Interviews

How Did You Become A Shop Owner? – with Richard Eib

Richard Eib is the owner and founder of Monroe & Kent Home which has two locations in the South Jersey/Philadelphia area and Chicago, with a third store under contract in Central Jersey. He runs the stores with his husband James Eib and they stock high end and unique furniture and home goods. We sat down with Richard to learn how his entrepreneurial and retail-focused career led him here.

Abound: What’s your background? How did you first get started in the retail space?

Richard: I started in the workforce back in the 90s. I didn’t go to college and I’m one of ten siblings in my family. My decision to skip college was a rebellion against my father. His background is banking and finance and I wanted to do the polar opposite of such a stuffy career path.

My first-ever business was a mail-order discount fragrance business. Think Perfumania. I started that business because in Europe in the ’90s, cologne and perfume was exorbitantly expensive. I was able to source excess inventory from the U.S. and Asia and sell it for up to 50% off via mail order.

It was pre-internet and it really took off, to the point of being able to invest in radio advertising to grow the business. As the business continued to grow, I expanded the offering by adding cosmetics and skincare. All through finding excess and bankrupt inventory that I would source in the U.S. and sell in the U.K. for 30-40% off regular retail pricing.

The business continued to grow, however, we started to experience supply issues. A group called The Perfume Shop started opening tens of stores around the U.K. and hoovering up as much product as they could. That coupled with the dawn of the internet era made me unsure about the long term viability of the business. Keep in mind, in the 90’s no one really knew the power of the internet as it would eventually relate to retail. Well, except for a smart guy named Jeff Bezos!

I decided to cash out of the business and take a completely different path. I started a consulting and staffing company that I ran until 2017.

Bubba’s Fine Foods and RogersMade at Richard’s store.

Abound: What led you to leave consulting and staffing and start your current business?

Richard: What really kind of threw me into becoming a shop owner was wanting to have customer interactions again. Working for so many years in consulting and staffing put me in the very situation I had wanted to avoid – a stuffy, corporate environment. We were building technology solutions, educating clients, and finding candidates to support and maintain these solutions that we would build.

It was soul-destroying sitting in endless meetings, running conference calls, and having to manage the internal politics of some of our clients to get projects completed. While running this business, my husband and I had some side projects such as a company that sold natural beauty brands. We found working on these projects to be more enjoyable than our main “career.”

Ultimately, my husband and I were both looking for a change. After moving from Manhattan to New Jersey, we discussed what we wanted to do. He has an excellent eye for fashion and design, and we were giving a lot of thought to how this could be combined with my marketing and sales expertise. We realized that a consumer-based business was where we needed to be (again).

Abound: How did you land on furniture and home goods?

Richard: The original Monroe & Kent started three years ago as a fast fashion website. We would drop ship clothes from China to the US, and we started getting requests. People said we should get some new trinkets and knick-knacks. Things like lighting, decor, $5,000 couches and one of a kind vintage pieces of furniture. 

They resonated really well. I was like, why are we selling blazers that have a $10 margin, and dealing with shipping, sizing, and returns issues? Both of us take providing great service seriously.

Dropshipping is a great way to inexpensively start a business, but shipping gets complicated fast. When you are processing thousands of orders a month, even 5% of those orders having shipping issues (clearing customs or even reaching their destination) can cause negative sentiment to build quickly.

We saw furniture was taking off and we had total control of the supply chain, so in early 2017, we pivoted to become shop owners.

Initially, we concentrated on growing furniture sales by working with interior designers. These were quick wins because designers are constantly sourcing furniture for client projects. We then reinvested that money into digital advertising campaigns, direct mail, and print advertising to grow our consumer business.

Abound: How did you go from purely online to brick and mortar?

Richard: As a lot of our business was with interior designers in the Mid West, we opened a showroom in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The Merchandise Mart is known as a designer’s resource to purchase everything from fabrics and furniture to flooring and appliances.

We were led to believe that having a presence in that building would grow our business. It’s marketed as a busy hub of designers going from showroom to showroom.

We quickly learned that becoming a shop owner at the Merchandise Mart was a mistake. 

The way designers source has really changed, particularly with the younger generation of designers. They prefer to call or send an email rather than deal with figuring out parking and navigating a labyrinth of showrooms.

The lack of viability of our showroom was apparent from day one, the building is a ghost town. Although it’s now open to the public, the decades-long policy of “trade only” means that many don’t think of the Merchandise Mart when shopping for their home.

We made a decision to close the location at the end of 2019 and become shop owners in the West Loop spring of this year.

After that disastrous foray, we were somewhat cautious about continuing on a brick and mortar path. However, an opportunity presented to take over a 7,000 square foot space that a former Charming Charlie store occupied. We decided to pull the trigger on it and open before the 2019 holiday season.

What solidified the decision for us was that people still want to touch and feel furniture before they buy. There’s a reason Wayfair is losing half a billion dollars a year. It’s because the cost of acquiring customers is so high versus the average spend. But more importantly, furniture is bulky, therefore expensive to ship and receive back to warehouse if the customer returns the item.

James and I gave some thought to what a consumer-facing retail store would look like. We love what the teams over at ABC Carpet and Home in Manhattan and Jayson Home in Chicago are doing. They both cleverly put furniture throughout the store and then weave in products that have unique stories. They offer a ton of other products, from candles, coffee table books, stationery, high-end candy, flatware, jewelry, and even fashion.

Let’s be honest, there are only so many times people buy a couch or a bed. You need to have a clever merchandising mix that keeps your customers coming back.

It’s a known fact that most furniture is now manufactured overseas. So we intentionally sought out smaller, women-owned, minority or family brands that we could champion and grow with. That’s also how we’re looking to supply our jewelry, gourmet snacks, gifting, candle or pet products. We hope that our customers can discover and learn to love new brands.

Abound: Retail has been affected by the internet and in some categories devastatingly so. But it seems like there has been a positive trend with retail locations like yours where you support makers. I was wondering what your thoughts are about this trend and what you’ve noticed for the past few years.

Richard: It’s interesting because I follow a lot of trade publications across a lot of retail sectors. You hear stories left and right about brick and mortar basically dying. It’s usually captioned that there’s a retail blood bath or apocalypse.

Papyrus just announced that they’re shuttering all retail stores. Gap announced that they’re calling off their separation of the Old Navy brand, and last year they announced they’re closing another 200 something stores over two years. Bed, Bath & Beyond is trying to figure out what it’s doing, JC Penny is continuing on the same path as Sears.

The common theme here is national chains with too many locations, or too much space. These chains have failed to invest in technology, service and their store fleet.

I see a lot of thriving people who are becoming shop owners, especially family-owned retailers. Retailers who are investing in service and product mix are growing and optimistic.

I think if people give some thought behind what they’re actually offering the consumer, that becoming a shop owner is a great opportunity right now. You need to offer people and give them something that they can’t get on Amazon, Wayfair, or eBay.

If people can give them that experience in-store and give it with great service, then shopping becomes less transactional and a nice experience all around. It makes shopping more of an experiential event. Businesses with that philosophy are working, thriving, and succeeding. 

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