Heirloom Business

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm

Porter’s of Racine, a retailer of high-end furniture and interior design, isn’t like most stores in southeastern Wisconsin.

Porter’s is a shopping destination. Customers looking for hard-to-find, high-end furniture and interior design expertise routinely travel from Chicago, other areas of the Midwest and around the country to partake in the Porter’s experience.

When those customers say, “We’re going to Porter’s,” they sound as though they just as easily could be saying they’re going to a museum, a gallery, a ballgame or some other attraction.

“It’s a cross between retail and tourism,” said Robin Kinney, advertising director with Porter’s. “You’re coming to shop and to experience the shopping environment. There’s not a whole lot of stores that can say that.”

Porter’s downtown Racine showroom features a dining room set priced at more than $100,000, bedroom sets that sell around the same price, sofas and overstuffed chairs from $2,000 to $10,000 and much more.

Porter’s has a reputation for quality that it has developed over 150 years in business. The store hasn’t built its own furniture for more than 100 years, but people still refer to furniture purchased there with the Porter’s name.

“The name – people respect it,” said H.R. “Bob” Waters, president of the company. “They want to say, ‘It came from Porter’s.'”

Part of the store’s draw is its huge inventory of heirloom furniture. The store spans about 80,000 square feet, but seems much larger. Porter’s site, including its parking lot, had nine buildings at one time, which have been combined or demolished over the years.

Because of those combinations, Porter’s has evolved into a maze-like structure with disorienting twists and turns. Visitors are given maps of the store, and different areas of the store are marked with letters and numbers, said Micah Waters, vice president and Bob Waters’ nephew. The maps, with corresponding letters and numbers marked on the walls, allow visitors to both find their location in the store and the merchandise they’re considering purchasing.

Although the large store and its large inventory seem daunting at first, they’ve been integral to the store’s success, Micah Waters said, because they allow customers to see many examples and configurations of furniture.

“It’s hard to order a $100,000 dining room from a picture,” he said.

Porter’s inventory, likely valued in the tens of millions of dollars, is virtually unheard of in the furniture world, Bob Waters said.

“It costs too damn much,” he said.

Porter’s was founded in 1857, when William A. Porter began selling furniture from his father’s cabinet shop at 1211 Main St. in Racine. The cabinet shop had opened in 1842, but didn’t sell furniture until 1857. At the time, Porter’s sold furniture and caskets.

When the store moved to 238 Main Street in 1866, it began selling more expensive and better quality furniture.

In 1939, the store moved to its current location at the intersection of Sixth and Wisconsin.

Porter’s expanded into higher-end products in the mid-1960s, after former owner Theodore Gottlieb passed awayin 1960. His widow, Marie Gottlieb, took over Porter’s, and Bob Waters, store manager at the time, became her business partner.

Success by design

Marie Gottlieb’s ideas and design skills enabled Porter’s to expand and created its identity as a shopping destination, BobWaters said, by pushing for best-quality inventory and redesigning the store’s Guild Gallery of model rooms, which brought in thousands of shoppers. Marie Gottlieb designed the Guild Gallery rooms when they opened in 1939.

“She was one of the best designers in the country, and she did all the rooms,” Bob Waters said. “Using the model homes and model rooms … That’s where Marie came in.”

Porters used to remodel its model rooms every year, and lines would form outside on the first few days, Bob Waters said.

“When we opened them, we had 2,000 to 3,000 people who wanted to go through them,” he said.

Porter’s still uses model rooms in its stores, but they are changed less frequently these days, Micah Waters said. However, the rooms are still integral to Porter’s success because they showcase both its furniture selection and the skills of its designers, who can help clients select carpeting and other floor coverings, lighting options, wall coverings, window treatments and other home accents.

The interior design services have helped Porter’s grow into a destination, Bob Waters said. Today, several areas of the store are filled with hundreds of carpet samples, thousands of books of material swatches and reams of wall hanging samples, where designers can help clients design custom rugs, upholstery and window treatments.

Over the past five years, Porter’s has become more focused on interior design and the high-end market. Many of the former middle-market furniture sellers have been squeezed out of business because so many customers are buying low-end furniture made in China, Micah Waters said.

“There’s been a huge exodus in the last five years,” he said. “The big box (stores) is where nearly all of it is coming from – what we call disposable furniture. The middle market has been most affected. On the high-end, it’s become even more of a specialty item.”

Market woes

Porter’s has about 50 employees now. Neither Waters would disclose the store’s sales or revenues, but they said the high-end furniture industry has slumped in recent years.

High-end furniture retailers such as Porter’s did not benefit much from the booming housing market of the past 10 years, because many home buyers did not buy furniture to match those homes, Micah Waters said.

“The furniture industry across the country experienced a downturn with the housing boom,” he said. “People bought as much house as they could and they didn’t figure in the extra 15 to 20 percent for furnishings.”

As a result, many people bought cheaper, foreign-made furniture that only lasts for a few years, he said. And with the downturn in new home sales and increased home foreclosures this year, the furniture industry believes there will be additional softening before strong sales return.

“We still see a couple of more years for it,” Micah Waters said. “There is a shift in that marketplace, but we’re only a year into that swing. I see a couple more mild years for the industry.”

Promising future

However, Porter’s isn’t sitting by idly. It’s making efforts to bring new people into its store, who might not have thought they could afford to shop at Porter’s.

“It’s my job to find new groups of people to bring into the store,” Kinney said. “We want to build the next generation of buyers, and we will cater to the person who will do research before they come here.”

Last week, Porter’s unveiled a redesigned Web site, www.PortersofRacine.com, to help attract more visitors to the store, Kinney said. The revised site aims to reach younger shoppers who might not have been to the store before.

“We do have a reputation for being expensive and exclusive,” she said. “But we are also in an era when people spend $3,000 on handbags and (buy expensive) shoes and coffee. While we haven’t necessarily reduced our quality or the prestige of what we sell, there are a lot more potential buyers based on how they’ve raised their own buying bar. A lot of our furniture is quite affordable, especially when you figure in the long-term durability.”

The new Web site is aimed directly at sophisticated shoppers, Kinney said.

“That customer also does an intense amount of research before they set foot into a store,” she said. “They go to design sites, furniture sites and Consumer Reports. They walk in with their checkbook and a whole lot of knowledge.”

Porter’s also has expanded its home office and executive office offerings, Bob Waters said. The store previously carried home office furnishings, but it has significantly increased products and expanded into the executive office market, he said.

“This is for the person who wants to turn their dining room into a home office,” Bob Waters said. “Porter’s is for both the home and executive office. We can outfit both.”

Porter’s has dealt with slow markets before, but its approach has been different.

During World War II, the high-end furniture market slowed because of restrictions on materials. The market also suffered during the 1950s, when many families had young children and bought more affordable furniture.

At those times, Porter’s carried high-end options, but also sold more affordable furniture.

“In the 1940s and 50s, Porter’s was more of a medium local store,” Bob Waters said. “They took what they could get. There was the war, and most stuff was taken over by the government. And after the end of the war, it was easier to make things cheap than make them good.”

Porter’s future success depends on what it’s done for decades – selling the highest-quality furniture and offering interior design services that people will travel for, Bob Waters said.

“Everything is changing, and nothing is changing,” he said. “We’re still in the furniture business. There’s nothing we can do but be competitive and offer the best in market (products and services).”

Porter’s of Racine

Address: 301 Sixth St., Racine
Employees: 50
web site: www.PortersofRacine.com
Other locations: Porter’s operates two Furniture Clearance Centers at 3701 Durand Ave. (Hwy 11) in Racine and 8901 W. North Ave. in Wauwatosa. 

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