By Warren Shoulberg
If there was any irony in the fact that the grand reopening for the Fortunoff Backyard Store had to be postponed for a day because of a blizzard that hit the New York area, it certainly didn’t seem to bother any of the people on hand for that opening.
Fortunoff was back.
The legendary New York home furnishings retailer, which passed from family hands to several investment groups and ultimately into liquidation, returned—at least partially—last month with the opening of seven Backyard Stores.
Owned by a group that includes former management—CEO Bernard Sensale and chief operating officer Marty Merkur, and majority owners the Barish family that runs The Chair King in Texas—the new Fortunoff features one of the old store’s cornerstone merchandise classifications, not to mention one of its most profitable.
And it does so under the legendary Fortunoff name, which the founding Fortunoff and Mayrock families bought back in auction last year.
But there are many other connections to the former operation. All seven stores are in markets where it once had outdoor locations and several are in the same physical setting. Many of the buyers, managers and sales personnel are also back in their former positions.
And most importantly, Fortunoff is poised to reclaim one other aspect of its previous incarnation: a big share of the moderate to better outdoor and casual furniture and accessories business in the New York metropolitan area.
“More than $100 million in business disappeared when we and Home Depot Expo went out of business,” said Merkur, who headed up home merchandising for the old store and is chief merchant of the new one. Merkur spent virtually his entire career—39 years—with Fortunoff.
“The customers were sad to see us go and they are happy to see us back,” said Sensale, who had been chief marketing officer for Fortunoff. “We are the place to come to for better outdoor furniture.”
The two, with the backing of the Barish family—David Barish is president of The Chair King and Furniture Concepts, the launch company that Merkur and Sensale started—hope to regain a big piece of that market share. Together Fortunoff and Chair King say they expect to do $70 million a year.
Why just casual furniture? “When we looked at the numbers,” said Sensale, “we realized this was the business we wanted to be in. It was the best money maker for the old company.”
The seven stores—which range in size from the Westbury, N.Y., flagship in the same The Source Mall as the old store at 36,000 feet down to about 18,000 square feet—will switch over to seasonal Christmas merchandise in the fourth quarter, just as the former stores used to.
Merkur said ultimately Fortunoff hopes to have 20 Backyard stores in the New York metro area, which combined with Chair King’s 18 units in Texas will give the store great buying power. Isadore Mayrock, a member of the founding family, is an investor in the new operation and also helped on the real estate side for the relaunch. The old Fortunoff had 18 outdoor stores and departments within flagship stores.
And this may not be the last place the Fortunoff name will resurface. David Fortunoff, grandson of company founders Max and Clara, was part of the family group that bought back the name and they are exploring other options, he said at the opening.
“We are looking for the right partner who can develop a business online,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to imagine a stand-alone jewelry store than one for home furnishings.”
The family bought back the real estate of the famous Westbury flagship, but he said he doubts there will ever be a Fortunoff retail operation back in that space. “Brick and mortar is a tough sell in home furnishings.”
For Merkur, who was the store’s enduring home furnishings face to the trade, the return is a sweet one. “When we finally closed, I spent some time in Florida and honestly, I was a little depressed at how things went down.
“When this came up, everyone said it was impossible to do. And that’s why I wanted to do it.”