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Gracious Home: Greenwich resident tries to beat dim retail odds |

Gracious Home: Greenwich resident tries to beat dim retail odds


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On an abruptly warm April morning on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, it’s the newly named CEO of Gracious Home who signs for a few FedEx boxes filled with store inventory. Minutes later it’s also him, Robert Morrison, who answers a knock at the locked front door after checking his watch that shows 9:57 a.m. and mutters, mostly to himself, “close enough,” before letting the customer in a few minutes from opening.


“Do you have dinnerware?” the woman asked Morrison, a 20-year Greenwich resident.

Just a few months ago, Morrison could have said yes and guided her to an expansive selection of luxury dinnerware, tucked away in Gracious Home’s 55,000 square feet of retail space laid out over a block of pricey real estate near Central Park. But on this Friday morning, standing in the bankrupt store’s remnants — a mere 3,000 square feet of selling space — Morrison kindly replied no and consulted one of his sales associates about where to direct the customer. “Probably Bed Bath and Beyond,” he ended up saying.

The business’ struggles fit a wider pattern. More than 3,500 retail stores have shuttered this year, according to a Forbes compilation. The sector appears to have a dim future, as store closings this year are set to surpass those in 2008 at the start of the last recession, according to analysts at Credit Suisse.

At Gracious Home, Morrison is drawing from a lifetime of retail executive experience and a slew of new business tactics to keep Gracious Home from joining that death count. Still, if he can’t convince investors to cough up somewhere between $2.5 million and $5 million to pay Gracious Home’s way out of bankruptcy, the store will likely close by fall, he said. “But I’m very confident,” Morrison said. “There’s a lot of talk and paper flying around, but no one has written a check yet. … There are a lot of eyes on our digital results.”

If all goes well, Morrison hopes Gracious Home’s next stop would be opening a small storefront on Greenwich Avenue.

Thriving on generosity

For much of Gracious Home’s 54-year history, it prevailed by being a one-stop shop for home goods. A 1993 New York Times profile of the store, which then occupied both sides of Third Avenue between 70th and 71st streets, described Gracious Home as a “housewares and hardware emporium.” It highlighted the best of Gracious Home, said Nancy Wekselbaum, who helped her husband run the business for years after he founded it with his brother in 1963.

The Wekselbaum brothers were Cuban immigrants who launched Gracious Home while throngs of newcomers were moving to the Upper East Side and needed a store for all the needs that arise during a move. Foundational to the brand, Nancy Wekselbaum told Hearst Connecticut Media in a recent interview, was how she and her husband cared deeply for their employees and customers.

To her, business success is defined by generosity.

The Wekselbaums left Gracious Home following its 2010 bankruptcy. Since then, it’s undergone several leadership shakeups and, Morrison said, poor decisions sent Gracious Home screeching into bankruptcy again last December.

Lifetime of experience

The new CEO’s career highlights include more than a decade at Lord Taylor, launching Loft under the Ann Taylor umbrella, attempting to start a sports store in the Midwest, helping Danbury-based Waterworks grow its storefront presence and taking Lumber Liquidators through its initial public offering.

He always saw himself running a company, Morrison said during an interview in his new office, which doubles as a corner copy room. Leading a company as it navigates its second bankruptcy filing in six years wasn’t how he imagined his dream coming to fruition, he added.

“This is a journey I never saw coming,” Morrison said.

He joined Gracious Home as its chief operating officer early in 2014, he said. By Morrison’s account, he soon after diagnosed Gracious Home’s problems. “No one had invested in the company since 2007, which was by its original owners,” he said, adding his advice went unheeded.

Two years later he was named CEO, and within a week the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time. “I learned everything I know about bankruptcy on Dec. 11,” he said.

In the months following, Gracious Home sold all its inventory and laid off all but 20 of its more than 100 employees while Morrison began courting vendors to see which would be willing to support a re-opening.

“They’d now been burned twice,” Morrison said. By March, enough vendors agreed and Morrison and what remained of his staff opened shop in a small space on the corner of Third Avenue and 70th Street.

“Never, ever, ever in my career would I have opened a store that looked like this,” Morrison said. “But that’s where the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good. We had to open.”

Re-opening has been a slow process as Morrison convinces more vendors to try again and spreads the word that Gracious Home is open again, he said. At the end of April, inventory was still rolling in, with Gracious Home’s new website launching in May as staff explored new and cheaper ways of marketing the brand.

Focused merchandise

Unlike the Gracious Home of 1993 that offered most everything for everyone, Morrison is transitioning into cornering the ultra-high-end market for bedding and bath items. “Even in the city, there’s nowhere to buy this stuff,” Morrison said, gesturing to thousand-dollar duvets, “so that’s why it’s our focus. Department stores don’t want to touch this stuff.”

The change hasn’t gone unnoticed as comments section on recent news stories about Gracious Home are filled with criticisms of the brand’s move to selling only top-dollar items. Morrison has fielded these criticisms, but said it’s the direction the brand needs to go to survive in the age of Amazon.

Perhaps the biggest change in store for Gracious Home is Morrison’s plan to make the brand a web-focused business supported by a series of small, boutique-like shops — with excellent customer service, he emphasized — instead of a website supported by lots of square footage. According to the National Retail Federation, this sort of plan is the future of American retail.

Despite the dire times Morrison has been through in just a few months of CEO experience, he’s confident that he and the staff are on the right track.

“I don’t see how this doesn’t work,” he said.

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