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Store Caters to All Who Like to Do It Themselves

October 21, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Is it possible to develop a meaningful and lasting relationship with an armchair? A dining room table? Kitchen cabinets?

Certainly, says Michael Baur, director of sales and promotion for STOR, the mammoth furniture retailer that opened its first Orange County outlet Wednesday in Tustin.

But it helps if you and the object in question have a shared history--you know, memories: That day you (ow!) scraped your knuckle on its leg. The way you cried, then laughed, when you realized you'd put the whole $%&! thing together backwards.

That's the attraction of ready-to-assemble furniture, Baur says. Sure, it helps to save some cold, hard cash in the bargain, but smashed thumbs or not, he says there's nothing cold or hard about the feeling some of us get when we can point to an object and say: "I made that."

"If you want a new kitchen and you have somebody come in and install it, certainly you're proud," he says. "But if you put it together yourself, you're really proud. You have a relationship with your merchandise."

Whether they were in search of lasting ties or just bargains, customers poured into the place as soon as the doors opened Wednesday, their interest aroused by aggressive advertising and the more than 1 million catalogues mailed to county residents.

STOR is one of the latest wrinkles in do-it-yourselfing. The company's first store opened in the City of Industry a year ago, and STOR president and chief operating officer James D. Stadtlander said that so many of the customers there were from Orange County that when the time came to branch out, the Tustin location was a natural.

And if STOR isn't the largest chain in terms of outlets, it certainly is in store space. The Tustin STOR is more than 150,000 square feet, or as its promotional materials claim, "equivalent to the size of four football fields."

In any case, the place is so huge that the two full-grown elephants stationed out front for the grand opening looked more like puppies than pachyderms.

The name STOR, by the way, may seem Scandinavian, but Baur says the word "doesn't really have any meaning. It's not an actual foreign word. We just came up with it because we wanted to give it a European feel."

And the ready-to-assemble aspect is European, Stadtlander says. "About a third of the furniture in Europe is sold this way. But the ambiance is unique to us."

Although STOR's merchandise--imported from Asia as well as Europe and Canada--does have a European "flavor," Stadtlander says, "this is not necessarily what you'd find in Europe. We've influenced a lot of these manufacturers to make products that we think will appeal to people here and fit in with the California life style."

"Are these pretty easy to assemble?" a woman asked a STOR employee on opening day as she eyed a student desk apprehensively.

"Oh, yeah," he responded in a reassuring tone.

"Good," the woman said tentatively, the nervous look on her face barely diminished.

All thumbs? Sorry, STOR won't offer to put it together for you, although Baur says "you can call customer service if you have a problem. So far, I haven't heard of anyone who couldn't do it."

STOR customers begin fending for themselves long before they get their boxes home, however, and that, too, is by design. "We have no sales people in the traditional sense," Baur says. "We do have people who can answer questions and give customers ideas if they ask."

That is in direct response to findings from extensive consumer surveys, Baur says, as are the playrooms to keep kids occupied while their parents shop, and Cafe STOR, an in-store, self-service restaurant.

Most of the merchandise is in flat boxes and can probably fit into the average family car, so customers can do-it-themselves again and save on delivery. Unlike assembly however, delivery is available for those who don't want to do it all.

Instead of making overt suggestions to customers about which sofa might go best with which table or lamp, STOR takes a more subtle approach, displaying its wares in more than 80 "vignettes" to show how they might appear in a home. And except for a few props--wine bottles, telephones, ovens--every component of these scenes is for sale.

Apart from the vignettes, the place has just a hint of a home improvement warehouse, and that is no accident. Both Stadtlander and STOR chairman Harvey G. Knell were key executives in Ole's Home Centers, which were acquired by Builder's Emporium 2 years ago.

STOR, at 2982 El Camino Real in Tustin, is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Saturday during the grand opening. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.

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