Dallas shoppers are discovering a home décor retailer with sales last year of more than $2 billion that most of them have never heard of.
Plano-based At Home just opened its first store inside the Dallas city limits on Skillman Street in the Timber Creek Crossing shopping center.
At Home boasts that it runs the largest home décor superstores with 50,000 items in 100,000 square feet of space, about twice the size of a Bed Bath & Beyond or about four times the size of a HomeGoods.
What it can’t claim is a strong brand identity, and maybe even less so since July when it was sold for $2.8 billion to private equity and no longer has a stock price for investors to track. The retailer was taken private by Hellman & Friedman in a deal that was challenged by a shareholder and led to a higher sale price.
But it can claim that it’s gaining market share, At Home chairman and CEO Lee Bird said. Home furnishings are a $200-billion-a-year business that was growing 2% to 4% a year before the pandemic.
It jumped to 6% to 9% during the stay-at-home economy the past couple of years, he said. “We’ve been growing three and four times that rate, and we’re taking market share every quarter.”
At Home’s blue and gray big box stores, 240 of them so far in 40 states, are hard to miss.
Shoppers quickly discover that the stores are filled with color and style and the selection goes deep in each category of home décor. The stores haves aisles and aisles of tissue box covers, kitchen gadgets, accent furniture, decorative and area rugs, pots and planters, pillows, mirrors, fake plants, wall art and seasonal holiday merchandise that changes throughout the year.
“Right now our name isn’t one that rolls off the tongue,” Bird said, but the retailer is working on it.
As At Home opens more stores, at least 25 this year, it is entering new markets such as Rochester, Minn., and Asheville, N.C., while filling in densely populated areas. It opened its sixth store in Orange County, Calif., and is following up a successful Queens store in New York City with one in the Bronx this spring. The new Dallas store fits that strategy.
“We’re a high-growth company, and our investors see us that way,” Bird said. Wall Street wasn’t giving At Home the benefit of the doubt when it tapped debt to accelerate new store openings and went cash flow negative in 2019. (Irving-based arts and crafts retailer Michaels went private last year and Dallas-based MoneyGram International said this week that it has similar plans.)
At Home pulled back the rate of store openings before the pandemic hit. But as people started sprucing up their surroundings, that translated into hyper sales increases of more than 40% for At Home. It’s now funding growth through cash flow, Bird said, adding that the way the sale was structured, its debt is manageable.
At Home debuted in 2013, and Bird said he believes it can become a 600-store chain and that it can do so faster as a private company. After a career that included stints at Nike, Old Navy and Gap, Bird was hired in 2012 to reinvent the more than 30-year-old Garden Ridge brand with 58 tired locations into something new.
He said he’s in it for the long haul.
The sale of the company triggered the vesting of most restricted shares and stock options held by executives. Bird’s shares were worth more than $90 million. He turned around and spent $10 million of it to make an investment in At Home as part of an agreement with Hellman & Friedman.
At the end of this year, the company will move out of its Plano headquarters into new office space under construction in Billingsley Co.’s Cypress Waters development in Irving along LBJ Freeway. It will keep the warehouse attached to its Plano space.
Bird said the corporate staff of 400 will expand by another 100 and he’s looking for people who can grow in their careers while they’re building this “category killer.”
That’s a term not used much anymore as online shopping put most category killers on the shelf in a box labeled Toys R Us, Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things.
But not all. The genre’s winners — Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy — remain outside of that box with mature online businesses.
At Home was just building up its online business when the pandemic hit, and it was able to ramp it up quickly using its stores as fulfillment centers for curbside pickup and deliveries.
But stores are key when you’re boasting the largest assortment in a category with items people want to see and carry home.
“We only have a 1% market share now,” Bird said.
His biggest competitors are bigger, but not everyone is growing these days.
Sales have been declining at Bed Bath & Beyond, which also operates Buy Buy Baby, partly due to the sale of five concepts, including Cost Plus World Market, and turnaround efforts at the 995-store chain haven’t yet produced results. In January, the retailer estimated revenue of $7.9 billion for its fiscal 2021, which ends this month. It reported a 10% decline in the quarter that ended in November compared with 2020 and down 5% from 2019.
TJX Cos.’ HomeGoods chain had sales of $6 billion in 2020, down 4% from 2019, but it’s recovering, with sales through the first nine months of 2021 already at $6.5 billion.
At Home follows an everyday low price strategy and says it sells 80% of its items at full price. Most of its products are its own private label. It’s one of the 30 largest importers and is diversifying its country mix to include Mexico and Europe in addition to Asia, Bird said. Freight costs are up, but it’s able to get its product here.
So far, it’s selectively increasing prices but not at the official government inflation rate of 17% for home goods, he said.
While the new Dallas store opened two weeks ago, its grand opening isn’t until Saturday to give the store time to fill all the shelves. Suburban shoppers are well aware of At Home, which has 11 other stores dotting Dallas-Fort Worth.
“I’m a freak about signs. The customer needs to know you’re there,” Bird said.
At Home’s new Dallas store is in a shopping center with a sloping terrain and a double-decked Walmart on top of a Sam’s Club. Bird made sure a large At Home sign protruded upward enough to be visible in the Walmart parking lot. Bird said he believes in billboards and flooding its surrounding neighborhoods with direct mail and digital advertising.
That sign caught the attention of Tammy Mitchell, 40, of Dallas. She said she remembers hearing At Home mentioned in a DIY YouTube video once, but she never tried to visit one until it opened in her Northeast Dallas neighborhood.
“This is my second time here,” Mitchell said while shopping at the store Tuesday. “I think it’s going to do well. Who doesn’t like home décor?”
Some of the merchandise “looks cheap,” she said, “but you have to know what’s going to look good.” Mitchell was shopping for a desk lamp, and she also checked out the rugs with her eye on one she said had a great price at $79 and spotted a “classy vase” and a playful sign that reads “sweet, southern and sassy.”
Meredith Walski, 31, of Dallas said she’s thrilled that an At Home store is finally close to her.
“It’s the first store I go to whenever I move, and I just moved again,” Walski said at the Dallas store on Tuesday. “It’s a great place for kitchen stuff, rugs and hangers. I’m here for a lamp, baskets and a spring wreath.”
Story has been updated to reflect that At Home now has 12 stores in D-FW, not 11.
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