54: Rotmans Plans and Preps for a Major Store Reformatting Project

Written by Rob Stott

January 26, 2021

Seeing a “store closing” sale pop up in the middle of a pandemic may elicit some sorry thoughts. But for Worcester, MA-based Rotmans, the promotion comes with a catch: They plan to reopen in a few weeks time with a completely reformatted store. We spoke with Heidi Richardson about the project and more.

Heidi Richardson: All right.

Rob Stott: Cool. All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and real excited to be joined right now by Heidi Richardson, a woman who wears many hats, but for today, we will call her the advertising and marketing manager for Rotmans up there in Worcester, Massachusetts, not to be mispronounced as Worcester, which I’m sure you guys deal with a lot.

Heidi Richardson: Very nicely done. You win a gold star.

Rob Stott: Yeah, we’re off to a good start here so if I can pronounce Worcester right.

Heidi Richardson: Did you look it up? Or did you just know that?

Rob Stott: I think I know. I’ve been through Worcester and I have a number of friends that come from the New England area. Worcester is kind of like our Lancaster, people like to say Lancaster, and we know that’s not right. And I know how sensitive that can be of a topic.

Heidi Richardson: I appreciate it.

Rob Stott: I want to make sure I get those right.

Heidi Richardson: We’re off to a good start then. Thank you.

Rob Stott: You got it. Heidi, tell us, we got a lot to dive into as you know the headline will say here, store makeover to get into, but I want to start first by kind of getting to know you a little bit and Rotmans and sort of the history of the company.

Heidi Richardson: I’m always happy to talk about that. Started husband and wife couple in the fifties, Mr. and Mrs. Rotman in Worcester. Not exactly in this building. They moved into this building, I think in the early sixties. And at that time it was a carpet and mill complex. Mr. R had some history in carpeting and it just kind of made sense, I think most people have not experienced our showroom over the years. They grew to fill the 200,000 square feet mill space.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: Right now, currently Rotmans. And they’ve just expanded over the years. Obviously, it went from their small little, 10,000 square feet to this giant sort of mall, I guess, of furniture, mattresses, flooring. And so we’ve been in the same space. We’ve got great roots here. The building is special. Got excellent characteristics. It also presents a lot of challenges, but our roots are here. It is what it is. Over the years it’s been a blessing and a challenge to say the least, but it’s home. It’s home. And so the business has done that. The sons came into the business, their three sons came into the business between the sixties and the eighties and they pretty much ran it right up until just a few years ago. Steve Rotman, the middle son is still actively involved. He’s here even through COVID most days.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: Yeah, I know. He’s an octogenarian who thinks like a millennial sometimes. He’s an interesting person. He really is. He’s still a big dreamer. Still wants to change the world. He’s in a different phase of life than most people who are still visioning the future, but it’s a blessing most of the time to have that.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. And so what will someone see when they walk into Rotmans today?

Heidi Richardson: Gosh, today. Today it’s a different chapter for us. We’re transitioning. A few years ago we came to understand that the 200,000 square foot thing was it’s difficult. It’s a difficult shopping experience. It’s certainly it’s difficult to be the retailer of a store that big. It’s difficult to floor it and have stock. We’ve known for a while we needed to make some changes. And it was about exactly this time last year that we knew it was time. And we had started to make plans to condense, get a little bit smaller, get a little bit closer. Today when people walk in, they’re seeing us having this store closing sale, which post COVID was very scary language. Originally we flirted with that language in this sort of remodel concept. I wasn’t all that worried about it.

It was January of last year. It was before pandemic. It was before stores were really closing. And so we were a little bit nervous coming back to that language there for a while just thinking that people really wouldn’t understand, it’s not a GOB, we’re not going out of business. We’ve just got to make some changes and this is how we have to do it. It’s very different. When you walk in today, they’re seeing us move things around. Stuff isn’t where it usually is. Stuff looks different. Some of the product is different. We’ve stopped doing any custom ordering through this. A lot of those lines that people know us for, some of the Amish stuff, a lot of custom upholstery, we’re not doing any of that right now. There’s some differences, but they are seeing an awful lot of stock that they can get procured within a week or two, pretty much. We’re trying to work with our delivery partners to make sure we’re able to keep that window tight for people. But that, I guess, they’re seeing the change right now is what they’re seeing when they come in.

Rob Stott: Oh, got you. And I know about the store, you guys have a pretty cool dynamic in the team at Rotmans there, which is something that, you had mentioned before we hopped on, you’re one of the more junior employees at Rotmans but you’ve been there for a bit.

Heidi Richardson: Yeah, nearly 20 years. And that doesn’t make me one of the oldies. It’s actually pretty funny when you say it. Last year we had two pass 40 years.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: We’re in over a dozen right now at 35 to 40. Over 25 we’ve got another 20 or so.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: That family concept is true here. We are really a family and not just the Rotman family, but the Rotmans family. We’ve all been here for decades, many of us. We have people been here for five years and they’re still new.

Rob Stott: That’s crazy. What do you think it is? Obviously the family atmosphere certainly helps with that, but what do you think it is that keeps people at Rotmans?

Heidi Richardson: I know what it is. We have the same commitment to our customers, to our employees, to our business, to our community. We all are driven by the same things. We all are motivated by those same things. We are all partners. We were talking about it. I wear a lot of hats. We all wear a lot of hats. I’m not alone. If something needs to get done there, there isn’t a one of us that isn’t willing to pull an extra shift or learn to do something different or help out somewhere else. We really just are a family. If we have alums. We have people who’ve left, but you never really leave. When the sale broke last week, we had former employees who’ve gone onto other furniture stores or other industry partners, some vendors, they’re the first people to call and say, “We’re so glad. It’s about time. We’ve all known. This was needed.” And it never leaves you. People leave here, but Rotmans doesn’t leave you. It’s very strange.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome.

Heidi Richardson: A lot of them come back. We’ve had a lot who’ve gone and come back. I love those. Because people go out and they get other experiences, they learn some other stuff and then they bring it back and we get to kind of grow with them.

Rob Stott: Realize the grass isn’t always greener.

Heidi Richardson: Yeah, no we say that a lot. We encourage people. We’ve had some upper management who’ve gone on to places like Wayfair and who’ve come back.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: And it’s so great because again, they learn some wonderful things and they come back and we can kind of adapt some things. And it’s just, it’s funny. There was actually, one of the Rotmans third generations, I guess, he had been here for a while and when he left, I remember saying, “You don’t get to leave. You don’t maybe show up here every day, but it never leaves you.” And even now, we’re still very well connected. He still feels, he asks after the people. it’s just a family.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. What sort of advantages do you think that gives you guys as a staff that you have all that collective experience?

Heidi Richardson: I love that. And it requires the fresh people coming in all the time. You know that you still need that. You can’t sustain, I guess, on just us oldies, so to speak. You need those new people to come in and sort of bring new ideas and challenge us to do things differently. That’s still imperative, but what happens, I think anyway, is you have this lasting, that legacy that was sort of built going back to Mr and Mrs. R has stayed. And so for the people who never had the chance to work with them, it doesn’t kind of matter. It’s been instilled in all of us. It just extends out. It just becomes just part of who we are here, the expertise.

Deb Tedro, who’s one of our senior merchandisers, she tells these stories about when she started going to markets 40 years ago, she was the only girl. It was her and all these men. Everywhere they went, go in all these showrooms and she was literally the only female in places. And so I listen to her talk about that and I think, gosh, in 40 years, if you think about how much that’s changed. We go now and it’s so diverse, there’s tons of us. It’s different, but that’s not how it was. And so she takes those old school and what she’s learned over the years and now we get to sort of train that new group. It’s just that expertise is fantastic. It comes at such a great benefit for us.

Rob Stott: Yeah, and you mentioned kind of the influx of new ideas and still wanting to hire and bring some fresh minds in. What are you guys doing aside from that to stay on top of trends that are happening and keep the business, make sure you’re staying on top of business trends as well?

Heidi Richardson: That’s always hard. I think, especially with us smallish company, I know we always think of ourselves as big, but we’re pretty small and everybody’s got their sort of hands full and everybody is kind of busy. You’re right. To carve out time to challenge yourself to look at something differently or to open your eyes to something that’s fresh or different. We’re lucky, I think, in that a lot of us are just sort of built that way. Steve Rotman is that way for sure. He’s not an 80 year old man who thinks, well, I always ran a newspaper ad and that’s what worked. He is pushing us, let’s Google, what’s going on? He’s talked about Snapchat and TikTok, which is very funny. But when you have someone at that level, who’s always sort of made you think like that. You had to stay ahead. You had to know what was going on. This is something new. Can we do this? Can we try this? Does this make sense?

There’s always a bit of that here, but that really does often come most when somebody new comes in or somebody gets a new skill or who is doing something outside and they’ll come back into the group and say, “Hey, this is something that’s really great that’s happening. Can we incorporate this? Can we use this?” I think we’ve got a great communication system between us too, which is awesome because that helps so much to be able to just tap into those things when they’re there. People feel free to bring up ideas or talk or try things.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I know that innovation certainly, not only just on an individual level, it expands to the store level and kind of what you guys are doing from your one location there. And so talk about you hit on it a little bit earlier, but the desire to do this, what really drove you guys to want to dive into this redesign and basically redoing your store?

Heidi Richardson: Well, it comes from a lot of things. Like I said, we knew for a while that the square footage is a challenge, as much as it is anything. People don’t have time. Nobody has four hours to shop for a sofa, who does that? Nobody. And I remember we’d been sitting in meetings, people would say that. 45 year old soccer moms don’t have four hours to look for anything. They just don’t. And so we were always so proud of offering this huge selection. And I think that’s probably what slowed us down in making the change sooner. It was always about, but that’s what we’ve always been known for. And people know they could come here and really shop for the whole home. You can do flooring here. You could do mattresses, you could do furniture. And there was always this need to provide so much.

We really started to figure out and we started to look at some things. We can still offer an amazing selection in a smaller footprint. Makes sense for everybody. Make it an easier shopping experience. That’s been a topic that’s we’ve wanted to do. It just never felt like the right time. And with things the way that they’ve been, online shopping is is bigger than ever, people come in now and they know what three or four things they want to see. It’s not like before where they were just viably browsing and trying to find inspiration. A lot of things played into that. Okay, it’s really the right time.

It’s obviously things we know now, especially in the custom orders that were taking forever. We couldn’t get things fast enough. We knew we needed to stock better to do that. Had to not have so much dollars invested in floor models. And there’s a lot of things that went into making that decision and it needed a refresh. The building is, it’s an old building, it’s home and it’s special to us, but it needs some updating. It needs a revisit. A lot of things that said, “Now’s the time.”

Rob Stott: Yeah. To that end about the building, obviously the footprint you mentioned is going to be different. What about the look and feel of shopping at Rotmans is going to be different?

Heidi Richardson: That’ll be a process for us. The plan is to run through the sale, to try to move through all this inventory. And we had such a crazy response. It’s such a good problem to have. High volume is a wonderful thing. But you start to worry about the customer experience, not just in the store, but after. You do that kind of volume in a short time and you make a lot of mistakes. Right now, I mean this week is all about, okay, that first weekend was insane. And it’s COVID so you have all the added responsibilities of trying to keep people safe and socially distant. And so we have our hands full this week to strategize for the upcoming weekends, but it’s going to be a process, the remodeling is not going to be something that’s done quickly.

We have some big projects we know we have to tackle during that close time. Our store’s funny. When you come in, it’s something that’s always bothered some of us, you sort of have this option to kind of go into the flooring world or into the furniture world. You don’t have a very nice introduction. That front space for us is really key and it requires us to take down a big wall, make some big changes. That’s got to happen when we’re closed. That’s not a project we can kind of work around customers. There’s a lot of just, layout, floor design, traffic patterns, things that we know we need to do better. Those are all things that are guiding the strategy for where things will go after, how things will lay out, trying to make sense.

Rob Stott: Basically, it’s a clean slate. It sounds like it’s going to be an opportunity to look at the store like a clean slate. You know what’s going to be in there, but you have the opportunity to really make it what you want.

Heidi Richardson: Even that. We don’t because you can’t carry all the stuff we had so there does need to be some kind of selection process about what vendors we’re going to be using going forward. What is a priority? What isn’t? We’re talking about outdoor. Outdoor is such a big category for everybody, but it’s if we’re shrinking down and we’re cutting things, is it something that makes sense still for us? We’re talking about used furniture, which has been difficult, nursery stuff. We’re really just trying to figure out what does all make the best sense now in this shorter footprint? Before it was easy, we could carry everything because you put it anywhere. This is different.

Clean slate for me would be a new building. If I could move into a new building and plan it out, that’s different. This is more like, okay, what makes the best sense? How do we stay true to what the building was? Because the building can be celebrated. It really can, especially with its roots connected to ours. I’m not looking really to a complete overhaul, but definitely make things easier. Definitely make things cleaner, make that shopping thing.

Rob Stott: How much does having an online presence dictate what happens with the redesign here?

Heidi Richardson: I’m web stuff. I think for the longest time, we were really sort of ahead there and that is a credit really to Steve Rotman. That he knew before any of us knew that websites and online shopping and online sales were going to be a thing. I remember he and I talking in 2005 about where we could project online sales and we’d all sit in a room and be, “That seems aggressive.” And here you are now, I look at my web sales often and it it some crazy percentage? No, but you can continue to see that steady increase. But it’s changed too. I remember 25 years ago, you’d talk about people shopping at three or four stores, you had to actually go in, had to look around, you had that tire kicking thing.

That’s gone. People are doing that now online before they come into the store. For us, that website becomes still hugely important. You still have to get them to want to drive to Worcester. Because let’s be honest. My area is large. They can go to Boston, they can go to Providence, there’s a lot of places. You still have to represent yourself well there. You still have the right product there so that they do want to come in. The web stuff is still going to be hugely important. We’ve got more transacting online than we ever had. We’ve had to do a lot of increasing or improving our processes in store to make sure that stuff is smooth and people still have what we feel like is a Rotmans experience. That we can still, that’s something we still have to work on and do better at, but it’s certainly a huge part of what’s going to happen going forward.

Rob Stott: Sure. Logistically speaking, does the store I know you guys are going to be closed for a little bit. Does having a web presence impact your ability to still sell? Will you guys still be active in retail? Or is it are you guys closing down?

Heidi Richardson: No, no. Just the showroom will be closed to the public basically. We figure anyway, we’ll still be delivering the stuff we’ll be writing through that. The warehouse will still be very active. We’ll obviously be receiving, making the floor moves and stuff. No, we’ll all be in the store. The salespeople, were going to be hopefully helping us. Really want them to kind of be a part of that process too. While they may not be moving furniture, helping with tagging, helping with signage, whatever it is. It will still be a full group experience those couple of weeks I suspect. But the online sales will still continue to happen there without a doubt. During COVID, that was our only way of really doing business. Thank God for that. We did some in store appointments that were good too, but that really was the only thing that was happening.

Rob Stott: Right and that was going to be kind of my follow up is that, unfortunate that obviously the situation being what it was with the pandemic, but that was almost like a dry run for you guys with what this is now that you’re going to be doing over the next couple weeks.

Heidi Richardson: You know what was funny about that? The timing was crazy. It was January and February. We’re putting our plans in place for this remodeling sale, which was supposed to happen last spring. April and May was the timeline. We get shut down in the middle of March. We were shut down for three months.

Rob Stott: Wow.

Heidi Richardson: Then it became, what even happens now? Everything gets rethought. There was no idea what the business was going to be like when we reopened. And the business was huge when we reopened. Everyone sort of relaxes back into, okay, the plan will still work out. But then there was all of the problems getting product. Thank God we had partners and consultants who were telling us, “No, we need inventory. You got to buy now.” I remember sitting in a meeting and they were talking about how bad the supply chains were going to get.

And I remember just thinking, gosh, I think this is alarmist thinking. I’m not sure it can ever be this bad. Is it really? And then here, two months later it was like, they were so right. They knew exactly what was going to happen and thank God for that. We were able to sort of take what we learned then. We knew what the market wanted. We knew we were getting goods. We knew that that stuff was all going to help us get to whenever the point was. Then the next thing was okay, when do we do it? We’re Massachusetts. Our numbers have been crazy. There was a big concern they were going to shut us down again after the holiday. Just even trying to pick the timing of this event has been a challenge because you roll the dice, you cross your fingers, you hope. And so far things have been great. It’s worked out really well.

Rob Stott: Any concerns as you head into this period between when your physical store closes and then when you guys are set to reopen?

Heidi Richardson: Yeah, of course. The theme is scary. I’m a marketing person so I love anything that catches somebody’s eye. I can’t tell you how many of my contacts in my life didn’t read that second part. You want that initial thing, but it was very scary in this time with so many stores who were truly closing. You hate to sort of bring reference to even that and in this way, but it is what it is. It truly as what we’re doing. Anyway, it is what it is, I guess. But it is, I don’t know. I don’t know, Rob honestly.

Rob Stott: I hear you. It’s hard to put into words because given what we’ve been through the last 10 months, almost a year, and thinking about what could have been, but you guys have made it through the other side and now you have this opportunity.

Heidi Richardson: I don’t take that lightly, either. I think that’s one of those things. Every time you see a small business close to anywhere, we’ve got friends who own a restaurant, that have everyday said, “We don’t even know why we’re doing it.” And so it’s not taken lightly. The fact that, this week that it broke was such an interesting time for a lot of us. Because so much of the prep work that went into the closing part for us has gone on these last couple of months. And so the very week that it’s sort of breaking to the public is also the same week that we’re meeting about some of the projects that are happening. And Deb’s putting in her orders for the stuff that’s going to be the first stuff we’re putting out on the floor after. Our feet are kind of in two places, we’re in this closing event, but we’re also excited and in the going forward plan place.

We’re meeting with the designers, the store decorator and she’s got some ideas and it’s just, it was a weird place, I guess. Because you do all this prep work and you’re ready to sort of shift gears, but you’re sort of still stuck here, obviously, because this is where we are. But it was nice to get to the exciting part. It was nice to finally get past that hump and start putting those okay, here are the opening plans now. You see that better side. And again, it’s not lost on me. I know that a lot of companies weren’t able to do that this last year. And we’re grateful we are.

Rob Stott: Right. And you mentioned the exciting stuff. That literally was a nice segue into what I was going to ask next. And that’s, what is it that excites you most about what’s to come with Rotmans and what you guys are going to look like once the store does officially reopen?

Heidi Richardson: Everything is exciting about that, really. I know that probably sounds sort of silly but it’s true. It’s an opportunity for us to do stuff that, that we’ve known we’ve needed to or stuff we’ve wanted to. It’s an opportunity for us to tell our story differently again. I talked about it a little bit with you, this family thing is still here. I’m excited to kind of tell our communities again about that and get to revisit those discussions. Because for the longest time it’s been, I don’t know, we haven’t had the opportunity, I guess, to talk about that. It’s about looking at the lines we’re bringing in. It’s about, are we really meeting what our customers want? It’s I don’t know, everything is exciting about this. Really everything.

Rob Stott: No. That’s fair. That’s a fair answer. It’s no cop out at all. I like it. I like that answer.

Heidi Richardson: Because it’s the truth.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Can’t beat that. I know for every independent retailer, the situation is going to be different and how you kind of walk through is going to be different. But the idea, you guys are a one store operation so to do this as a big deal and any advice to others that would even be thinking about this? Things that you, looking back, you haven’t officially gotten into the redesign phase yet.

Heidi Richardson: I hope. I hope six months from now, we can have a whole different conversation.

Rob Stott: I know.

Heidi Richardson: Wonderful and perfect and good. No, I think that at least what I’ve learned this year. We have some excellent partners. We had some excellent consultants come in and help us sort of figure out how to do this part well. We knew we were going to need additional staff. We knew we needed additional inventory. They’ve been wonderful at that. Excellent guidance. Finding that right partner. We talked to a bunch of different ones that probably could have done a fine job, but it didn’t feel right or I don’t know, we were just looking for that sort of partner thing. That part was great. I think just kind of having everybody dialed into that. I think there was a period of time there, especially when we reopened, our employees were really worried. Really worried about whether or not, how do you come back from being closed for three months?

Your expenses don’t really change all that much. You’ve got no volume. Not really. Being able to kind of keep everybody centered and focused to whatever it ends up being, this is we’re still Rotmans. this is how we do things. We’re still going to take care of our customers. And if we get to have that next chapter story, then that’s fantastic. And everybody was just in it with us this last six to nine months. I guess if you can keep your teams rallied through whatever your transition is, however it is going for you guys there, I think that’s what made the difference for us anyway. If anybody got to the point of doubting, somebody else was there to say, “Hey look, these things are going well and this thing is looking right.” And you could just kind of keep rallying the troops back in. That was huge. Probably just those two things, keeping your teams in line and find the right partners to help you get what you need.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And I know, you know, you mention it, but certainly this leans nicely into us being able to follow up after the fact and see how things went.

Heidi Richardson: We’re hoping it’ll be a six month process. I’m hoping if I can get through this in six months, I’m hoping we can tackle off most of the big projects that we’ve got laid out for us and we can kind of invite people to come back into what we see is as the new Rotmans.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome and incredibly exciting. I’ve seen, dug through the website, see what you guys have going on, what it was. And it’ll be an interesting story to navigate and tell. I appreciate you kind of letting us in and diving into it a little bit and we certainly look forward to following back up on it and seeing how things go.

Heidi Richardson: Thank you, Rob. Me too. I’m looking forward to having that level of discussion.

Rob Stott: Here’s soon enough.

Heidi Richardson: Thanks so much.

Rob Stott: Yep.

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