On its journey from a small business to Freeport’s sole appliance store, this company has staked its claim with a diverse inventory and quality service to meet changing customer demands.
Sometimes you just need a little push. Or, in the case of Rite-Way Furniture and Appliance, a big push a few blocks down the street.
The 37,000-square-foot staple in downtown Freeport had humble beginnings when it was started by Margaret Lott and her nephew Stan as Rite-Way Appliance Mart on West Stephenson Street. They set up in a 20-by-75-foot storefront formerly occupied by Ridgeway Appliance. In 1976, Rite-Way expanded and added furniture.
A few years later, Union Savings Bank, which shared the property, wanted to expand, so it approached the Lotts and offered to help the staff move. The store found a new spot a few blocks down the road in a much larger building.
“They made them a pretty good offer as far as financing, so they purchased the new building and began expanding,” says Cal Wescott, the current owner. “It was a win-win situation for them. The bank got the space they wanted, and they helped us fill a void downtown. It made us a bigger destination for not only Freeport but for surrounding counties.”
With the added space at 20 E. Stephenson St., Rite-Way began to grow its inventory and selection. Then, when Wescott bought the business in 1991, it really exploded.
“When I got here 30 years ago, there were eight independent appliance dealers. Now, there is just one,” Wescott says. “And back then there were three or four independent furniture stores in Freeport, and now there is just one.”
The key to the company’s survival is Rite-Way’s ability to provide a one-stop solution.
“I think we were much more diversified over the years,” Wescott says. “We had appliances. We had furniture, bedding, carpets and accessories. So, over the years, we weren’t struggling when appliance sales were down, which hurt the other appliance stores.
“People would come to us, and we would work with them for their kitchen, their living room, their bedroom, the carpeting they needed and accessories,” he adds. “We could complete their whole home. We could give bundle discounts because we had more to work with.”
Today, Rite-Way has a huge selection of furniture, appliances, mattresses and accessories for virtually every room of the home.
Wescott credits his background in sales for helping launch the growth of Rite-Way. After graduating from Southern Illinois University with a marketing degree, he was hired by K-Mart, working in its retail management program in the Chicago suburbs.
“Then, I thought I would like to own my own store,” Wescott says. “My wife and I at the time were young and we decided to move to New Jersey for a faster-paced market.”
After five years in retail there, he got the opportunity to move back to the Chicago area for Child World and he spent seven years opening new stores.
“I would hire a staff, train them, fill the store and operate it for a few months before moving on to another new store,” Wescott says. “That really gave me experience so that, when I moved here, it was easy for me to adapt.”
Building on his insights from New Jersey and Chicago, Wescott homed in on Rite-Way’s target market.
“When we first got here, we catered more toward the lower and middle class,” Wescott says. “We changed our inventory so we could buy the best quality for the lower-class price point.
But we also focused on the middle-class people who wanted the lower prices for a little better quality. And then we included the higher-priced items that we can special order. That’s not as big a customer base, but if they want something that’s really elite, we can get that for them.”
Adjusting to the company’s target market hasn’t stopped. In recent years, Wescott has slowly phased out carpeting and flooring options, since there are so many businesses that specialize in those areas. The firm continues to have a strong selection of accessories.
“We used to own a gift store next to our store,” Wescott says. “That business started in 1869 and I was the fifth owner. We actually closed that down and took some of the inventory from that store into our furniture store, and we’ve done very well with that over the years.”
As much as the business has changed over time, so has the shopping experience.
“People are shopping more online and getting more information online, and they come to us to see if we have what they want and what our prices are,” Wescott says. “I think 30 years ago, more people would just come to the store, see what you have and either buy it or check other stores and then maybe come back.”
But still, the vast majority of customers shop in person. And even though the city of Rockford – where there are many more options – is within 45 minutes of Freeport, Wescott has noticed more people heading west these days.
“I’m starting to see more people from towns like Winnebago and Pecatonica coming our way,” he says. “I think because we’re more independent and family-owned, it’s easier for them to work with us when it comes to finding what they are looking for. And we are very low pressure.”
The key is service. “We make sure they have a good experience here no matter what,” Wescott says. “I can help them with colors and options. And if we have it in stock, we can deliver within days. If we have to order it, we try to get it to them within a week to 10 days.
“We want to help them throughout the whole process, and we have service people I use locally who can help them right away,” he adds. “We’re here to service our customers, even if they didn’t buy from us, because they could be future customers.”
Rite-Way has a strong Facebook presence, and Wescott likes to use both print and social media to promote his store. The latter platform allows customers to ask questions directly, so that Wescott or his staff can answer.
And of course, you can always call. Wescott says he and his staff try to answer every call within three rings.
“It all comes down to greeting the customer, finding out what they are looking for, taking them to the product, explaining the product and getting to the point where they say, I want it or not. And we’re always thanking them no matter what, because if it wasn’t for those customers, we wouldn’t be here today.”
That, along with a little push from a local bank roughly 50 years ago.