“Retail is about one simple thing: delighting customers”

Those are the words of Jim McIngvale, owner and founder of Gallery Furniture in Houston.

McIngvale, better known as “Mattress Mack,” spoke to more than 350 students, faculty, staff, and local business leaders for the 22nd annual M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Lecture Series on Feb. 27 at Mays Business School.

Hosted by the Center for Retailing Studies, the M.B. Zale Visionary Award honors innovation and success in retail. Donald Zale, the son of the Zale Corporation founder, presented McIngvale with his award prior to his presentation.

For more than three decades, Gallery Furniture has been a staple of the Houston community. From their years of excellent customer service to McIngvale’s television catch-phrase “Gallery Furniture saves you money!” to the furniture retailer’s involvement in the local community – Jim McIngvale is a retail icon.

The beginning
McIngvale shared the story of how he started Gallery Furniture in tents on the side of the freeway.

“For the first six months, we slept in that (furniture) store because we couldn’t afford to have anybody steal our inventory,” he added.

McIngvale conceived the disruptive idea of same-day delivery because he couldn’t afford to have stock sitting around. His wife, Linda, and another employee would load the product on a truck and follow the customer home with their purchase.

What really set McIngvale apart was his unforgettable television ads. He was shooting a commercial and continued stuttering take after take. Frustrated, he reached in his pocket and held up some cash exclaiming, “Gallery Furniture will save you money!” on the very last take. This became the catchphrase McIngvale is known for today.

Donald Zale (left) and Jim McIngvale (right)

Giving back
Inspired by retailers who gave back to their local communities, McIngvale knew he wanted to do the same as he grew his business. He declared to the audience, “I decided that if I ever made any money, I was going to get involved in the community and help people less fortunate than me.”

Gallery Furniture started out giving away 10 households worth of furniture over the holiday season, today they give 40 to 50.

McIngvale also shared about how he developed a great appreciation for the American worker. When people started losing jobs, he made it a priority to sell more American furniture to support workers and the economy.
“I firmly believe that if you’re going to be in retail or any type of business, we all have a responsibility for the well-being of our community,” he added.

2009 fire
McIngvale shared the story of the 2009 fire that consumed the company’s warehouse, destroying about $20 million in inventory. They reopened with only one-third of the floor space they had before, yet in two months outdid the sales of what they had previously brought in with a bigger space. People came to buy furniture just to support McIngvale because he was such a pillar of the community.

Hurricane Harvey
Gallery Furniture’s response to the devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey made national headlines. McIngvale detailed the initial days of the storm, when he asked anyone available with a commercial driver’s license to pick up the stranded and bring them to the store.

With chaos ensuing the city as water quickly flooded the roads, McIngvale went on Facebook Live for a call-out to let the community know they were welcome to show up at any of Gallery Furniture’s three locations for shelter. In just over an hour, it had more than 4.5 million views. Showrooms turned into shelters. They also distributed cleaning supplies and food to those that needed it in the weeks that followed.

“It was the worst of times, but the best of times – because everyone came together,” he explained.

Innovate or evaporate
McIngvale made it very clear that retailers have to innovate to reach younger generations of customers or they won’t survive. Traffic to furniture stores is declining.

“Nobody said retailing was supposed to be fun, easy, or fair,” he added.

To better compete with online retailers, McIngvale explained how Gallery Furniture is making significant changes. The company plans to invest in technology that allows customers to view how furniture would look in their homes. They are looking into two-hour delivery. He emphasized that convenience is a major factor for consumers, and how retailers need to move along with those trends. Gallery Furniture is moving to more digital advertising that is trackable, instead of “spray and pray” as McIngvale describes.

Leading with a life of service
Jim McIngvale and Gallery Furniture have survived a consuming fire, and a devastating flood, and the constantly changing landscape of retailing.

Through all of the highs and lows, “Mattress Mack” has never forgotten where he came from and has never lost his desire to give back.

As he spent those 50 minutes pouring out his heart and wisdom to the captive audience of Aggies, students, faculty, staff, and entrepreneurs, his message was a simple one:

“Never give up.”