Sunday, June 09, 2002

Rug Gallery owners weave skills to build success

Knowledge, eye for design core of business

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        BLUE ASH - To Sam Presnell, rugs are much more than floor coverings: they are works of art, tellers of tales and keepers of tradition.

[photo] Arlene and Sam Presnell in their Blue Ash Rug Gallery showroom.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        That passion for his merchandise has kept him going through lean times and has earned him national recognition among his peers. It hooked him early, when he was out of school and looking for a business venture. In 1972, he rented a small storefront in Clifton and filled it with machine-made oriental rugs, carpet bags and pillows.

        After six years of slow but steady growth, the business outgrew its space. An analysis of customers' ZIP codes showed that 80 percent lived in the Interstate 71 corridor, so Mr. Presnell and his wife Arlene found an affordable retail space in Montgomery and moved the business there.

        When The Rug Gallery moved, Mrs. Presnell became actively involved in the business, handling accounting, personnel and related matters while her husband immersed himself in the merchandise.

        “If you discount too much, you have to answer to Arlene,” he said. “I like doing the buying, advertising, display and the "vision things.' We have complementary skills and interests.”

        That team effort was needed in Montgomery. Although the relocation provided more space and parking, it proved a challenge as well.

        “The things we sold in Clifton weren't selling in Montgomery,” explained Mr. Presnell. “There was a whole different set of expectations in terms of price points and quality. That first year in Montgomery was a heck of a transition for us.”

        He began an extensive effort to broaden the store's inventory with imported hand-made rugs as well as higher quality machine-made rugs. In the process, the entrepreneur learned about centuries of weaving traditions as well as the people whose livelihood depends on carpet-making. He also followed trends in residential building and design so that his merchandise would reflect current tastes and needs.

    Sam Presnell's knowledge of rugs and business acumen have earned him many kudos from his industry counterparts. He was the first recipient of Specialty Rug Retailer of the Year, an award given by the Oriental Rug Retailers of America, and has been so honored a second time. He was also named Most Knowledgeable Buyer in the specialty category by Rug News magazine.
    In addition to presenting its “best of the best” at JP Flooring in West Chester, The Rug Gallery operates the area rug departments at both Closson's stores in Cincinnati.
    The Rug Gallery is at 9350 Kenwood Road in Blue Ash. Phone: 793-9505.
        “We're always fine-tuning what's selling,“ he said. “I pretty much know before the manufacturer drops a line, because we've already dropped it. Homes are getting bigger. There are fewer rooms but they are larger rooms, so we offer oversize rugs, which you won't find at big box stores.”

        Mr. Presnell believes that his staff's depth of knowledge and eye for design also sets The Rug Gallery apart from the big retailers, whose overhead and large volume force them to emphasize sales volume rather than satisfying customer needs.

        “Knowledge and service,” he said. “That's where the big boxes can be beat, and I think we do beat them.”

        The challenge for The Rug Gallery has been to convince the public that it can also compete on price.

        Said Mr. Presnell: “People think we're not affordable because we're a specialty store. They don't realize the variety we have. We have the really good stuff, but we have a tremendous assortment of the reasonably-priced stuff too.”

        A diversified advertising campaign has helped convey this message.

        “I learned early on that advertising was the key to our growth,” he said. “No matter how tough times were, we kept advertising.”

        Advertising may get folks through the door, but The Rug Gallery has found that the best way to sell its merchandise is to organize it well, make it accessible, and keep the information simple. Those principles are behind the design of The Rug Gallery's Blue Ash store, which the retailer has occupied since 1993.

        Increasingly frustrated with the limitations of his store in Montgomery, Mr. Presnell told his wife he needed to either build a new store or quit. Although the sound of “quit” appealed to Mrs. Presnell, she supported her husband's decision to start over from the ground up.

        The result was a structural representation of how Mr. Presnell envisioned his inventory, with good quality machine-made rugs at the hub of the store, and specialty galleries radiating out like spokes. Each gallery space has a skylight, side lights and overhead lights to show the rugs to advantage. Each has coordinating rugs of various sizes. There are no stacks of rugs: they are hung for optimal display and ease of access.

        The Rug Gallery's most recent entrepreneurial push came last summer, when Mr. Presnell established a presence at JP Flooring's new facility in West Chester.

        “We wanted to become a full service floor covering company, and take a look at the rug business,” explained Phil Schrimper, co-owner of the enterprise that sells to builders and flooring contractors. “But you have to know what to buy and you have to have a lot of inventory and deal with a lot of different vendors.”

        Over a couple of beers one night, he suggested to his friend Sam Presnell that The Rug Gallery become his company's rug dealer. “I've known Sam as long as I've been in the rug business, and he's one of the most trustworthy people you'd want to team up with. He's extremely knowledgeable and very well-respected in the industry.”

        Both men say that the partnership has served each company well, rounding out what JP Flooring can offer its customers, and giving The Rug Gallery increased visibility in the fast-growing northern suburbs.

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