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Florida furnishes retailer with a new opportunity

Anyone who thinks bad times are the worst times to jump into an already slumping industry has not met Morty Seaman. The talkative New Yorker _ flush with cash from a $365-million buyout of his New York retail furniture chain in 1987 _ is invading Central Florida with his latest creation, Rooms to Go.

And failure does not appear to be on his mind.

"We chose Florida because of its population growth, demographics and after we measured the competition," said Seaman. "The furniture business is way behind the rest of retail. Me, I go to The Gap a lot. You're not going to see the typical cigar-smoking furniture store huckster at Rooms to Go."

So much for diplomacy.

Indeed, Seaman and his son, Jeff, have come up with a sleek store filled with low- and moderate-end goods, all displayed with the latest accessories.

Clerks are mostly young and trained his way _ he wooed six store managers from his former New York chain. The trimmed-down store (at 16,000 square feet, the size of a Pier 1 Imports store) stocks only the contemporary styles that sell the most.

It's all part of a volume formula Seaman hopes will move furniture so quickly that he runs through his inventory nine or 10 times year. That's more than double the industry average of 3.8 times year.

Seaman loaded up on the gimmicks. All his stylish stores are near shopping malls. Delivery within a week carries a money-back guarantee. Even the name Rooms to Go hypes Seaman's plan to build sales volume by discounting furniture groups and hand-picked accessories all in one tidy package.

Prices range from $899 for a sofa with a pair of table lamps thrown in to $2,199 for a five-piece set of leather chairs and a sofa.

So far, Seaman opened five Rooms to Go between Largo Mall and Orlando. There will be 18 by year's end, up to 50 within two years. And he's shooting to parlay the company into a national chain.

Rooms to Go took a short-term lease on a Lakeland warehouse. But the company is negotiating to buy 31 acres for a 500,000-square-foot one in Lakeland, if the formula takes off.

Competitors are skeptical about Seaman's move into a market many think is already saturated. They say he has got to be dreaming about turning over his inventory as often as a grocery store.

But direct competitors are not taking Seaman's arrival lightly.

Kane Furniture is remodeling all 11 of its stores. And in one recent ad, industry leader Levitz reminded customers that it prices furniture so it can be purchased an item at a time as well as in groups.

They know this newcomer is the same fellow who used a heavy, price-driven media presence to build his 31-store Seaman Furniture chain in the New York metropolitan area into what was the second-largest retailer in the industry.

Perhaps in testimony to Seaman's merchandising skills, without him the chain was one of the few acquisitions ever to go sour on Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, one of Wall Street's top takeover artists.