In 1939 John Griffith Senior leased the closed Piggly Wiggly grocery store at 2501 Meridian St. in the Fountain District of Bellingham and opened the Bellingham Auction House. In 1954 the business name was changed to Griffith Furniture, and since that time the business has seen several building renovations and expansions.
Griffith Furniture now occupies over 24,000 square feet of showroom space and the business has become a geographic and cultural landmark for Whatcom County, serving several generations.
John Senior founded his business on the principles of product quality, affordability, and customer service. The evolution of the store, in both its size and product line, reflects the vision and business sense of each succeeding generation of the Griffith family, but John Senior’s genuine care and concern for each visitor to the store, and in a broader sense for the well-being of the local community, still is the lifeblood of Griffith Furniture.
For 67 years, three generations of the Griffith family have successfully negotiated crossroads and crises.
Steve Griffith is the current manager of Griffith Furniture; under his guidance the store completed its latest site expansion and has continued to serve its customers. Steve observed, when asked about “crossroad” and “benchmark” business decisions, that in a fashion-driven retail business he is faced with such decisions regularly. Furniture trends start in the Northeast or the larger cities of Southern California, he noted, but such trends do not necessarily move quickly, if at all, to Whatcom County.
Just because a furniture product or style is new, Steve continued, does not guarantee a demand for that product. Two key components inform Steve’s decisions about product the store purchases. The first is that it is crucial to know your market and your customers.
Quarterly, if not monthly, analysis of the products moving through the store is required in order to discover local trends. Steve said it is crucial to find out what works for your customers, and continue reinforcing success. Almost as important as knowing what works is developing methods to move the product that is not in high demand. He said his father, John Junior, observed “it is easy to buy furniture, but often harder to sell it.”
Steve also emphasized the importance of not taking the failure of a particular item or product line personally. While allegiance to a product line, or its representatives, is often an important component of success, sometimes such allegiances can be detrimental to profitability.
He acknowledged that one of the hardest “crossroad” decisions made by Griffith Furniture was terminating a 50-year relationship with Westinghouse. The store carried Westinghouse electronics and appliances, but found that stores specializing in these items were gathering a greater share of that market.
The Griffiths, like any successful retail business, moved away from weaker sales items and expanded on their strong movers. Long-time Bellingham residents may remember in 1970, for example, Griffith Furniture sold Toshiba color TVs, Maytag wringer washers, Westinghouse refrigerators and portable dishwashers, Franklin fireplaces, oil and wood heaters, kitchen trash burners, Schorn paint, Amerock cabinet hardware, antiques, indoor and outdoor carpet, and of course, furniture.
Another “crossroad” decision was joining the Pacific Furniture Dealers. Steve acknowledged this was “one of the best things we ever did.” While being part of a buying group with 75 partners helps Griffith Furniture with “buying power,” networking with other furniture dealers is of even greater benefit.
Steve said the group is “like a large family” and shares information, ideas, and experience. He said it is crucial to use and mine experience where and when it can be found.
Hiring and training employees is another key arena of decision-making.
Steve recognized that while a stable of quality employees, many of them students at Western Washington University working part time, has contributed to the success of Griffith Furniture, one or two key people can make the work load easier and relieve the pressure. He admitted people do not often say “I want to be a furniture salesperson when I grow up.” Key employees can ease the stress of worker turnover, and the training such turnover necessitates.
Griffith Furniture’s managers have been forced over the years to make difficult choices about product lines, business associations, and employee relationships.
John Senior’s heritage of quality products sold at a fair price has been preserved and furthered by his son and grandson. The store stands as a family-owned Bellingham landmark, serving the community and growing with Whatcom County.
This monthly column will present a concise history of a successful Whatcom County business and also highlight some of the crossroad and/or benchmark decisions these businesses made that contributed to their success. For most of us, our history classes were often boring recitations of the “who, what, where, and whens” of the past. Asking the “why and how” questions of history often, however, provides greater wisdom. This column will explore some of the “whys” and “hows” of business success.
Edward Chatterton, Jr. is the founder and director of the Chatterton Research Group, which researches and writes family, business, corporate, and civic histories, as well as conducting research for firms. Chatterton has an MA (History) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.