The Distance is back from our holiday hiatus with new episodes every other Tuesday! Our new story is about a kind of business you might have thought was pretty much extinct: the neighborhood appliance and furniture store.
Kevin Krasney’s grandfather opened Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. with a partner on Chicago’s north side in 1946. The business built relationships with landlords and property managers, a customer base that would sustain the store through the rise of big box stores and economic downturns. The Krasneys also put a premium on earning their customers’ loyalty. Kevin has continued this tradition. He’s personally measured a condo to make sure a piece of custom furniture will fit and tracked down a replacement tray for an outdated model of microwave. There is a place for the mom-and-pop appliance store after all, and Cole’s has found it.
WAILIN WONG: Kevin Krasney likes antiques. Next to his desk he keeps a vintage seafoam green metal icebox that he found on the side of the road in Michigan during a family trip. He’s thinking of repurposing it as a TV stand. Downstairs, he still uses the same clunky black rotary phone that belonged to his grandfather. It’s hooked up to the fax machine.
KEVIN KRASNEY: I like things that have history. I think that’s what I like about our business. I like that it just has a history and I’m ultimately doing the same thing, and walking the same path, I mean I put the same key in the door that my grandfather used when he opened the store. You know, it was once a silver key that is worn out to be gold.
WAILIN: Kevin Krasney is the third generation owner of Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Company, the neighborhood store his grandfather started with a partner in 1946. And walking that same path means keeping up the level of personal attention that his grandfather established 70 years ago.
KEVIN: I get people who come in here all the time that knew him well. He always built relationships. He always talked. He was genuinely interested into people. He was a good man to own a retail store, you know, he was very kind-hearted.
WAILIN: The neighborhood appliance store has gone extinct in many cities, but on this corner on Chicago’s north side, Cole’s is in the same spot with the same neon sign hanging over the sidewalk. Going the extra mile for customers, and maintaining those relationships over the long-term, is what Kevin believes sets his family business apart from the indifferent big box competitors around him. Like the time three or four years ago, when a customer called late in the day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to say her stove was broken. Kevin was by himself, with no other workers, and about to head home.
KEVIN: I literally pulled up at some lady’s house at 5 o’ clock at night with a range in the back of my car that she bought. Her sons came out, took it out of my car, brought it inside and did it. I went a little out of my way and I did that but this lady was ecstatic. She wanted to tip me and give me money for doing it, but I wasn’t looking to have a hundred dollars to go deliver you a stove. I did it because you just told me you’re cooking for 15 people and your stove is dead and now you’re going to make your turkey on a grill, and I just showed up with a stove and I think there’s the little things that I think my grandfather would have done, and that’s ultimately probably why I did it, having that feeling.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, you’ll learn about the lengths that one small retailer will go to earn its customers’ loyalty, year after year, and why that has meant more than just having the lowest prices. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
KEVIN: Clients will come to us: “Well, I can buy it online from this company and no sales tax,” and my response is kind of I get it, but if you buy that fridge online, it shows up damaged, but you signed for it and you’re stuck with it. Or the delivery shows up and they can’t carry it into your house—you don’t have someone you call. You don’t have someone you can deal with, you don’t have someone that can work with you to make things happen and that’s I think ultimately where I think people want to deal with a smaller company, and it’s nice to be able to call and deal with the same person you dealt with when you purchased the appliance. Things happen. Not everything is cut and dried and so easy. And a lot of people get very defensive when someone calls them upset or needs more assistance. And ultimately people want to be listened to, they want you to sit there and listen and come up with a solution that’s realistic.
WAILIN: Like Kevin says, things happen, especially in Chicago, where the doorways and stairwells in vintage apartment buildings often just can’t accommodate the deep couches and restaurant-quality stoves that are popular now. Other times, rickety buildings can thwart what should be a simple delivery. When Kevin was in high school, he worked on the truck and experienced these challenges firsthand.
KEVIN: I remember we had a great truck driver back then, that I used to go on the truck with him, and he used to always take me to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I remember going up to an old staircase and and I think we were coming down with an appliance and my foot went through the stairs. You know our giant delivery guy up on top, he was just like holding the entire appliance. I think anyone else I would have been crushed by a refrigerator, but he was like holding the entire appliance up there and like slowly got it down. You know, it’s tricky. The city’s always — you never know what you’re walking into.
WAILIN: Another part of Kevin’s job is fielding unusual requests, like a woman who had called him looking for a very specific couch she’d seen online.
KEVIN: It was just a bright pinkish purple fabric on a 25-foot semi-round couch and you know, she was counting off her seats and she was making sure there was enough seats for her cats. It was going to be her and her 18 cats in her home in a giant pink-purple 25-inch piece.
WAILIN: The woman had compiled a list of 20-some furniture stores to call, and Cole’s was the fifth one she had tried. Kevin put her on hold and called the manufacturer’s sales representative to see if anyone in Chicago had the couch in stock. The answer was no, but Kevin had a rounded chair with a similar feel, so he told the woman, come in and try it. If you like it, we’ll order the couch for you. She went ahead with the order and Kevin measured her condo himself to make sure it would fit.
KEVIN: And when I showed up to her house, I was actually kind of like blown away. It was a massive big circle living room that was actually like beautiful and in the end, the piece actually looked really good in the space.
WAILIN: Kevin had only sold that bright pinkish purple fabric one other time before, on a pillow, and it’s since been discontinued.
KEVIN: She had her heart set on it, and I love that, when someone comes in they don’t care what is in style or if everything’s grey or if everything’s this. They want exactly what they want and they get what they want, which I think is what it’s about. I mean, I think that’s why people dress the way they dress or put furniture they way they put it. It makes it who you are.
WAILIN: The line of upholstered furniture that Cole’s carries is manufactured in North Carolina and customers can choose their own configurations and fabrics. The store also does special orders on high end appliances. One time, a family ordered a large, professional refrigerator with custom panels to match the cabinets in their new home.
KEVIN: We went to a house recently that the family with five kids were moving in that night, the builder was behind, but they were coming in from out of state. And we had to install appliances the day they were moving in. Hand carved railings, beautiful wood staircase—the appliances wouldn’t fit up the stairs. My delivery team called me, said “The stuff’s not gonna fit up the stairs.” The customer was freaking out, said “It will,” so they took the box off, showed them how the box wouldn’t even come close to fitting up the stairs, which is a light box, and then I was like, we have to get this done. Stay there, I’ll be over there in a minute. I’m gonna find some way to get it in.
WAILIN: Kevin met his delivery guys at the house and surveyed the scene. The kitchen was on the second floor, and there was no way for the refrigerator and range to go up the stairs. But Kevin had an idea.
KEVIN: I called my stone guy to see. I know he uses cranes a lot and he told me to call his guy and his guy happened to be three blocks from where we were, so I was like, you wanna make some quick money?
WAILIN: Here was Kevin’s idea: Use the crane to hoist the massive fridge up to the third floor, where there was one window that might just be big enough for the appliance to squeeze through. This was their only shot.
KEVIN: It was just a windy day and you had a $12,000 fridge blowing through the sky. I was like watching this thing go over a tree and I was like sweating and then the wind was blowing and I think it like came to the point where I kind of just walked away, walked around the house, looking at their bathroom that got nicely renovated, then went upstairs and was so happy to see us with like a half an inch to spare to pull it through the window. Ultimately I don’t care what you do, just get it into this house and we got everything in with no damage.
WAILIN: And here’s the kicker: Cole’s didn’t charge the customer extra for the delivery. Kevin says it would have cost him more to take the fridge back to the store, since it was a custom-ordered appliance that would have just sat there, unsold, on his showroom floor. And more importantly, Kevin wanted to make some good impressions.
KEVIN: It was a new builder, first time we dealt with him, a new architect, first time we dealt with them. We wanted to show we will make stuff work. I was pretty confident. They price checked that job pretty aggressively, and when I finished I made them aware that no one else would have installed it that day, and they all agreed and they’re very, very loyal customers of ours.
WAILIN: It’s important for Kevin and his father, who still works in the business, to maintain Cole’s reputation as a place that will be there for customers in big and small ways. I learned about Cole’s from a friend who lives nearby and told me she once needed a new tray for her microwave, which she didn’t even buy there. Cole’s doesn’t sell parts, but Kevin helped her out.
KEVIN: I sent my guys over there and they took a quick measurement and we pull out old appliances out of people’s houses a lot, so all they needed was a glass plate that you couldn’t locate anywhere. So my guys just kind of knew: When you find this, pull out this plate, save it for them, so they found one it actually fit perfect. My father has the—I’m trying to think of the word, I’ll probably label it as a disease, where he just doesn’t throw anything away. We just have a lot of stuff, stuff in back rooms, and I go through stuff, and things that we know are usable we’ll keep. Some lady came in the other day and we were able to give her all new burner caps and it was like, we don’t really sell parts, so we just gave them to her. Granted, any other business would be like, “This is in our inventory, let’s put a price on it.” We just don’t necessarily think that way.
WAILIN: It’s those small things that can really multiply goodwill toward a business, and Kevin wants to increase Cole’s presence in the neighborhood. Even though the store has been in the same spot since 1946, a lot of residents don’t know it’s there or don’t know what it sells. When Cole’s recently hosted a neighborhood chamber of commerce event, Kevin ordered food from a restaurant down the street and the delivery guy asked him if he had just opened. And here’s a confession, something that I was too embarrassed to tell Kevin. I lived a couple blocks away from Cole’s for three years and didn’t know it was there.
KEVIN: This neighborhood’s picked up more and more. It’s a really nice neighborhood. We’re having a lot of people that were stopping in to buy a refrigerator and see some of this furniture and were kind of blown away by it and said I’d been passing by for 10 years and I thought everything was used. We like having that corner mom and pop feel. We try to shape ourselves, I guess, of being, like Chicago’s best kept secret.
WAILIN: Even though it seems like Cole’s is hidden in plain sight in its own neighborhood, the store is well-known to people in the housing industry like designers, builders, property managers and landlords. It was a customer base that Kevin’s grandfather established, and during the slow times of the recession, Kevin looked to this group to keep the business going. Landlords weren’t necessarily buying high-end products, but they did need appliances. And Kevin looked for new customers too, getting aggressive on price to draw them in.
KEVIN: Right before the recession, we almost did a massive renovation which would have put us into a lot more money going out, we’re really lucky that we just kept our overhead really low, kept it really lean, like most of that time when business was slow, it was just my father and I in here. If it was a really quiet day, it’s going through old folders from years back to see who are those landlords and property managers and developers we dealt with, and where did they go? Did they go out of business, or did they go somewhere else? And start rebuilding that relationship with a quick phone call. And that’s where I spent a lot more time going after new business and starting a new line with a lot of service companies and, you know, small kitchen rehabbers and people like that, handymen even, and just building those relationships. It was important to us to keep our workers working, you know, it was important to keep our trucks going and things like that as well, so sometimes to cut margin, but still do business to get through. We’ve been very lucky to kind of withstand the test on time in an industry that’s not so common. You don’t see so many corner mom and pop appliance shops. Even if you’re in a small town, you start to see rent-a-centers and you start to see these, you know, Best Buys or things like that jumping in, the big box stores.
WAILIN: It turns out that preserving that mom and pop feel has come pretty naturally to Kevin. Maybe it’s something about putting his grandfather’s key in the door every morning.
KEVIN: It’s surprisingly run not too far different from the way my grandfather ran this business and we have a loyalty in that sense. I think like this business has probably taught me loyalty moreso than anything else. And we’re still using the same print company that’s now a third-generation company that we’ve dealt with forever. We still use the same insurance company that’s third-generation company. You sit there and I get phone calls all day about insurance or anyone trying to sell you things, and it really comes down to the fact that it’s a loyalty thing for us. Even if someone’s going to save me a little bit of money to switch over to them, it’s not the same as doing business with someone that we know, trust, and that ultimately we’re happy to see that their business is still running three generations later.
WAILIN: Kevin thinks a lot of shoppers these days share that mentality and are swinging back back to the old-fashioned way of doing things, seeking out small, local businesses. It’s the way he shops too, as a business owner.
KEVIN: You know, I go to a lot of places because they’re people support us and I want to support their business and watch them stay busy. It’s nice to see that coming back around, you know, seeing people opening up more businesses, seeing young people doing what they want to do. Not try to build a business to sell a business, try to build a business to have something.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and you can also sign up for our email newsletter at thedistance.com. While you’re at iTunes, if you wanted to leave us a rating or review, we would appreciate it so much. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.