In his letters to shareholders, Warren Buffett has frequently talked about Nebraska Furniture Mart and its business model. Here are the essential quotes:
About 67 years ago Mrs. Blumkin, then 23, talked her way past a border guard to leave Russia for America. She had no formal education, not even at the grammar school level, and knew no English. After some years in this country, she learned the language when her older daughter taught her, every evening, the words she had learned in school during the day. In 1937, after many years of selling used clothing, Mrs. Blumkin had saved $500 with which to realize her dream of opening a furniture store. Upon seeing the American Furniture Mart in Chicago ‐ then the center of the nation’s wholesale furniture activity ‐ she decided to christen her dream Nebraska Furniture Mart.
She met every obstacle you would expect (and a few you wouldn’t) when a business endowed with only $500 and no locational or product advantage goes up against rich, longentrenched competition. At one early point, when her tiny resources ran out, “Mrs. B” (a personal trademark now as well recognized in Greater Omaha as Coca‐Cola or Sanka) coped in a way not taught at business schools: she simply sold the furniture and appliances from her home in order to pay creditors precisely as promised.
Omaha retailers began to recognize that Mrs. B would offer customers far better deals than they had been giving, and they pressured furniture and carpet manufacturers not to sell to her. But by various strategies she obtained merchandise and cut prices sharply. Mrs. B was then hauled into court for violation of Fair Trade laws. She not only won all the cases, but received invaluable publicity. At the end of one case, after demonstrating to the court that she could profitably sell carpet at a huge discount from the prevailing price, she sold the judge $1400 worth of carpet.
Today Nebraska Furniture Mart generates over $100 million of sales annually out of one 200,000 square‐foot store. No other home furnishings store in the country comes close to that volume. That single store also sells more furniture, carpets, and appliances than do all Omaha
One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. It’s the ideal business ‐ one built upon exceptional value to the customer that in turn translates into exceptional economics for its owners.
The amazing Blumkins continue to perform business miracles at Nebraska Furniture Mart. Competitors come and go (mostly go), but Mrs. B. and her progeny roll on. In 1986 net sales increased 10.2% to $132 million. Ten years ago sales were $44 million and, even then, NFM appeared to be doing just about all of the business available in the Greater Omaha Area. Given NFM’s remarkable dominance, Omaha’s slow growth in population and the modest inflation rates that have applied to the goods NFM sells, how can this operation continue to rack up such large sales gains? The only logical explanation is that the marketing territory of NFM’s one-andonly store continues to widen because of its ever-growing reputation for rock-bottom everyday prices and the broadest of selections. In preparation for further gains, NFM is expanding the capacity of its warehouse, located a few hundred yards from the store, by about one-third.
At Nebraska Furniture Mart, Mrs. B (Rose Blumkin) and her cart roll on and on. She’s been the boss for 51 years, having started the business at 44 with $500. (Think what she would have done with $1,000!) With Mrs. B, old age will always be ten years away. The Mart, long the largest home furnishings store in the country, continues to grow. In the fall, the store opened a detached 20,000 square foot Clearance Center, which expands our ability to offer bargains in all
price ranges. Recently Dillard’s, one of the most successful department store operations in the country, entered the Omaha market. In many of its stores, Dillard’s runs a full furniture department, undoubtedly doing well in this line. Shortly before opening in Omaha, however, William Dillard, chairman of the company, announced that his new store would not sell furniture. Said he, referring to NFM: “We don’t want to compete with them. We think they are about the best there is.”
The NFM formula for success parallels that of Borsheim’s. First, operating costs are rock-bottom – 15% in 1990 against about 40% for Levitz, the country’s largest furniture retailer, and 25% for Circuit City Stores, the leading discount retailer of electronics and appliances. Second, NFM’s low costs allow the business to price well below all competitors. Indeed, major chains, knowing what they will face, steer clear of Omaha. Third, the huge volume generated by our bargain prices allows us to carry the broadest selection of merchandise available anywhere. Some idea of NFM’s merchandising power can be gleaned from a recent report of consumer behavior in Des Moines, which showed that NFM was Number 3 in popularity among 20 furniture retailers serving that city. That may sound like no big deal until you consider that 19 of those retailers are located in Des Moines, whereas our store is 130 miles away. This leaves customers driving a distance equal to that between Washington and Philadelphia in order to shop with us, even though they have a multitude of alternatives next door. In effect, NFM, like Borsheim’s, has dramatically expanded the territory it serves – not by the traditional method of opening new stores but rather by creating an irresistible magnet that employs price and selection to pull in the crowds.