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119: Schewels Home Celebrates 125 Years of Retailing

Written by Rob Stott

May 17, 2022

With five generations of Schewels successfully guiding the company over 125 years, it’s no wonder Schewels Home, a Lynchburg, VA-based retailer, will be honored as a Giant of Bedding Retail by Furniture Today. We sit down with Jack Schewel, a co-owner of the business with his brother Marc, to talk about their long legacy and what’s been the keys to their sustained success.


 

Rob Stott: We’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and excited to be joined today by a member down there in Lynchburg, Virginia, learning that’s around the central portion of the state. I myself grew up a little bit… Well, not grew up. I spent about five years in the DMV, so not, not too far from where you are, Mr. Jack Schewel, down there with Schewels in Lynchburg. How are you doing today?

Jack Schewel: Doing great. Glad to be with you.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Appreciate you taking the time and a pretty cool honor that we’re going to get to talk about. I know Schewels is up for… You guys are going to be recognized perhaps by the time this is published, will have been recognized with one of Furniture Today’s bedding retail giant honorees. A pretty cool thing that we’ll get to dive into, but before we get there tell us a little bit about yourself and your path into the family business there at Schewels.

Jack Schewel: Well, I guess it’s been a long time… My memory’s not as good as it used to be, but I guess I started working at Schewels in 1982 as a salesman. And then after a couple years I worked as a manager of a store and then I became a regional supervisor and got involved in the buying at that time and then gravitated toward advertising. And I was mainly involved in buying and advertising for a number of years. And then in 2000 I took some time off and I actually left the company. And then I came back in 2011 and continued working with advertising and merchandising, basically appliances and electronics and did all the advertising for the company. And then in, I guess it was 2019, I took over the bedding department. And I guess that’s why we’re here today.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I mean, obviously as you’re fourth generation, is that right? Fourth generation for the Schewel family.

Jack Schewel: Yes. Fourth generation.

Rob Stott: Now, was there ever a question as to whether or not you would be involved in the business at some point?

Jack Schewel: Yeah, there was a question. I think all of us who’ve come into the business have rallied around with other things and, well, I know that’s the way it’s been. So anyway, yes, there was a question and I just had left a job in 82, I guess it was and no prospects at the time. My father said, “Well, I think you should try to come to work least until you get something else comes up.” And so I said, “Okay.” So I went on the sales floor and that’s it.

Rob Stott: No, I mean, that’s cool. And I think obviously a neat legacy that I know we’re also going to dive into a little bit, but before that, talk about Schewels today what’s it like, I know you guys have a couple locations, but if customer walks in, what’s the experience that you’re looking for them to have as they come through a Schewels?

Jack Schewel: Well, we got 50 locations. We’re mainly in small towns, but we do have some stores in some bigger cities in our trading area. The customer who walks in our store today… Well, actually the first thing the customer will see in most of our stores today will see a bunch of mattresses because we are in the midst of a contest. We have a contest twice a year, but anyway they just see the full array of furniture. We probably have average store is probably maybe 15, 20,000 square feet. They’ll see the full array of furniture and bedroom and bedding, there’s usually a separate bedding department. And then they’ll also see our appliances and TVs on the back wall. We’re still in the credit business. That’s still about 65% of our sales. We are always promoting our credit portion of our business. That’s an important advantage for us.

Rob Stott: Yeah. What’s kind of the thing, as you look to sort of differentiate in the markets you’re in, or just with other retailers that are around, I guess really what’s the bread and butter for Schewels or what’s the thing that you think sets your business apart from others in the space?

Jack Schewel: Well, I would say that credit sets us apart. There’s nobody in our trading area that offers their own credit in-house, we call it in-house financing. Every other dealer offers credit, but it’s through a third party, whether it’s Synchrony or Wells Fargo, or I guess there’s others, but yeah. So we’re the only one that does that. And that’s an advantage for us. And in a way that’s the only advantage for us. I mean, most of the stores carry similar merchandise, do similar advertising. So we just think that’s our advantage.

Rob Stott: No. Is that something… How long has that kind of program been in place for you guys? And how do go about developing something like that?

Jack Schewel: It’s been around since we started, we’re 125 years old as of this year, we started in 1897. That was the, as far as I’m aware, they started that in the beginning or soon after the beginning. It’s just been an integral part of our company and we have a credit person in every store, which that’s pretty unusual who they call it relationship financing, old school financing. Where they sit down with the customer and try to determine, from their application what kind of work they do, how long they’ve been on their job, their income and all that stuff. And they make a decision right there. Nothing written down in stone. It’s done by person to person financing.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And you mentioned in there obviously 125 years, that’s quite the legacy, quite the amount of time to be in business. As someone that’s been, the family name still involved, as we mentioned, fourth generation, I know you guys have a fifth generation working for you. Reflect on that a little bit. When you hear that 125 years, what does that mean to you?

Jack Schewel: Well, it just means to me that we just sort of carry on the legacy of those who came before us. That’s kind of what it is. The family came over here in the 1890s and started it as peddling. That’s the way that goes. A lot of them started peddling and then set up shop in Lynchburg. And it’s just a generational, I guess, respect in a way for what they did. We just kind of keep carrying on the tradition and it’s just a family business and we’re happy and proud that we can keep it going.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I mean, and to be in business for that long, obviously times change adaptation the last two years have been something or another. I’m sure one of the… Lots of crazy times when you’re in business for that long that you see that you kind of operate through, but we could take the last two years and put them in a vacuum and talk about them for a whole hour. But if you think about that legacy and your involvement in it, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen during your time with the company?

Jack Schewel: Well, I guess the biggest change was back in the eighties when stores used to order their own merchandise from vendors, and then we went to a central buying and central warehousing, and that was probably the biggest change. We’ve recently rebranded, this was a couple years ago where we rebranded into used to be Schewel Furniture Company. Now it’s Schewels Home, that’s been a big change for us. That’s only been three or four years ago, but I would say that since the eighties really up until a few years ago, we hadn’t changed too much. The merchandising has tweaked some, we started carrying some other departments. Well, we started carrying lawn mowers and stuff like that, big ticket items like that, riding mowers and stuff, that’s been something that changed. As far as the core lineups that we’ve had over the years and the core merchandise really hadn’t changed that much. Our financing is similar that it used to be. I would say that biggest thing was when we went to central buying and so on in the eighties.

Rob Stott: What are you guys doing to stay ahead? I mean, obviously not too much has changed for core business wise, but obviously you’re doing things to whether it’s the way you talk about yourself. Obviously you mentioned a rebrand, what are some of the ways that you’re looking, or what do you look to as you try to stay ahead of the curve in this business and make sure that if you guys do ever need to pivot that you’re able to, and things like that.

Jack Schewel: Well, I mean, I think that we’re trying to sell a better customer now. We’ve had some success with that, but we’re also maintaining our core customer. What we see on the horizon right now, quite honestly, is prices going up, interest rates going up, supply chain is an issue. But everything in my view points toward customers needing financing during the next or the foreseeable future, because that’s where as I said, with prices and the way they are and interest and so on, money’s going to be hard to come by. I just think that we are in a good position because we continue to do our own financing. That’s something we hold onto dearly. And I see that as a big advantage.

Rob Stott: You talk about those two things that back to the central warehousing in the eighties and that the continued legacy of the financing. Have those played a part in you guys being able to, not say weather the storm sounds a little too harsh, but to be able to navigate these last two years and kind of all the challenges that the pandemic and everything threw at you.

Jack Schewel: Oh yeah. Yeah. I definitely think that our centralized buying and warehousing has been a big plus with all the problems with the supply chain and getting merchandise. And if we were just one store or just a handful of stores getting merchandise delivered directly, I think that would’ve, that seems like it would’ve been a hard thing to manage. And our buyers did a really good job finding vendors and so on and so forth and switching, we had to do a lot of switching because we couldn’t get stuff and all.

I really feel like the warehouse and the central buying had a big, big help over the last year or two. And as I said, we had a lot of… I will say that over the last couple years and you probably know this. It was just basically we could sell whatever we had. There was so much money out there and purchase and power and I think we could have sold more merchandise if we could have gotten more merchandise. But lot of cash sales, lot of credit card sales over the past couple years. We’ve seen a change in that over the past couple months, but that was a big part of our business over the last couple years, but we do think that’s going to change more and more.

Rob Stott: Well. Yeah. And to that point about the coming change, are you guys doing anything to… I guess, what are you seeing as far as sort of the way consumer trends are going and then what are you doing to prepare for whatever that change may be?

Jack Schewel: Well, we’ve been a little slow with online sales because of the fact that most of our customers are lower income and need financing. And it’s not as big a part of their purchasing, I don’t think. But we are getting more into online. My nephew has done a lot of work on that and he’s really pushing us towards online. And we’ve seen an increase over the past couple months. We’ve worked hard at it. So we know there’s a lot of merchandise in our categories that are sold online. We want to have a presence online, but I guess that’s one thing. And no, I would still say that as I said earlier, I think our financing in the future is going to help us weather the storm or whatever storm is out there. I guess those are two things that are look towards the future.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. No, that’s cool to hear. And obviously with a legacy, like what you guys have and the fact you’ve been in business for as long as you have and the success you’ve seen, obviously that’s translated recently. We hit on it briefly at the top, but being honored as one of these bedding giants by Furniture Today at their upcoming conference. So that, well, first of all, how’d you hear about it? I’m sure they reached out and basic email, but still interested to hear your take there. And then, when you hear it, what goes through your head as you’re processing that honor coming down the pipe towards you guys?

Jack Schewel: I think I heard about it first from a vendor who sent a text. I think I got a text from a vendor, or it might have been Dave, a guy from Nationwide that sent us something. As I remember as a vendor and I was, well, we were really surprised we were humbled and we feel good about it. It was, as I said, a big surprise and I just felt very honored and humbled by it. And whenever you get either selected or chosen by your peers and I guess industry people, that’s always feels good. It was a great thing for us.

Rob Stott: I mean, it’s kind of validation right? To your point that it’s not… You guys can think you’re doing, which you are. I obviously, like I said, being in business that long means you’re doing something right. But to hear it kind of told to you by partners in the industry and other retailers and the vendor community, it’s a credit to I think everything that you’ve been doing that five generations now of Schewels have been doing to make an impact. Not just in that local market too, either, but in the industry and in the bedding industry, obviously where this honor’s coming from. With this being a bedding honor, that’s something that you said you guys brought on more recently. That’s not something that you started with. So talk about your bedding legacy as a company, when did that really get going and how has it grown over time?

Jack Schewel: Well, actually we’ve always been in the bedding business and it’s actually been a pretty good part of our business. But what I was saying earlier was we made a lot of changes over the past probably three years and we think that’s contributed to our recent success. And I think we told it’s about if you took we’re up to about 24 to 25% of our… That would be sales of furniture bedding. It’s about 24, 25%. But we do sell a lot of appliances and TV. So we are about 20% of total sales when you include everything. You with me?

Rob Stott: Yeah. Yep. Following.

Jack Schewel: So I think as you said, the validation and so on, and I think that some of the changes we’ve made recently, we think have been a plus for us. We’re real happy. We feel like we’re going in the right direction.

Rob Stott: Without obviously sharing the secret sauce. What are some of those things that you’ve done that you think that have had an impact and helped you sort of boost that business there?

Jack Schewel: I think one of the things that helped us is that we started off offering a comfort guarantee that we sort of dialed with in the past, but we sort of made it official. And at the point of sale customers can see that they can try out their mattress for six months. And if they don’t like it, they can bring it back. And we’ll just let them pick out another one. There’s some caveats to that, but for the most part, customers can take advantage of it. It’s not too difficult, but that’s probably the biggest thing that we did over the last few years to help our business. And at the point of sale, we feel like that’s really gives peace of mind to the customer.

We also think that it helps us sell a higher price mattress because customer doesn’t… If we get buyer’s remorse, it’s not a problem. They can return it if they don’t like it. And we have a process where we treat these mattresses and sterilize them and do all these other things and we resell them. I think that’s probably been the biggest change that we did. We did some other minor things too. I was telling the people from Furniture Today, we changed our tags. We changed some pricing and we’ve done some re merchandising. Those are all things I think that have helped.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And now you think about kind of lasting legacy. Having been involved since the eighties, as you’ve mentioned. Not to get too softball or wishy washy here, but as you think about that lasting legacy that you want to have on the company, what do you hope to leave with the Schewels name and the Schewels business?

Jack Schewel: I think that personally, what I’ve been most satisfied with is some of the marketing and promotional aspects of the company that tried to make a big difference there over the years. I think that’s been the thing that’s been the most satisfying. And also, some of the efforts we made back in the nineties to sell more electronics and appliances in our stores and then most recently the bedding. But I think that overall, I think that we, in the bigger picture, which would be the biggest picture, I think that our family and the personal relationship we’ve had with certainly customers over the years, but also our employees. We have a lot of employees who have been with us a long time and we’ve tried to develop employees and tried to promote employees from within, sort of a cliche, but that’s really an effort that we make.

We have people that have started out in warehousing and then became the top salesman in the company or started out in the credit department and ended up running our entire computer system. So our best people have learned organically how things work at the store level. And then they have made the biggest difference in our sales and profits and so on. I think that if you wanted to say the big picture, the big legacy it’s just the fact that we’ve tried to have our own employees grow and prosper and just make great contributions to our success.

Rob Stott: Yeah. That’s cool to hear and cool to hear it be sort of spoken out by you and talked about that way. Because shows that obviously you’re running a business, but the people matter and that’s awesome to hear and I think Testament to the honor and the recognition as well. But one thing I want to ask because you brought it up about the marketing and sort of the impact and the work you’ve done there and sort of what that’s meant to you because I know you played a big part in the change there and how you guys have done marketing for your company. You think about the era in which you were working on that and having influence over that. And you think from the eighties to what it is today and just how it’s changed. Talk about that a little bit, what you’ve had to do personally to stay on top of the change in how marketing happens and just all the different ways it’s done today as opposed to what it was like in the eighties.

Jack Schewel: Oh, well, yeah. When I started here, we just would run a newspaper ad every week and a lot of times we could just put something out there and people would come in based on, they just look at the paper and see a special and they would come in for it. We had to move away from that. We slowly went away from newspaper into more mail, direct mail. That was a big part of our changes. And then we used to do a lot more radio advertising and we kind of got away from that. We still do it, but not as much as we used to. And then we got into more television obviously, and now it’s all about the number of hits that we can get on the internet and paying for the Google AdWords and all that stuff.

We had to adapt, and you can look at our budgets and you can see how much money we spent in certain areas and back in 1985, and then you see how much money we spent in certain areas in 2022. That’s all changed a lot, but I think we also… Our message, it’s really important with the message is to the public. We’ve changed that a lot over the years. That’s had to change with the times. Customers do still respond to a lot of the same marketing and messaging that they always have. I think that you see that on more… You get more for the buck, you see that in a lot of advertising. And I often will watch a home shopping or other TV thing, advertising and marketing for different products.

They’re constantly telling you, you’ll get this, but then you’ll also get this and when you buy something, you get more and more, or they’ll talk about guarantees and that’s a big part of marketing now. We got vendors now that know not to name but names. We got mattress vendors that tell you that this matters is guaranteed as long as you own it. I mean, some of that is because they know that if they can get the mattress sold or if they can get the item sold is the kickback is not very much. They know that.

I think that’s a big part of… I mean, it just came to my mind the other day I was this car dealer in our market that gives you a million mile warranty. Now, I don’t know what the details are and that can always be an issue. But peace of mind is really important for a customer when they make a purchase. I think that anything you can do to create peace of mind is got to be an advantage at the point of sale. And that’s, I think what we see a lot of that out in the market and we have tried to kind of tag on with that.

Rob Stott: Yeah, well, that’s too. I mean, you can say, obviously the tactics have changed, maybe the messaging adjusts here or there a little bit, but at the end of the day the one thing about this industry that’s never changed is just being able to offer that peace of mind and how important that is to the customer at the end of the day. I think, again, a Testament to how you guys have been able to offer that and provide that to customers in your area and turn it into a legacy that’s gone 125 plus years. So Jack, this has been awesome to kind of dive into the Schewel business and see what you guys are doing and learn a little bit and get more of the details and understand, why this honor from Furniture Today is coming down on you guys. And it’s cool to hear and appreciate you taking the time to share the story.

Jack Schewel: We appreciate it. Rob, thank you for talking to us today. And we’re looking forward to that event in May. And what we really like to do is get it twice. We can get next year, too. We know we’ve really done something.

Rob Stott: We’ll have to look into what the back to backs are like if there have ever been any on Furniture Today. But if there’s anyone deserving, it’s certainly you guys, because the legacy is long as it’s been. And seeing what you’ve been able to do, it’s been a fun story to follow and also to hear directly from you guys. So we appreciate it.

Jack Schewel: Thanks, Rob.

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