The Blackstone Emporium, located right on Main Street in Blackstone, Virginia, is a local staple. Serving their community for forty years now, Beth Winn and her son offer a wide variety of furniture styles. Bright and welcoming, their store has something for everyone. Great customer service, fair prices, and home delivery top off their amazing selections. Executive Director of Downtown Blackstone, Inc., Justin Sarafin, recently paid Beth a visit.
JS: “Good morning, Beth. Tell me about what you do here.”
BM: “We are a retail home furnishing store. We cover pretty much everything except appliances and the installation of carpet.
“I would say the majority of our customers are 50 and older. Our demographic is getting younger and younger all the time because the millennials, of course, are taking over the purchasing power, which is good too. My son is here and he’s younger, he’s only 30. So he kind of brings in a different perspective, which is really nice. He knows how to capture the things that his generation would be interested in, which is great. And of course, by having him here the business should continue on, which is great because it’s a family business.”
JS: “And tell me just a little bit about the history of the company. When did you start? How long have you been here?”
BM: “So my father-in-law and my husband at the time, decided they wanted to go into the business, a family furniture store. My father-in-law’s family actually had a furniture store so he had experience in that: he’d always been a salesperson. In 1980, they opened this up from scratch.
“You can imagine, we went and got a loan at the bank and started from scratch. And it just kind of got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger. All of his friends that he had sold for years, followed him – again by word of mouth – and enjoy dealing with people who cared. He felt like everybody was there for him. He didn’t know a stranger and everybody loved him. And, you know, he was a good teacher. And so he and my husband got things off the ground.
“Then I came in and joined them and help them get organized financially. Then we all used our own talents and grew the business.
“Eventually, our son came in after he got out of school, and decided that he wanted to do it. He had that gift of gab and the love of people. It was just kind of natural and he wants to continue on and you don’t have a lot of people really that want to be in retail. You don’t have a lot of young people who want to live in small towns, but you know, it’s a good fit.”
JS: “What do you think separates you from other shops like yours?”
BM: “Well, I think probably the product that we select is different. It’s not a big box mentality where everything has to follow a specific fashion. I mean, yes, we try to be fashion-forward, but we are very interested in furniture that I would consider family-friendly and things that, yes, they’re stylish, but they are durable and they carry good warranties. We’re very careful to exercise all warranties if possible and select companies that stand behind their product.
“That’s very important because customer service is so important. That is one thing, if you do buy something from us and it’s serviceable, normally our employees can and will service it. Normally we don’t charge extra for parts. It’s just whatever the company charges us. And then we charge a little bit for labor. We’re very customer-oriented and customer-friendly.
“Certainly, we sell promotional things, but we’re very upfront. We ask, ‘What is it that you need?’ to try to identify what you need rather than what we really want to sell. I think people appreciate that. They know we are here and they know they can call us and talk to the same person that sold to them, rather than talking to a different person all the time. I really do think it’s a personal connection. Even our email address for our customers is email@example.com because we want them to feel that they can call us and get service, and we’ll listen to their issue if they have one. I think that’s kind of what sets us apart.”
JS: “What is your favorite part of this job or this work?”
BM: “I would say probably meeting all of these people. I would say probably 60% of our customers come from the Tri-Cities area. Also from over at the lake, we have a lot of following over there. We go as far as Emporia because there really is no retail trade there in Lawrenceville. We’ve delivered to Northern Virginia because we have people who have moved there, and they’re children of our customers. So we’ll deliver and we deliver to the beach to Nags Head. Not all the time, but if somebody makes it worth our while absolutely we’ll do it.”
JS: “So people are making a point to come to Blackstone to come to you.”
BM: “Yes. We spend a lot of money on advertising, but really our biggest advertisement is word of mouth. Most of the people who come in and say, ‘Oh, my neighbor told me about you.’ Or ‘I didn’t know anything about you, but I just saw a commercial,’ because my children have always done the commercials.
“It’s been this family-oriented thing where people say, ‘I saw your children on television, how old are they?’
“Benjamin is here now, and we’ll hear, ‘I remember you when you were just a little boy.’ And so it’s nice. People notice we’ve got that younger generation in here.”
JS: “I think that leads to my next question. You may have sort of answered it a little bit, but what support team do you have here alongside you?”
BM: “Well, primarily it’s my son and me, but we also have two ladies that have interior decorating experience. Matter of fact, one of them was an interior decorator for the Benjamin Moore stores in Richmond. So we’ve got the capability to be able to offer that, but it’s not like number one, you know. They do it because they love it and they have the right attitude. And again, it’s the customer first and trying to figure out and identify what makes the customer happy.
“We do have a full-time delivery team too. We don’t hire out the guys, we have two guys that are my generation, they’re still hanging around supporting the others, but we have two young guys now who are doing most of it, but we don’t farm out any deliveries. If people want to pick up, they can, but most of the time we do in home.”
JS: “So again, quality of service right there.”
BM: “Yep. Exactly it is. And we try to deliver within a few days if I special order something. Usually, if it comes in on Monday, you’re going to have it within a day or two, if that’s what you want.”
JS: “What do you want customers to remember most when they leave here?”
BM: “Well, that’s a good question. I would say the way they were treated is first and foremost and that they would be willing to recommend us to somebody else. And that we have a really good selection because we really do.
“We encourage people if they have seen something somewhere or in a magazine or online to show it to us because a lot of things are done by lots of different companies. There’s not a lot of new ideas, but there are so many things we can get. If they can give us a price point, we can try to find it for them. And we’re willing to do that. We’re not just saying, ‘Oh, that’s the item I have. And that’s what you need to buy.’ [We ask], ‘What do you need? And what do you want?’
JS: “And the selection. I mean, I’m looking at the fabrics behind you.”
BM: “That’s just one company, you know.”
JS: “And there is the ability to find exactly and create exactly what you want?”
BM: “Exactly. We do sell right off the floor, but we do probably at least 50% of special orders. People will come in and say, ‘You know, I love that sectional, but I need to tweak it a little bit. And I like those pillows, but I’m going to change those.’ Or, ‘I don’t like that body fabric, because I have a dog that gets all over it and the hair will show.’ So I mean, we’re very open to special orders all the time.”
JS: “I’ve got a friend – I live out by Petersburg – I know he needs a sofa and his plan is to come visit Blackstone and visit you all because of that. That’s my knowledge of you all through word of mouth.”
BM: “Well, that’s great. And you know, when people call on the phone, oh my gosh, we have a lot of shoppers on the phone, which I get. You know, part of that is people’s age. They don’t necessarily want to drive unless I got something they want.”
“So we’ll spend a lot of time with them on the phone explaining, and going over things, and then running around and going, okay, now what’s the price on this? What’s the price on this? We are trying to give them an idea before they even get in the door that this is where they want to be. We’re not going to tell them, ‘Well, I’m sorry, it’s whatever [we have] you just come in here and look.”
JS: “What else would you like me to know about Blackstone Emporium?”
BM: “I think we are competitive pricing-wise. You know, we don’t give specific, deep discounts like military, seniors, that kind of thing. Because our idea is that we’re going to give you the best price we can to everybody. Yes. To anybody.
“We just start out competitive in the beginning. I think a lot of people come here because they feel like we’re not gouging them. You know, we’re trying to be very realistic about what things cost. That is, and will be, our philosophy forever. We’re just not like a big box [store]. ‘Oh gosh, well, today we’re having a sale, let’s mark everything up. So we can then mark everything down, and then next week we’ll change again.’ No, we’re not into that.”
JS: “That’s time spent that you’re taking away from the customer.”
BM: “Exactly. If there are deals to be had, if the manufacturer is going to give us a deal, then we’re going to pass it on because we’re known for that. A lot of customers will call and say, ‘I saw that very item and it was like two or $300 more.’ Our delivery fees are basically just to cover gas. We used to do all free delivery, but it got to the point where we couldn’t afford it. So now we just charge whatever it costs us in gas. I think a lot of people appreciate that, too. That’s us in a nutshell.
“I was going to say too, we do carry a lot of American made. We sell a lot of imported things too, but we do try to support American manufacturers. We’ve got a lot of Mennonite and Amish manufacturers. We also carry Bassett the majority of that is American-made and also Vaughan Bassett. So it’s really kind of refreshing that some of these companies, especially even Virginia-based ones, are starting to really do a lot more American made. That’s great, and I think our customers appreciate that too.”
JS: “What I’m hearing, it sounds like your relationships with your suppliers is huge. That relationship on the front end is so important for what you’re selecting and ultimately, what customers are finding attractive.”
BM: “We have a lot of customers who come to us because of that. Once they get something locally made, they don’t want a national brand anymore. They want [a local] one because if something happens in 10 years, either we’ll come and get it, or they’ll drive it down there, make an appointment and get it fixed. It’s pretty nice to have somebody local.”
Quality furniture, access to American and locally-made goods, knowledgeable salespeople who will work within our price points, excellent customer service from people who genuinely care about the customer, delivery for the cost of gas, all from a family-owned business? Yes please! What more could we ask for in a furniture store?