There’s been much discussion regarding the city’s, and in some cases, fragile neighborhoods. The focal point of Mayor Mike Duggan’s recent State of the City address centered around neighborhood investment, development and revitalization.
Additionally, new businesses have been steadily opening across the city. Most notably, in the downtown and Midtown areas and having been garnering headlines. The influx of new businesses receive the lion’s share of attention, but what about businesses which have been in the city through “thick and thin”, such as family-owned Danto Furniture (www.dantos.com) which sells furniture, appliances, and electronics in Southwest Detroit?
These longstanding businesses have withstood the test of time, changing demographics and population shifts, to continue to offer vital products and services to the local community.
They’re still around and will continue to anchor a neighborhood’s redevelopment efforts.
To wit, Danto was started by Julius Danto in 1940. Today, there are three generations of Danto’s actively engaged in running a successful business while maintaining a strong neighborhood and community connection. Danto’s son, Charles, started working in the business at age 9 by putting together furniture. Now, at 86, he is the #1 sales person and plays a key role in the daily operations and is a key reason customers keep coming back. Irwin Danto, 64, joined the business, in the 80’s, when a fire destroyed its previous location. Under his leadership, the business model evolved and diversified its offerings to customers. And daughter, Ashley, 28, who joined the business 3 years ago, has steadily moved the business into the technology-era by adding social media and developing an interactive website while actively being engaged with the Southwest Detroit community.
I talked to Ashley for her thoughts on business longevity in a city which has seen significant changes in nearly 77 years.
Lee: Your family has owned the business for 77 years. What have been the keys for longevity?
Danto: We have a personal touch and have built a strong brand with hard work, dedication, and we are a business that cares for the community. We treat our customers like family, find them the right product and the right price. We also provide credit for everyone which other stores can’t beat.
Lee: Tell us about the changes in the neighborhood and how have you been able to survive?
Danto: We have a vacant building across the street and next door the closest businesses are a hair salon next door, Paul’s Pizza, and a number of Mexican restaurants – a new place Flowers of Vietnam just opened showing some diversity! We are the survivor as far as retail business is concerned and a major anchor in the neighborhood. Everyone in the community comes to Danto’s to pay a bill, buy a mattress, get a computer, and even make a copy or fax. The area has declined but we are fighting to bring it back with Southwest Detroit Business Association, they helped create the Michigan Welcome Center and currently working on some new architecture projects in the area. We also have the Vernor Business Improvement District – aligning the businesses together to get on board with the city’s initiatives like the Green Light Project, New Banners for events/holidays (Cinco de Mayo), beautification of streets-LED lights, flowers, trash baskets.
This neighborhood is the only one that petitioned so hard that they got the parking meters removed. We are also working on an initiative with Detroit Alliance Rain Tax to get the city to reduce the drainage fees which are putting people out of business and turning them away from opening new businesses in Detroit.
Lee: Why have you decided to stay in SW Detroit?
Danto: We have great pride for this neighborhood and the community here is unlike the rest of Detroit. We own the property and have customers from the area. There is a need and market for us. While clientele has moved out of the area and to the suburbs, their children and grandchildren still come back and shop with us because they like the honest way they are treated. Additionally, we started as an immigrant-owned company and continue to sell furniture to a diverse community from the neighborhood, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Ann Arbor and Sterling Heights.
Lee: You’re a family-owned business in a sea of chains. How have you remained independent with all of the sweeping changes within the industry?
Danto: Unlike other larger retail companies who put up a facade of prices and promises, we are unique. We show what’s behind the curtain, let the customer look through our catalogs and let them special order their furniture. We treat our employees like family and our customers like family.
Lee: And what makes you unique?
Danto: We have a melting pot of customers and staff who speak Spanish, Arabic, English, a bit of Polish. We also give credit to everyone, have our own credit terms and carry our own paper. There’s a great sense of community here and customers enjoy our full-service warranty. Customers have personal relationships with our team. Most have been at the store between 3-20 years.
Lee: When it comes to buying furniture, how have consumers their purchase behaviors changed over the years?
Danto: Charles says we always found a way to give the customer what they want. The customer is shopping online but they want to touch/feel the product before they buy it. Vivian, salesperson of 30 years, says customers today are pickier and don’t have the patience to wait for the furniture to be ordered, delivered to our warehouse and then delivered to them. We have learned that the customer is savvy..
Lee: How has technology changed how consumers research and buy products?
Danto: For millennials, 90% of the purchase is completed online. They get inspired, research products by look and affordability. When they go to the store they are ready to buy. The store needs the new technology we are working on called Showroom Technologies and we have a catalog wall with an interactive app to show all the pieces in a bedroom, for example, not on the floor.
Lee: What advice can you share as small businesses continue to focus on sustainability?
Danto: We have a personal touch with our customers and they get to shop with Charles Danto. Also, cater to your customer. For example, ours is Latino, so we must have Spanish-speaking staff and we also have a large Arabic community and, as a result, we have Arabic-speaking staff.