Friendly service and quality furniture have kept this locally owned business thriving for 90 years. Meet the family behind this Rockford-based company and find out how the next generation is evolving with the times.
It’s all about family at Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress, and it’s been that way for 90 years.
“We’ve been through it all,” says president Dale Gustafson. “We’ve been through recessions, depressions and thefts.”
Dale credits his ability to make customers happy as a big reason why the company has remained successful for nearly a century. And with two determined sons coming up in the industry, it looks like this family-owned business will be around for awhile.
Located at 6651 E. State St., in the midst of national retail chains, sits Gustafson’s, a furniture store that has stayed true to its hometown of Rockford. And it’s all thanks to Dale’s father, Martin, who passed on everything he knew about the retail business.
Martin grew up in Stillman Valley, Ill. When his dad died of pneumonia, his mother raised him and his 10 siblings by herself.
On a quest to make a living for himself, but armed with just an eighth-grade education, Martin started selling mothballs and vacuums door-to-door.
On Feb. 14, 1928, Martin opened his own business on Seventh Street in Rockford.
“When my dad started out, he only sold Maytag washers and appliances,” Dale says. “He sold the first deep freezer in town, which was huge back then, and he also sold the first microwave in town. The business continued to grow to the point where he added furniture in 1930.”
After briefly serving in the U.S. Navy, Dale decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and joined the furniture business. But he had to work his way up over time.
He started as a salesman before taking over the company when he was just 26. Working side-by-side with his father, Dale learned the business firsthand.
Martin struggled with various health problems for several years before he died in 1985. Probably the biggest piece of advice Dale took from him is the importance of customer service.
“The first rule of retail is, ‘satisfied customers build your business,’” Dale says. “The second rule is, ‘satisfied customers build your business,’ and rule three is to see rule No. 1.”
That’s the philosophy that Dale uses every day. He knows in order to run a successful business, the customer has to be happy.
“You have to treat others like you want to be treated,” he says. “Corporate America is short on integrity today and short on trust. In our commercials, you’ll hear us say, ‘Rockford’s hometown trusted merchant.’ That may sound corny, but when you’ve been burned by the internet where you bought something and they’re not there anymore, then hometown isn’t so corny.”
Passing the Baton
Since his two sons, David and Chris, have taken on larger roles in overseeing the business, Dale is confident the company will live on as he considers retiring.
“Mattress firms come and go and other big-box stores come and go, yet here we are celebrating 90 years,” David says. “I’d feel in safe hands if I was a customer purchasing from here because I know this place will be around for awhile.”
David oversees marketing and social media at Gustafson’s, while Chris deals with store operations and human resources.
“A lot of people don’t even know we’re locally owned and operated,” David says. “People don’t know that the owners in the ads are also the spokespeople for the company. We’re not a branch. This is our company headquarters and we’re here working in the store.”
Chris is also eager to learn the ropes. He wants to continue learning what he can about business operations and customer service. He’s getting tips from his dad, but he’s also considering taking some college classes.
“I really want to take some business, math and design classes to help me understand the furniture business, the people and the customers,” he says. “ I really want to be well-rounded, and this will help.”
Dave and Chris both say they won’t make any major changes to Gustafson’s going forward. They just plan to be more engaged with their customers.
“Servicing our customers faster, with better efficiency, and providing a better customer experience are two things that we’ll focus on,” Chris says. “Focusing on the customer will be important for us. We want to treat our customers great so they’ll become repeat customers and they’ll tell their friends to come in. Dependable customer service says a lot.”
Gustafson’s has an annual customer appreciation event on July 4, and David says they’ll keep that going. The store also has an ongoing 90th anniversary sweepstakes, where customers can sign up in the store to win prizes.
Another way Chris and David plan to interact with customers is by getting more involved in the community. They want to participate in more charity work around the area and get more involved with local entities like the Salvation Army.
This is something Gustafson’s has done in the past.
When tornadoes ripped through the small town of Washington, Ill. four years ago, Gustafson’s showed up with supplies.
“When they had those terrible tornadoes, we sent them truckloads of mattresses,” says Trina, Dale’s wife of 45 years. “We want to do more things like that for the community.”
Since Gustafson’s continues to grow, the need for experienced sales reps also increases.
“We’ve been blessed with lots of customers, and our challenge is fully satisfying all the customers who walk through those doors,” David says. We’re doing our best to greet everyone and help them build their dream room or dream home, but getting new and seasoned salespeople and enough salespeople well-trained has been challenging.”
Despite that, people who work at Gustafson’s tend to stay there. Dale says the business has very little turnover.
His sons might be taking over, but Dale still makes his presence known in the store. He gets around the store on a scooter, he greets his customers and he’s always telling jokes. The family dog, a mini goldendoodle, sometimes follows closely behind.
Under One Roof
In 1998, after spending more than six decades on Seventh Street, Gustafson’s moved its operations to 808 W. Riverside Blvd., in the former 109,000 square-foot Bergner’s store at North Towne Mall. The store outgrew the space, so in 2015, the business purchased the former American TV & Appliance location on East State Street and established a second store.
The family wanted to consolidate two stores into one, so they recently closed the Riverside Boulevard location. Now, all of Gustafson’s operations are housed under one roof in the centralized, 97,000 square-foot State Street store. It’s fairly close to Interstate 90, so Dale says Gustafson’s is easily accessible for guests who visit the business from out of town.
“This is one of the largest showrooms in the city and it’s one of the largest in the Midwest, actually,” Dale says. “Ninety percent of our business comes from this end of town anyway.”
Since the owners of neighboring Monkey Joe’s closed their doors earlier this spring, that storefront provided Gustafson’s with extra storage space.
“They were ready to retire,” Dale says. “This allows us to have an even bigger warehouse to use. Now, I’m able to use six loading docks instead of one. This allows us to have more in-stock merchandise available for immediate delivery. We also have plenty of racks back there, so we’re able to build our inventory.”
By building their own inventory, Gustafson’s is able to get merchandise out to their customers much quicker.
“If your mom comes home from the hospital and she needs a powerlift recliner, I’m the only guy in town today who has it with expedited delivery,” Dale says. “She can be home from the hospital at 10 a.m. and your recliner will be there at 2 p.m.”
Chris is hoping that one store will allow Gustafson’s to easily cater to the public.
“We’re putting our heart and soul into this store and to this portion of the shopping community,” Chris says.
It’s All About the Furniture
Trina also gets involved in the family act. After working as a banker and as a teacher at Beyer Elementary School in Rockford, she came onboard nearly 25 years ago as Gustufson’s chief financial officer. But, there’s much more to her role in the company.
Among other things, Trina is in charge of scouring the country to purchase the latest and greatest pieces of furniture to sell in the store.
“She’s in charge of buying all the furniture, so she knows what something costs and what the value is,” Dale says. “In retail, you want something that’s popular and sells fast, so you can order it again. All of the furniture we have in the store is handpicked by her.”
David says his mom is a trendsetter when it comes to selecting the latest furniture trends for the business.
“She uses the feedback from the community to know what to purchase,” David says. “At the same time, she brings brand-new styles to the store and they can only be found here.”
Gustafson’s is part of the Furniture First Buying Group, the largest furniture-buying organization in the nation. It allows them to purchase with more than 500 stores. This technique lets each store lower its costs through volume purchasing.
“I get the very best price and we don’t mark it up as much as other stores,” Dale says. “We’re trying to do it all: service, selection and price.”
Furniture is pretty much an extension of the fashion industry, David says. Everyone wants to follow the latest trends.
“We’ve bought a few losers, but they’re replaced with more popular choices,” David says. “We have furniture in our showroom that fits a variety of needs. Some of the furniture is inviting and comfortable, and others are clean, sharp and classy. That’s just a sample of what’s available in the furniture industry through Gustafson’s.”
No matter what type of furniture is on the floor, Trina wants to make sure the sales staff know what they’re selling.
“We make sure our employees are well-trained, so everyone knows the products they’re selling,” she says. “If you see a sofa but you want it as a sectional, they’ll know what fabrics you can put on it and if you can put leather on it. This is their profession.”
Dale says that, on average, across the nation, about 11 percent of all merchandise breaks in the first year for one reason or another. So, Trina looks for durable, long-lasting items that can last for several years.
“With our furniture, many items can be purchased right off the floor for you to take home,” Dale says. “We’re one store, not a chain, so we can do what other stores can’t.”
With 90 years and counting, Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress has become synonymous with endurance, integrity and plain-good products.
“We’re still around today thanks to the grace of God and because we take care of our customers,” Dale says. “Our company is continuing to grow and we couldn’t be more excited.”