TAMPA — Crate & Barrel's white limestone wall, polished maple floor and colorful Marimekko banners banish its namesake shipping-crate displays to dusty history.
"We still use some barrels," said area manager Dana Kamin, pointing to wicker casks filled with housewares such as $6.95 silicone trivets, $9.95 oven mitts and $19.95 salad scissors.
The new full-line Crate & Barrel in Tampa, which boasts the chain's trademark clean and warm minimalist look, brims with 4,000 housewares and decor items and an upstairs furniture gallery.
"It's our only furniture store between Boca Raton and Atlanta because we see Tampa as a big market," said Gordon Segal, 70-year-old chairman of a chain that did $1.3 billion in sales in 2008.
Shoppers can judge for themselves when the Chicago lifestyle retailer opens its first Tampa Bay store at the West Shore Boulevard entrance to International Plaza at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Crate & Barrel got its spartan name when the first store opened in an old elevator factory in Chicago's Old Town in 1962.
Then 23, Gordon opened a store with his wife, Carole, that exploited emerging trade opportunities with small but high-quality European design houses eager to get their decorator goods in American markets.
The decision to display the wares in unfinished shipping crates and open barrels was two-fold. It underscored how these imports were bargain-priced because the Segals bought direct from the factory. Plus the Segals could scrape together only $18,000 to launch the business.
"We had good taste, but no money, and more enthusiasm than wisdom," said Segal, who set prices before the bills arrived, so everything initially sold at a loss.
"Customers were delighted," he said. "And they came back."
The Segals got savvy fast, sticking to top-tier real estate and learning visual selling techniques while raising prices and quality as they followed the tastes and rising incomes of baby boomers. By the '80s, the Segals added budget-priced, ready-to-assemble Scandinavian furniture. They gave up "when people returned broken sofas in six months."
"We decided if everything else we sold is quality, the furniture should be, too," he said.
The need to cater to a generation was not lost on the Segals, who bankrolled growth by selling majority interest to German mail order house Otto Gmbh KG. Recently they launched CB2, a chain for younger, Generation Y apartment and condo dwellers.
Crate & Barrel gets a quarter of its sales online and from catalogs, the rest from 170 stores.
But the company doesn't always behave like a chain. Stores may look similar. But by design, no two are alike, with stores even turning to local natural materials to fit in. Managers can adapt merchandise rules to local taste. The company pioneered showing furniture in vignettes, groupings accessorized as in a home.
Pricing is moderate to upmarket. Sofas run from about $1,000 to $1,800. Most of the furniture selection is solid wood or veneer and the products are all store brands except cutlery, cookware and small appliances.
Crate & Barrel competes with Ethan Allen and Pottery Barn in furniture; Bed Bath & Beyond, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma in housewares.
But the selection is broader. The Tampa store, for instance, stocks 40 styles of wine glasses from $1.99 to $12.99.
And in synch with women's fashion, stores change looks and goods five seasons a year.
Crate & Barrel runs true clearance sales — slash-pricing unsold goods — twice a year. One is in January, the other in June.
Clearance goods are gathered nationally. So even the new Tampa store will have its first clearance sale starting June 5.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.