With a 71-year history and 11 stores sprinkled throughout Chicago and the suburbs, Walter E. Smithe is a local furniture icon. Since 1945, the company has established itself as a reliable family-run retailer, with the second- and third-generation Smithe men at the helm. But now a new generation—sisters Meghan, Colleen, Maureen, and Caitie Smithe—is shaking things up in a big way.
The Smithe sisters, all in their thirties, worked in the family business as teens but pursued different career paths in adulthood. By last year, though, each had returned to the company their great-grandfather founded. “We all trickled back in, and it happened really organically,” says Meghan of the industrious quartet, who collectively has 17 children.
While their father and grandfather are still actively involved in the day-to-day, the women have taken over the company’s marketing, design, advertising and buying efforts—and immediately went about altering brand perceptions. “Nothing is left unchanged,” Meghan notes.
The first order of business: ditch the longstanding, highly recognizable ad campaign featuring their father and two uncles. “It worked really well for a long time, but post-recession, we saw people’s sensibilities had changed,” says Meghan. “Customers were more concerned with what we were selling versus the people who were selling it,” she adds. The new campaign, dubbed “Smithe Family Makeovers,” showcases Smithe furniture in the
homes of actual clients, revealing the handiwork of the company’s designers in HGTV-esque episodes.
The campaign was inspired in part by a partnership with designer/house-flipper Jeff Lewis of the Bravo show Flipping Out. Lewis teamed up with Smithe’s merchandising team to create in-store vignettes, and also featured the store on his show. Additional partnerships with the likes of Cynthia Rowley and Ellen Degeneres have exposed the company to a new customer base.
“My sisters and I represent the viewpoint of our younger clientele,” Meghan says. But she’s quick to point out that the business is still very much a multigenerational effort, noting that their 81-year-old grandfather still regularly meets with clients. “We feel like we can now speak to the multitude of generations who shop with us,” she says.