It’s easy to forget that the Washington area is home to the people earning among the highest — if not the highest — incomes in the United States.
It’s not lost on Scott and Rachel Hughey, owners of Creative Classics Furniture in Old Town Alexandria.
They were running a small crafts shop outside of Cleveland 15 years ago when Scott discovered the dollar-green pastures of Washington.
“For two years, we were working hard and not making much money,” Scott said. “I got on the Internet, went to the U.S. Department of Commerce, looked up activity in craft and home furnishings and Washington is flashing like a blue beacon.”
The blue beacon is Scott’s take on the old Kmart blue-light specials, which would flash across the store, heralding an instant sale for shoppers.
The lifetime Clevelander (except for college), now 62, jumped on a plane, rented a car and started tooling around this region.
He explored Bethesda. He explored Reston Town Center. He explored Leesburg and Annapolis.
He settled on Alexandria.
Smart move. The Hugheys’ vision — and risk-taking — has resulted in a $3 million annual enterprise that has become a magnet for area residents seeking custom-made furniture designed to fit into slightly downsized spaces such as townhomes, co-ops and condos.
Scott said that his annual sales per square foot of $800 puts his store in the top echelon of furniture retail, where the average store’s yearly sales are closer to $350 to $400 per square foot.
His 4,000-square-foot showroom fills the first floor of an old Montgomery Ward building on King Street in the heart of Old Town’s business district.
The location doesn’t come cheap.
The Hugheys must cover a $21,500 monthly nut to lease the showroom and a warehouse before one stick of furniture is sold.
But the bet has paid off.
Creative Classics returns a net profit margin of around 10 percent on the $3 million or so in gross sales, affording the Hugheys a comfortable life in the Virginia countryside.
Those of you who follow my column know this to be an NLO — nice living for the owner.
“That store hums,” Scott said, proudly.
I found Creative Classics when my wife dragged me with her to buy some chairs. While we were there, I started chatting with Scott and got the idea for the story. It was an expensive visit. We bought two chairs and ottomans for $6,000.
When they launched their first store in 1998 on a corner outside of Cleveland, in Medina, Ohio, Scott Hughey had been computer-focused entrepreneur who had successes but no home runs. Rachel was an illustrator who created graphic designs for advertising.
When the Hugheys first arrived here, they tried to duplicate their Cleveland-area store in a Old Town townhouse around the corner from where they are now. It was about 100 feet off busy King Street.
“It was . . . fairly small,” Scott said. “It was not what we wanted, but it was the only thing available.”
They sold handmade items such as high-end glass blowers, lamps, carvings for walls and things made from copper, iron and granite.
The store had a fireplace, so the Hugheys bought some comfortable Lincoln chairs from a Dallas custom vendor, American Leather, for people to relax in.
They also found a furniture maker working out of his barn in Virginia and bought some tables and an armoire.
“I thought people could sit in the chairs, drink coffee and focus on fairly high-end home accessories,” Scott said.
The customers had other ideas.
“People would say, ‘These are really comfortable chairs. Would you sell this one?’ We said, ‘Sure. We can actually order one for you in a different color.’ They asked for leather samples, and we ordered a ring of samples.”
And so they went into the furniture retail business.
Sales grew three to four times.
“Customers really drive everything,” said Scott, who studied business at Kent State University. “If the consumer shows steady interest in your upholstery, you should think pretty seriously about becoming an upholstery shop. If if they show interest in small-scale furniture, you have to listen. I’m really listening.”
The Hugheys didn’t just sell any furniture. They selected a niche they felt would appeal to an upscale customer-base that wanted furniture that would fit into the tighter living spaces in Old Town, Georgetown and other older parts of the local housing stock.
The Hugheys zeroed in on a core of artisans such as American Leather and a cooperative of 25 Amish families in Illinois; they supply half of the furniture the store sells. Custom-made means picking out a chair, bed, table or sofa from the showroom floor, then waiting two or three months while it is built to your specifications and delivered.
The furniture industry had gone through a revolution in the 1980s and 1990s, with handcrafted domestic products giving way to mass-market furniture made in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere. But you could still find handcrafted American-made furniture if you searched enough.
Scott was sure that if he could get a bigger store, he could sell more. It took the same amount of work to sell an $800 lamp as it did to sell a $6,000 sofa, but they needed more space to show the sofa model.
When the Montgomery Ward space opened up around the corner, the Hugheys jumped.
Sales tripled the first day in the new store, with its big front windows facing busy King Street.
“The longest 100 feet in retail,” he said of the difference between his old and new stores. “The old adage of retail needing to be location, location, location is really true. There were a lot more people. More visibility. More credibility.”
They had to scramble to find employees, vendors to fill out the store and a bank loan to buy inventory, but Creative Classics has settled into a rhythm. Rachel, 51, is the creative half, picking out furniture, setting up front-window displays, running the showroom floor. Scott handles the administrative side and deals with the accountants.
Creative Classics has eight employees, including deliverers and designers, all of whom receive health insurance. The employees are paid a salary rather than commission. Scott said he lures quality, young designers by offering them weekends off. The Hugheys work Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
That bet on the demographics of the Washington market has paid off.
Most of the Hugheys’ customers come from a five-mile-wide stripe stretching from Bethesda south through Northwest Washington across Northern Virginia and into Alexandria.
There is a lot of buying power in that strip.
“People come in and spend $6,000 on a dining room table made on a farm in southern Virginia,” Scott said. “If you think of Cleveland, [$6,000] was a really big number. That really caught our attention. I didn’t realize how much Old Town could support.”
Before we ended our conversation that day in the store, I asked Scott why he ever left the computer industry to go into retail.
“I really wanted a simple life with lots of free time,” he said.
Washingtonians have done their part.