Back in November 1987, Ed Smith found himself at the top of the world – or, at least, the top of his world. “I was 22 years old and had $3,000 from my wedding money, and I thought I was wealthy.”
And how did Smith decide to use his youth and his newfound wealth? By opening a furniture retail store. “I was delivering part-time for another furniture store, and I loved the business,” he recalled.
But Smith’s Chariho Furniture in Richmond, R.I., got off to a bit of a rough start. “I had 3,000 square feet of quite low-end furniture,” he admitted. “I wasn’t very happy about what I was selling, but it was all I could afford to buy and resell.”
Still, Smith obviously made somebody happy, as Chariho Furniture’s sales grew and he was able to shift his retailing focus to a higher-grade merchandise. Fast-forward 30 years and today’s Chariho Furniture occupies a 25,000 square foot location offering what Smith describes as “very high-end American-made furniture.”
Smith emphasized that while patriotism plays an important role in selling American-made products, quality and product versatility are equally crucial. “I have one Amish builder who has 4 million possible dining table combinations,” he stated. “You pick your size, you pick your shape, you pick your wood, you pick your edge, you pick your finish, you pick your leg – no imports do that.”
Smith pointed out that many Chinese-made bedroom sets are created with Pennsylvania-harvested wood that is shipped to China for manufacturing and then shipped back to the U.S. for sale. And while China is not lacking in trees, Smith observed that their forests do not produce the wood quality that Americans have come to expect.
“The Asian hardwoods are just not pretty,” he explained. “Typically, when you walk into a mass-merchandise store, everything is dark wood. When you stain an ugly grayish-green piece of wood dark, it is okay. But we do a lot of light colors. People go to the mass-merchandisers and they don’t realize why they are not seeing natural light-colored wood. Because if they took the stain off what that piece of furniture is, it is probably pretty darn ugly.”
For its metal furniture, Chariho works with California and North Carolina manufacturers specializing in hand-forged steel. “It is not inexpensive, but it will be around 100 years,” he said.
Smith identified the Chariho inventory as consisting of “7,000 different SKU numbers,” with dining room sets as the company’s most popular item. “We display 50-plus dining room sets,” he added. “There is no other place where you can go in and find 50 customizable American-made dining room sets.”
Smith identified the Chariho target audience as high-end customers who are comfortable paying a bit more for their merchandise. “The vast majority of our sofas are priced around $2,400,” and while most stores might say that’s high, Smith said his customers expect the absolute best.
The store also employs four interior designers who are trained to meet the most distinctive customer requests. One customer was eager for customized furniture featuring crocodile hide, which Smith’s team provided.
Today, Chariho routinely ships its merchandise across the country and overseas – one of its most high-profile transactions was the recent sale of 24 chairs to Facebook’s corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. “If I knew that I would one day be selling furniture to Facebook, I would not have called the company ‘Chariho’,” laughed Smith, noting the Charlestown-Richmond-Hopkinton market was his first point of conquest when he was that 22-year-old entrepreneur. “Back then, I had the vision: wouldn’t it be cool if I could sell recliners to these three towns?”
Going forward, Smith is working with his 25-year-old daughter Stephanie in positioning the store for changing trends in home furnishings. Chariho introduced outdoor furniture offerings in 2015, and many of its new designs highlighting a casual comfort style.
“We are not seeing homes built as much with formal dining rooms,” he said. “We are also seeing an interest in soft seating, so we sell a lot of goose down for very deep seating.”
One thing that is not in Smith’s future is additional Chariho locations. “Twenty years ago, all I had on my mind was: ‘How do I get bigger and how do I have 10 stores?’” he remarked. But quantity took a quick backseat to specialized items and services. And it’s a formula that has paid off, he said. “We’re still growing – we’re 15 percent ahead of last year, and last year we were 13 percent of the year before.”
Chariho Furniture is located at 10 Richmond Townhouse Road, Richmond, R.I., 02898. Call 401-539-9043, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit charihofurniture.com for more information.