New York, New York 10003-1204
Telephone: (212) 473-3000
Fax: (212) 228-1763
Sales: $125 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 5713 Floor Covering Stores; 5719 Miscellaneous Home Furnishing Stores
ABC Carpet & Home Co. Inc.'s eight-story building in Manhattan's Flatiron district, with nearly eight acres of selling space, is the largest rug and carpet store in the world, attracting about a million visitors each year. The company's array of products include not only carpets and rugs but also antiques, furniture, textiles, gifts and accessories, and bed and bath items. Because of its inventive displays and eclectic offerings, ABC has been called "Disneyland for rich adults."
Discount Rug Dealer: 1897-1983
ABC Carpet & Home traces its beginning to 1897, when Sam Weinrib, an Austrian immigrant, loaded a cart with used carpeting and linoleum and pushed it through Manhattan's Lower East Side. His son Max opened a store under the (since demolished) Third Avenue rapid-transit elevated tracks at East 29th Street, and Max's son Jerry, who started selling carpets and rugs in 1947, moved the discount establishment to two floors on 881 Broadway, at East 19th Street, in 1961. This location put ABC at the right place at the right time when the neighborhood--once known as Ladies' Mile for its late 19th-century department and specialty stores--returned to fashion at the beginning of the 1980s.
Weinrib already had broadened his company's range in 1979 by buying Schumacher's area rugs ("every mistake they ever bought," he later said). That purchase added more than 500,000 square feet of rugs to the company's stock, and there was not enough room in ABC's quarters to house them. In 1980 Weinrib rented the basement and first floor of what had been the quarters of the century-old former W&J Sloane department store, directly across the street at 888 Broadway. The following year he exercised an option to buy the building. In order to fill the seven-story structure, ABC branched out in 1983 from floor coverings into the broader field of home furnishings. At some point the company also filled adjoining 880 Broadway, which was the original Sloane store.
Chic Home Furnishings Emporium: 1983-95
The ensuing transformation of ABC Carpet into a chic home furnishings emporium is credited to Weinrib's daughter Paulette and her husband, Evan Cole. At this time, many established suppliers would not sell to ABC because of its reputation for discounting, but in the mid-1980s Paulette Cole began stocking the store with antiques and accessories she bought on her travels. Soon she had won a reputation as a trendspotter who sagaciously anticipated the growing importance of home life to aging baby boomers. Evan Cole was described as an astute businessman and brilliant negotiator. By 1993 half of ABC's sales were coming from home furnishings--half of that being furniture--and nearly half of this merchandise was exclusive to the store. "Our customer is the $100,000 family that comes here to buy quality but save money," Evan Cole said that year.
Rugs and carpets continued, of course, to be a staple of the store. By 1988 ABC Carpet was the nation's largest single-store floor coverings operation, with annual sales of $60 million. The floor coverings division was broken down into carpets and area rugs, with the ratio, once roughly equal, now about 75 percent rugs and 25 percent carpets. A 100,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx held inventory valued at $3 million. Buying in volume and directly importing many products, ABC was able to offer floor coverings for as little as $5 a square yard, yet its customers included Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, and Keith Richards. A company executive explained, "Everybody is interested in good value. Even people who have tons of money want a good deal."
ABC Carpet & Home began selling furniture in 1988, starting with antiques and reproductions. A year or so later, the company added high-end lines of domestic manufacturers, and in 1992 furniture sales came to about $25 million, or about one-quarter of total store sales. But Evan Cole made no secret of his scorn for what he called the "how-many-suites-are-you-buying" mentality of many furniture producers. "Our furniture business is a collecting business, it's a piece business," he told a reporter in 1993. "People are not decorating, they're collecting. We don't even sell the same chairs with a dining table these days."
Prominent among domestic suppliers of ABC's furniture in 1993 were Baker, Kindel, Hickory Chair, and John Widdicomb. Shoppers were buying traditional shapes with what Cole called "a high face--finishes, painted looks, unique effects, satinwoods, ormolu detailing--instead of flat mahogany." A key element for sales, he said, was the store's ability to deliver 90 percent of its furniture at once. As another ABC executive explained, "It's an old cliché, but everybody in New York wants something yesterday."
ABC Carpet & Home's stylish home accessories and antiques were, in 1993, arranged in vignette rooms that varied from cozy, crowded Victorian settings to a contemporary one filled with natural, undyed cloths. Topical sections such as "White Trash Fifties" and "The Fairy Kingdom" cross-sold various kinds of eclectic merchandise, including not only tablecloths, lamps, and overstuffed chairs but even cookie jars.
ABC Carpet & Home added another 100,000 square feet of selling space during 1993-94 and a number of leased departments, including in-store boutiques by Ralph Lauren and Estée Lauder's Origins and an area for state-of-the-art consumer electronics (to entertain the men while their wives shopped in other departments, according to Evan Cole). The main floor (or "parlor") of the main store, formerly stocked with rugs, was now filled with a wide range of merchandise the company had bought from an old English department store. Furniture, formerly on two floors, was given a third as well.
The space expansion included roughly 50,000 square feet added to the carpet-and-rug store at 881 Broadway, enabling the design-rug department to move across the street from the main floor of 888 Broadway. This new three-level floor covering gallery included several new custom services, including hardwood flooring and vinyl and ceramic tile. Personal shoppers were made available to help customers select furniture, accessories, and fabrics to coordinate with their area rugs. Decorative handmade rugs and Orientals remained in their loft space on the sixth floor of the main 888 Broadway store. ABC also acquired Absolutely Rugs, a retail store based in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1993.
Top selling rugs at this time, according to Weinrib, were flatweaves, including kilins, dhurries, chainstitch rugs, and needlepoints. Natural looks and colors, such as sisals in beige and off-white, also were selling well. Top suppliers included Karastan, Nourisan, Pande Cameron, and Whitney. The bestselling size was 9′×12′. ABC Carpet & Home hung samples in this size rather than the usual industry practice of showing 4′×6′ or 6′×9′ samples. As for carpets, the store had always skipped expensive showroom decoration because the costs would simply be passed on to the consumer, preferring to roll out carpets on the floor rather than show samples.
The second floor decorative home collection established in the main store in 1994 contained what management believed to be one of the world's largest collections of home fabrics in one location. It held about 1,000 bolts of fabric on the selling floor and about 4,000 hanging samples, plus endless varieties of tassels, ropes, and trims, and a huge array of decorative hardware. Racks were organized by fabric type and color. Customers could buy fabric alone or order it made into a variety of textile products, including draperies, slipcovers, spreads, and pillows. The floor also included bedroom displays, huge armoires used as display cases, and muslin-covered sofas and chairs in popular silhouettes to help shoppers choose their own upholstery. Three skilled artisans cut and sewed in a large open workroom in one corner of the floor.
By 1995 ABC Carpet & Home was pulling in out-of-towners beguiled by the company's eclectic selection of merchandise, and these visitors were not necessarily from the suburbs; Los Angeles was its biggest market outside Manhattan. "Browsing through ABC's cluttered floors is akin to shopping in your grandmother's attic," one reporter wrote. "Much of the charm is that the merchandise does not look as if it is for sale. Chandeliers of Venetian glass drip from exposed pipes. Silk pillows are tossed willy-nilly across velvet sofas. Tall, antique secretaries are littered with tiny picture frames, pretty boxes, stationery, perhaps an old ink well. Outrageously priced Italian bedding is thrown across beds as if someone incredibly chic had just arisen from them." The National Retail Federation had cited ABC in 1994 as Small Retailer of the Year.
By this time the Coles were giving most of their attention to creating new departments. They planned to subdivide and relocate established departments in order to accommodate a larger modern-furniture section, specialty goods, gourmet kitchen wares, and a bookstore specializing in interior design and Eastern philosophy. "Paulette's into the spiritual thing right now," her husband explained. Accessories, comprising about 10 percent of the entire business, remained especially dear to her heart. Grouped casually on tables, tossed over counters, and stuffed in baskets and armoires, they did not look as if they were for sale, but each item had a price tag. "We really believe accessories are like little spokespeople--they're the soul of the store," she told a reporter. Interviewed by another reporter, she said, "We've created a bit of romantic fantasy and warmth in what is sometimes considered a cold, unfriendly city."
A visit in 1995 to ABC Carpet & Home's main building began with the 27-window display, filled with fanciful and varied offerings. The first floor included fragrances; decorative and antique accessories, including pillows and throws; stationery and books; and "Spirit East" (including tatami mats and "meditation cushions"), "Things for Men," (including canes, sailboat models, and antique pocket watches), and "ABC Baby." The lower mezzanine was divided into Moroccan, Indian Teak, Indonesian, Stone Statuary, South American, and Pine imported furniture, while the upper mezzanine housed art deco and 20th-century modern furniture and a section for Herman Miller.
The second floor included tapestries, curtains, draperies, trimmings, custom upholstery, and hanging fabric samples. The third floor included bedding and bath, two Ralph Lauren shops, and lighting and fixtures. The fourth and fifth floors carried furniture, upholstery, formal reproductions and antiques (including an eight-foot folk art birdhouse), and another Ralph Lauren section. The top floor, a loft with 25-foot ceilings, held decorative handmade rugs, among them antique Aubussons from France, and Oriental carpets.
Expansion to Other Sites: 1996-98
In 1996 ABC Carpet & Home opened a cafe in a dormer display space in the back of the first floor of the main building. Presided over by the chef at former mayor Edward Koch's official residence, the breakfast to dinner menu was contemporary American, with bagels and muffins, pancakes, salads, sandwiches, and simple entrees, all for less than $10. Evan Cole said he planned to add a food shop and housewares department before the end of the year.
The year 1996 also brought other innovations. On Memorial Day weekend, ABC Carpet & Home held its first "On the Road" promotion in a Morristown, New Jersey, armory, offering a combined clearance sale and special price purchases. It featured 2,000 pieces of furniture, 2,000 rugs, and 20,000 sheets. In July the road show moved to the fashionable Hamptons on Long Island, and two further such events were being lined up for later in the year. ABC also launched a 60,000-square-foot outlet store in Delray Beach, Florida, with "no white Florida furniture," according to Evan Cole. The company decorated this white, cinder-block building with a 330-foot trompe l'oeil mural of the façe of 888 Broadway. In December the company formed HomeBrand, a joint venture with Trade-Am founded to sell home furnishings to retailers.
With the expansion completed in 1994, ABC Carpet & Home had more than 350,000 square feet of selling space, including three floors at 881 Broadway holding 35,000 rugs and thousands of broadlooms. It opened another 50,000-square-foot store, entitled ABC Home on the Road, in 1997 in The Source, an enclosed mall in Westbury, Long Island. In addition, the company maintained 200,000 square feet of warehouse space and a factory store outlet in the Bronx. In 1998 ABC opened ABC Carpet at Harrods, an 8,000-square-foot area on the third floor of the famed London department store, offering more than 20,000 handmade rugs.
"ABC Carpet & Home Takes Store on the Road," HFN/Home Furnishings News, September 15, 1997, p. 4.
Buchholz, Barbara B., "New York Institution's Success Speaks Volumes About Its Approach to Selling Home Furnishings," Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1995, Sec. 15, pp. 1, 8.
Griffin, Linda Gillan, "Fantasy Shopping for Home Easy As ABC in the Big Apple," Houston Chronicle, December 28, 1995, p. 2F.
Hall, Linda, "Home Team," New York, October 9, 1995, pp. 73-77.
Hamlin, Suzanne, "Knowing the ABCs of Carpet & Home," HFD/Home Furnishings Daily, August 8, 1994, p. 24.
------, "More Stores Add Menus to Shoppers' Choices," New York Times, March 27, 1996, p.. C7.
Herlihy, Janet, "Spotlight on ABC Carpet & Home," Carpet & Rug Industry, July/August 1997, pp. 14-16.
Iovine, Julie V., "On 3rd Floor at Harrods: ABC Carpet," New York Times, August 13, 1998, Sec. 3, p. 12.
Naughton, Julie, "ABC Carpet in Florida Foray," HFD/Home Furnishings Daily, July 19, 1993, p. 28.
Rigg, Cynthia, "As Easy As ABC," Crain's New York Business, July 19-25, 1993, pp. 1, 38.
Sloan, Carole, "ABC Expansion to Boost Furniture," Furniture Today, July 26, 1993, pp. 1, 36.
------, "ABC Launching 2 New Divisions," Furniture Today, May 27, 1996, pp. 1, 94.
Strom, Stephanie, "Is It the Next New York Miracle?" New York Times, January 30, 1995, pp. D1, D6.
Wright, Heather, "ABC Carpet: Big, Bright and Brash," HFD/Home Furnishings Daily, July 11, 1988, p. 60.
Wyman, Lissa, "ABC to XYZ of Selling Fabric," HFN/Home Furnishings News, September 18, 1995, p. 28.
------, "Globetrotting at Home Brand," HFN/Home Furnishings News, December 9, 1996, p. 70.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 26. St. James Press, 1999.