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Linens That Last: Penny Murphy, President of Pioneer Linens, Discusses How Company Pivots Have Led to More than a Century of Success

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So much from the past is long gone — corded phones, the food pyramid, writing checks at the grocery store. But on the flip side, there are things from years gone by that have come back — mom jeans anyone? And then, there are the things that last the test of time. Traditions, styles, and yes, even businesses. Pioneer Linens is one of those companies that has stood strong for more than 100 years and sure, it has gone through its fair share of changes and pivots over the years, but as President, Penny Murphy, told me on this episode of Up Next in Commerce, the commitment to serving its customers has remained through it all. And today, Pioneer Linens is succeeding by giving customers the best experience not just in-store, but online as well. In fact, Pioneer moved into the ecommerce world way back in the 1990s, and Penny led the charge. We got into that story and dug into the company’s long history, the lessons Penny and her daughters have carried into running the business today, and where this century-old company is headed next. Enjoy this episode!

Main Takeaways:

  • A Lasting Legacy: Although a company may pivot or change throughout its history, what customers remember most is the experience they had and the people within the company they interacted with. No matter where your business is headed, the most important thing to remember is to create the best customer experience possible and connect with customers as much as you can. 
  • Lessons From The Past: Even if you don’t have a 100-year company history to rely on, you can always look to the past for trends and ideas that are likely to come back around. There is a saying that history repeats itself — and it’s true. So be a student of history and prepare yourself with knowledge of what has happened before so you can be ready for the future. 
  • Instant Gratification: Although it is sometimes risky to carry a lot of inventory, it’s equally risky to not have enough of what customers want readily available. When customers shop, they are often looking to solve a problem right now, and if you can’t meet their needs, you will lose out on a sale today, and also the possibility of future sales from that same customer.  

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

 

“Whatever was going on in the community, that’s where we look and, and a lot of it comes from our customers.” 

“In the 1920s, before the crash, things were going sky high and kind of like it is today, land was just going crazy and people were buying and flipping it just like they are today. And so that was going on. And then in 1918, they had that swine flu virus and we had the pandemic, a hundred years later. So, history does repeat itself.”

[On setting up a website in the 90s] “My father who was in his eighties at that time, he was pretty progressive, but anyway, I had to convince him and he was like, ‘I don’t want to hear it, just see if you can put it together and don’t let it cost too much.’ So I did a little research and I got it going. But it was interesting because when I did it, a lot of the other people who were in the store did not understand how the sales would take place. And they said no one is going to buy linens online.” 

“The thing that we want people to know is that when you come to our store, a lot of linen boutiques don’t keep a big stock. And so… when someone calls and they need something, they may only be in the area for a couple of months or a couple of weeks. And so they want it and they want it now. So we keep a very large inventory of everything that we have and back it up so that when someone comes in, they can get that instant gratification.”

“Our customers are probably our best source of our story. We have so many people that come into our store and they say, ‘Oh, I heard about you from this person or that person.’ And my grandfather was active in the community, my dad, they called him the mayor of Clematis street, which is the street that we’ve been on now since the 1930s, so almost a hundred years on the street. And, and then I grew up here, so I have lots of friends and now my daughters are here. They also grew up here. So I would say our story just sort of gets out. We’re all involved in the community. So we meet lots of people. When people come in the store, they like to meet us. And we’re involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. We try to get involved with the customers. If they are involved in some kind of a charity or something, we get involved with that. We know their moms and we know their sisters. It’s just, it’s family. And I think that that’s one of the things that people really like is they feel comfortable and they’re not just a customer.”

Bio

Penny Murphy is President of Pioneer Linens and as the third generation of the family-owned company, has worked full timefulltime for the company since 1994. Having grown up in the store, she holds fond memories of working hand-in-hand with her father, initially developing the company’s business with interior designers to now running the company with her two daughters Marissa and Camille. As President of Pioneer linens, Penny is involved with all aspects of the company including advertising, marketing and collaborating with her daughters on the company’s website and purchasing merchandise. 

Penny enjoys helping customers design beautiful tablescapes with Pioneer Linens products for soirees and at-home entertaining.


Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

 

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Hey everyone and welcome back to Up Next in Commerce. I’m your host, Stephanie Postles CEO at Mission.org. And today joining us is Penny Murphy, who’s the president of Pioneer Linens Palm Beach’s premier luxury linen retailer that’s family owned and was founded in 1912. Penny, welcome to the show.

Penny:

Thank you.

Stephanie:

I’m really excited to have you guys on because we have not had many companies on the show. I think only one other one that was more than maybe 50 years old. So it’s exciting to have not only a family owned business, but one that’s been around so long and I was hoping we could kind of start with a bit of history of where did pioneer linens even start out back in time?

Penny:

My grandfather was an Austrian immigrant. He came over here in the early 1900s and at that time they were giving away land in South Florida, which would be nice today because everything is pricey here.

Stephanie:

I want some.

Penny:

I know. And then anyway, so when he got down here that people were living in tents and he saw that there would be a need for a hardware store. So he worked it out. He sold hammers and nails and dynamite and other things that the settlers would need to be able to build their homes. And it was still pretty primitive. There were a lots of alligators, crazy mosquitoes. And I can’t even imagine the living conditions that he had to be able to brave to stick with it. But after a while, and the people got settled, then he changed the store a little bit and he added some kerosene lamps and ice boxes because there was still no electricity and other goods to make the homes more comfortable. And so that’s sort of how things started.

Stephanie:

That’s wild to think about. Yeah. Living conditions back then and even beyond to start a company back then, I mean, that takes a lot of guts. I would say to come over into a place you haven’t been before and just say I’m going to start a business and I see a need here. I mean, does that run in the family? I mean, it seems like it does based off of everyone who’s running it now and yourself and people in the family who are working in the business. Where does that come from?

Penny:

Well, I mean, I think he certainly was a good role model. I mean, he had to learn English and be able to communicate with other people that were living down here at the time. As far as looking, I think that my father was really smart and he saw the way that my grandfather had gone from hardware into home goods. And then he was able to see what was happening. I mean, whatever was going on in the community, that’s where we look and a lot of it comes from our customers. They’ll come in and they’ll say well, do you have this or do you have that? And it’s just kind of looking around and seeing what people want.

Stephanie:

Yeah. So what were… I mean, I read through the history on your guys’ website and I want you to kind of walk through just some of the bigger pivots that happen in company history from where you started as a hardware store. What were some of the big moments in company history where you kind of changed product skews completely or your direction?

Penny:

Well, for my grandfather, things went pretty well until the end of the 1920s. And that was when in 1928, we had a horrible hurricane here that just blew South Florida apart. And of course that time they had no warning for hurricane. So it would just start raining then all hell would break loose. So that happened in 1928. And then in 1929, there was the stock market crash. So after those two things happened, he decided that life work may not be the biggest part of the growth in this area and things were happening in West Palm beach. So he took a store space on Clematis and that is the building that we’re still in today.

Stephanie:

Yeah. So, I mean, do you see similarities today for maybe stories you’ve from your dad or grandfather around back in the 1912 days when they were like you had to pivot quickly, lots of things were happening. It feels kind of similar today. I mean, especially with everything that’s been happening in the past two years, companies have had to either quickly pivot business models or supply chain, how they even reach their customers. I mean, what are maybe some similarities that you kind of see coming back around again that maybe you’ve already kind of experienced or been through before?

Penny:

Well, I think it’s really interesting because in the 1920s before the crash, things were going sky high and kind of like it is today. Land was just going crazy and people were buying and flipping it just like they are today. And so that was going on. And then in the 1918, they had that swine flu virus and we had the pandemic 100 years later. So history does repeat itself. Who knew that that was going to happen.

Stephanie:

What are you preparing for now then when you’re kind of seeing similarities play out? Or is there anything where you’re like, oh, I remember my dad told me this or this lesson is kind of coming into the real world now and now I can apply it. What things are you paying attention to that maybe I should be paying attention to right now?

Penny:

So for us, we are planning on to have a really great inventory this year. We’re stocking up. We have people walking in everyday asking and trying to start planning what they’re going to do and how they’re going to stock their linens for the season. Last year, it was really interesting. When the, or when the pandemic struck, we thought oh gosh, we’re going to be dead in the water here. But it’s really interesting. There were a lot of people who got out of the north and came down here and stayed. And so while they were down here, they were calling up and saying hey, I need new pillows. They weren’t going out to dinner. They were buying lots of napkins and place mats and just other things. I think that they were not traveling. So they were doing a few renovations and saying okay, I’m going to work on this now. I can’t go anywhere. I’ve been meaning to redo this bedroom or redo this bathroom. And so it kind of kept us busy. And that was super nice.

Stephanie:

Yeah. So did, when all this was happening, we’ve heard from a lot of guests who’ve been on that e-commerce sales skyrocketed more than they ever could have dreamed of. I’m guessing something happened to you all as well when a lot of things shifted online. And if so, what did that look like?

Penny:

So the governor said that we had to shut our doors, but because we had our internet, we were able to keep several people on for fulfillment of that. And all of a sudden our e-commerce doubled overnight. It was just really interesting to see what people needed and what they wanted to put in their houses and how they were going to spend their time.

Stephanie:

So were you having flashbacks to earlier in company history where I know you were the one who actually took the company online to begin with, so I kind of want to even go back and hear about what did that look like? I think it was back in 1998 where you were trying to convince maybe team members or leadership to go online. What was that like for you back then?

Penny:

Well, first of all, I had to convince my father who was in his 80s at that time, late 80s. I’ll bet he was pretty progressive, but anyway, I had to convince him and he was sort of like I don’t want to hear it, just see if you can put it together and don’t let it cost too much. So I did a little research and I got it going, but it was sort of interesting because when I did it, a lot of the other people who were in the store did not understand how the sales would take place. And they said who’s going to buy linens online? And he would… People need to touch and feel linens. And I said, well, there’s a lot of places where people don’t have a Pioneer Linens where they can touch and we can send them samples and anyway, it all worked out.

Penny:

And then the other thing was that people said who’s going to put their credit card online or on the internet? That’s just too scary. And again, we know how that worked out. So now, as we said, who doesn’t put their credit card on the internet? One of the other things that we started when the things had to shut down is we started videoing, video selling. And so we used our phones and we used our iPads and walked through the store with people so that they felt comfortable. They could see the styles. We’re so fortunate. We have quite a few people that have worked for us for a very long time. They’re almost like extended family as well and they love what they’re doing and they love our linens. So it was really nice that they were able to connect with our customers that way.

Stephanie:

I love that. I mean, I can definitely see how that would work. Well, are you also sticking with the strategy of kind of having your employees shoot very authentic videos or now because maybe I’m sure your retail location is open back up now, have you kind of gone back to the traditional way of marketing?

Penny:

No, we’re still… Yes. We are doing traditional marketing. During the, I guess about six months into the pandemic, we started doing some television commercials, which we hadn’t done in the past and that seemed to give us a little pop and we’ve continued with that and that’s been really good for our business, so.

Stephanie:

That’s great. I’ve actually heard quite a few guests come on and say that they’re leaning back into television. I feel like it was a property that was kind of pulled away from for a couple of years of like oh, that’s too expensive. I don’t even know if who’s watching that is who I want to get in front of. And now between that and direct mail, it seems like what’s old is new again and people are leaning into that strategy again. What are some of the top maybe campaigns or assets that you’re pulling together and running that you’re seeing success with? What do you see that your audience is liking right now that you’re making?

Penny:

Well, I think that thing that we want people to know is that when you come to our store, a lot of linen boutiques like ours don’t keep a big stock. And so when someone comes in, and this was something that I learned from my dad, because being in Palm Beach, it’s a seasonal location. So when someone calls and they need something, they may only be in the area for a couple of months or a couple of weeks and so they want it and they want it now. So we keep a very large inventory of everything that we have and back it up said that when someone comes in, they can get that instant gratification. So that’s one of the things that we talk about in our commercial.

Penny:

And then the other thing is that we want people to know that it’s not just sheets, so it’s not just towels, that we also have pitiful table linens. We have great bathroom accessories. And what we carry is very high end. So most of the time, things like that have to be ordered. And again, that we want to emphasize that our inventory is complete and that it’s there.

Stephanie:

How much do you lean into your company story? Because that’s something you see so many new companies popping up, directly consumers popping up and really trying to lean into a story that is pretty nascent. They just started. They’re trying to create that brand voice in the story. How have you maybe seen that work well for you guys because to me, you have such a unique background. There’s probably millions of stories that you could tell. How do you kind of jump on that and be able to turn that into content that people can connect with?

Penny:

Well, believe it or not, our customers are probably our best source of our story. I mean, we have so many people that come into our store and they say oh, I heard about you from this person or that person. And my grandfather was active in the community, my dad, what? They called him the mayor of Clematis Street, which is the street that we’ve been on now for since the 1930. So almost 100 years on the street. And then I grew up here so I have lots of friends and now my daughters are here. They also grew up here. So I would say our story just sort of gets out. We’re all involved in the community so we meet lots of people.

Penny:

When people come in the store, they like to meet us and we’re involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. We try to get involved in the customers. If they are involved in some kind of a charity or.

Stephanie:

Yeah. I love that. And you can see consumers kind of seeking that now, trying to find the brands that really want to connect with them that they have the good customer experience with, the brands who are doing the extra little one-offs that many others wouldn’t. And you can see I think the world is kind of turning into a different place that expectations are growing where they want more companies like yours, that they know if they call, they’re going to get someone on the phone and the president is going to be in the storefront and you’ll be able to interact if you want to. So that’s amazing. I love hearing about that.

Penny:

Thank you.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I love that. So tell me a bit about how you guys expanded the different categories and pull new products into the fold, because I saw you specialize in things like yacht linens which I’m like, wow, that’s very niche having linens for my yacht, which I don’t own yet. But how do you pick out products that lean into like that and kind of know that you’re ready to go deep in a vertical? Who’s kind of guiding those decisions?

Penny:

Well, we got into the business because people wanted those linens. They were sleeping on really fine linens. And I guess this happened sort of the early 2000s. That was when it’s kind of changed from being basic cacao or satin. Most people were buying Fieldcrest or I can’t even remember what the other ones were at that time, but that was probably the best known brand. And then some of the providers changed and they decided that they were going to create something more special. There were two things that happened at that time that’s kind of fun is one, the furniture company started making big mattresses. Before that, all mattresses were pretty basic and they were like maybe seven inches. And all of a sudden, they made them between 10 and 15 inches and in some cases now they’re even larger than that.

Penny:

Unfortunately, they failed to consult the sheet companies before they did that. So people came in and they went oh, I have a brand new mattress, blah, blah, blah but these sheets don’t fit it. And all those sheets had to be custom-made at that time. So that was an expense that they weren’t realizing that they were going to have to incur. And around that same time, some of the smaller companies decided that they were going to make better linens.

Penny:

So these people got these wonderful sheets and they were super comfortable and they were sleeping on this. And then the yacht people were just selling some basics. So we found out that when people go on their yachts, those are sort of what we called their floating mansions at sea. I mean, they have… I mean, some of these yachts are just amazing. They’ve got beautiful art collection on it, they got [inaudible] all over the place. I mean, everything is just, it’s super nice. They want their yachts to be comfortable just like any of their homes. And that was… So they came in and asked us if we could do and Emily said sure. And we learned how to measure and how to put it together so it would be comfortable.

Penny:

Another part of it is doing like the little, if you’ve watched the low deck, they have those tiny little spaces where people work on there. So we make sheets for that as well. But again, it’s always just listening to what our customers are asking for and saying sure, we’ll find that for you.

Stephanie:

Yeah. That’s great. Have you ever had customers ask for something that you’re like no, that’s weird. We’re not doing that. Any funny stories around that?

Penny:

One of the things, I think some guy came in or not came in, I’m sorry. He called us and wanted… I guess he had a big… He had two king size mattresses that he had put together and… I mean, we got some interesting stories. We don’t ask any questions. We just listen. And we had another customer in Palm Beach that had a round bed that we used to have to make sheets for the round bed.

Stephanie:

Interesting. Okay. I went to a party once and one of my friends had a, I don’t know if she’s my friend, she was at the party and it was her house and she had a clam shell bed. Didn’t ask any questions. I’m like that looks like a very interesting bed that only some places would carry in Vegas. But it was funny. And the thing I was thinking about was actually what do you… Where do you get your linens from? Who actually has rounded linens?

Penny:

I know.

Stephanie:

[crosstalk] hard to find.

Penny:

I think they probably have to be custom made. It’s kind of funny because you know how when you have a laundry bag, they have the string on the top?

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Penny:

I said that was what we ended up having to do with that. There was [crosstalk] and then they had this cording that they pull tight that would make it fit.

Stephanie:

Oh, that’s smart.

Penny:

There’s always a solution.

Stephanie:

There’s always a way. So, I mean, when thinking about there’s always a solution because you come from this place of so much generational knowledge and tips and business advice, I’m sure. I want to kind of hear some of your best pieces of business advice you’ve received from either your dad or your grandfather or someone you’ve worked with because I want those tips too.

Penny:

Well, unfortunately, I was only 10 when my grandfather passed away, so I didn’t really… I love my grandpa and we used to hang out. He loved [inaudible] Rummy. Those are my basic memories about my grandfather.

Stephanie:

Okay.

Penny:

But my dad was really pretty brilliant. He spent a lot of time advertising. The customer is always right. He really believed in that. And he asked a lot of questions. He was a really good listener. He knew how to help his employees and to really nurture them along. Back in the day because women were not as educated and those were basically the people who were selling back in the, between the late ’50s and ’70s. And I guess some of the people who were working hadn’t done this before so my dad would give lessons every morning for about 15 minutes and he would talk about a product. He would talk about the strategies of selling. He would talk about how to relate to your customer and he would take time to ask each person what they needed and to nurture them along the way.

Stephanie:

I love that. That’s great. I mean, it sounds like you guys have a really great internal company culture. What kind of advice would you give a brand who’s just starting out maybe and trying to think about how to get a really good culture? Maybe they’re not 100 plus year old business, what kind of advice would you give? I mean, just the example you just gave me, I think is very valuable. How does a CEO or president think about bringing on new employees and do they always need to be the perfectly trained or can you actually upskill them and have daily little huddles with them for 15 minutes? So what kind of things do you do?

Penny:

A lot of what we do now is we do the daily huddles for about 15 minutes. If we get something new in that we hadn’t had before, we’ll bring it from the stock room to the sales floor and we’ll talk about it and we’ll talk about what colors it comes in, what sizes it comes in. I mean, knowledge is power. And so when our sales people are trained and they have the knowledge that they need to sell it, then that’s beneficial for everybody. So I would say taking that time to train your employees. I would also realize that everybody’s different and everybody… You’re not going to have two people that are the same. You have to just try to connect with each of your sales associates or whoever works in your store and know what they need and what are their best… I mean, we’re a little bit flexible in hours. We’re not totally. I mean, you can’t have an organization and not be a little bit organized. But if somebody has a problem with their child and they need to go, I mean, we try to be flexible with them.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yeah. And that’s the way of the future, it seems, especially now that everyone’s kind of gotten that flexibility and they’ve seen a new way, especially in tech companies, it seems like flexibility would be the new norm going forward.

Penny:

And for us too, because it’s a family business, we’re not open at night at all. We’re not open on any Sundays. I mean, it’s just… It makes what it makes and I don’t know that I really want to just wear anybody out nor do I want to not be able to spend time with my family and my new babies that we have now, so.

Stephanie:

Nice. Yep. Amazing. So tell me a bit about what’s next for Pioneer Linens. What are you most excited about? Where are you all heading over the next year or so?

Penny:

Well, I think one of the things that we’re really excited about is that about a year and a half ago, my daughter went over to Europe and did a little research over there and found some things that now we’ve been private labeling. And so that has been really fun and it sets us apart from what some of our other people are doing. We work a lot with designers and have for probably since the early 2000s. And so that has been fun because we’d be able to custom things for them. If they have wallpaper that they’re trying to do some kind of a motif with, we can find that particular color thread or we can do that design for them. We recently, just somebody called and wanted a coverlet you and we found someone who could paint the design that they wanted to do. So I think that that’s one of the directions that we’re heading. We’re hoping to do more online. My daughter, Marissa heads up our internet and we’re trying to put a little bit more focus into that as well, so.

Stephanie:

Cool. That’s amazing. All right. Let’s shift over to the lightning round. The lightning round is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I ask you one question, Penny, and you have a minute or less to answer. Are you ready?

Penny:

Let’s try it.

Stephanie:

All right. What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for you?

Penny:

The nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me. Well, I guess that… I mean, I guess it would just have to be my family. I’m just really lucky to have a good family and they are good about supporting me and… I’m trying to think. I’m going to get off here and I’m going to say oh my gosh, I should have said this.

Stephanie:

That’s all right. The family one’s a good one too, though. I like that.

Penny:

Yeah.

Stephanie:

Next up. What’s one thing you don’t understand today that you wish you did? It could be some tech or an idea or concept or something.

Penny:

Well, I don’t understand about this Bitcoin stuff. Not a clue of what the Bitcoin has anything to do with.

Stephanie:

Don’t worry. We’ve had many guests say the same thing, so we’ll have to do another Bitcoin show. I’ll find a sponsor and then you can just come and listen in when it’s ready.

Penny:

That sounds good. I don’t know. Kind of like a lot of hook is focus, but whatever.

Stephanie:

Yeah. We’ll find out. What’s up next on your reading list. What are you diving into these days?

Penny:

Well, amid the pandemic, I actually started reading a lot of about Florida, so I will probably continue reading some of those books and probably the Katie Carrick book that’s just come out. I have to confess I’m kind of a [inaudible]

Stephanie:

Nice. You taught me how that is. And the last one, when you want to motivate your team, what do you do?

Penny:

Well, I like to eat so we try to have some kind of a little dinner and get everybody together.

Stephanie:

Yep. I love that. Food. How can you not bond over food? I mean.

Penny:

That’s it. Absolutely.

Stephanie:

That’s great. Well Penny, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was really cool to hear company background and your history and all your wisdom. So thank you very much. Where can people find out more about Pioneer Linens?

Penny:

I would encourage them to visit our website, our little history stories on the website. There’s lots of stories about what each different person has contributed over the years as well as how to take care of your linens. That’s a big thing that people always want to know. We also have on there how to measure. If you want a tablecloth, how do you measure to make sure that you’re getting the right length for your table cloth? Lots of how to. So I would say visit www.pioneerlinens.com.

Stephanie:

Amazing. Thanks so much, penny.

Episode 160