Ed Smith was a 22-year-old newlywed with $3,000 in hand, money that came primarily from wedding gifts, back in 1987. As a married man with potential fatherhood ahead, it was time to get serious about the future. So, he drew on the only work experience he had – delivering furniture – and made the bold decision to open his own furniture store. That bold move turned out to be an excellent idea.
Twenty-six years later, Smith is the owner and president of Chariho Furniture in Wyoming, Rhode Island, a destination store for customers seeking quality American-made furniture. With a three-story 25,000-square-foot showroom, Chariho stocks the largest selection of USA-made solid wood furniture in New England.
Photography by Chris Vaccaro
Written by: Lenore Cullen Barnes
A focus on quality
“Furniture was all I knew and I loved the business,” said Smith. “I always liked high-end furniture, but other than delivery, receiving and some repairing, I knew nothing about running a business. You learn as you go.”
Clearly, Smith was an attentive student, carving his niche through a focused inventory and a commitment to quality and customer service. “We don’t try to be all things to all people,” he said. “We sell only American-made hardwood furniture and upholstered pieces.”
Chariho’s inventory includes Harden Furniture, the oldest manufacturer in the United States; Copeland, a contemporary line made in Vermont; New Hampshire-based D.R. Dimes, makers of historically correct reproductions, and 26 Amish brands. Customers are encouraged to customize their orders, selecting the type of wood, fabric, finish and hardware.
Among the 15,000 customers in the company’s database, many are repeat buyers who return to Chariho at different stages of their lives, as their families and homes grow or shrink. In addition to a well-trained staff and complimentary interior design services, the ability to deliver furniture promptly is a major draw.
“Because we have such a large showroom, we can stock more than most furniture stores,” said Smith. “If you’re not customizing a piece, you can often have it that week. You don’t have to wait the usual 10 to 12 weeks.”
Smith strives to maintain “a certain level of service” that his customers have come to expect. “I learned the old-fashioned way,” he said. “I was taught at a furniture store. We don’t out-source anything. Every piece of furniture is loaded by our employees onto our own trucks. Everyone who touches that piece of furniture is our employee.”
Some of those employees are family: Smith’s mother, Carol Records is getting ready to retire, just as his daughter Stephanie, a senior in college, is beginning to get involved in the business. Also on staff are three interior designers, Angela Coffin, Angie Ellis and Sandy Gulino, who provide in-home consultations to measure, assess layouts, and assist in fabric selections, paint colors, and furniture placement. All salespeople complete the Furniture and Room Design Specialist certificate program with the Furniture Training Company and are well equipped to provide guidance to customers.
“Our role as interior designers is to find the best choices to fit form and function, based on the customer’s budget and need,” said Coffin, who is also sales manager. “Sometimes we’re helping a person find one great piece to complete a room or helping furnish an entire home. Many customers are overwhelmed with options and we help them break down the choices, compartmentalize and prioritize.”
An ever-changing inventory
Choosing which pieces to stock, anticipating which will sell best, is a mix of both art and science. “You either have a skill for it or you don’t,” said Smith. “We own our inventory, so we are gambling with our own money when we make selections. We watch trends and follow women’s fashion.”
Currently, Chariho’s inventory includes more transitional contemporary pieces, featuring cleaner lines than the more traditional styles in the past.
“Ten years ago, our showroom would have held mostly Colonial pieces,” said Smith. “Now we have more contemporary styles, but with the same dovetail construction, same degree of craftsmanship. The only thing we don’t change is quality.”
That adherence to quality has forged a young man’s leap of faith into a long-term successful business.
Article published in 2013-14 issue.