, financing options and even delivers furniture for free within a 50-mile radius — something a majority of her competitors no longer do.
Bacon said her sales staff does not work for commission, which she believes makes all the difference in the customer service experience and employee morale.
“To me, you get better service because people are not looking after themselves,” she said. “They’re getting the customers what they want and it also helps employees get along better too. It’s not dog-eat-dog like at other places.”
All in the family
Bacon’s leadership skills have been learned during her on-the-job training at the furniture store. She said there is a reason many of her employees have been with the company for more than 15 years. Having a level playing field is what makes Macon Furniture Mart’s employees feel more like a family.
“My employees feel like I’m a friend, but they also respect me,” Bacon said. “They’re good employees and they work hard.”
One of her employees is her son and store manager Andrew Alligood. When she retires someday, she is happy to know the business will stay in the family for another generation.
“My son is third generation and he loves it as much as I do thank goodness. I brought him to work with me as a baby so he grew up here too,” she said. “He has a 5-month-old son, but I guess it’s too soon to know if he’ll take over one day.”