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VALLEY BUSINESS | SPECIALTY FURNITURE: STORES FIND
THEIR NICHES

Posters Provide Framework for Success

Z Gallerie: Two brothers began the business in their parents' Van Nuys garage. It has grown to 37 stores and more than 600 employees.

August 22, 2000|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who says you can't go home again?

Not the three Zeiden siblings, who recently opened one of their popular Z Gallerie stores in Sherman Oaks Fashion Square.

Joseph, Michael and Carole Zeiden Malfatti grew up in Van Nuys, in a neighborhood recently renamed Valley Glen. Their widowed mother, Shirley, still lives there. And it was there that the boys, barely out of Grant High School, decided to follow the example of a friend and start their own business selling posters.

"We used to frame everything in our parents' garage," recalled Mike Zeiden, now chief financial officer of what has grown since 1979 into one of the nation's top 100 furniture retailers.

In fact, the Zeiden family garage functioned as a mini-warehouse for the new company, which opened its first store, devoted entirely to posters, on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.

Mike was 19, his brother, 24, when they opened the first Z Gallerie. Mike quit his job delivering and doing other chores for a local pharmacy, but Joe, now president of the firm, decided he couldn't afford to leave the lighting store where he worked.

"He kept his job in case we couldn't make rent," Mike recalled of their first shop. The brothers got a book out of the library to learn how to put up drywall in the store, which was about 900 square feet.

The way their family and friends remember it, Mike said, they were all behind the fledgling enterprise, which opened its 37th store last week in Las Vegas. But in fact, he said, no one was sure the inexperienced young retailers would make it. Their late father owned and operated bars in the Valley, but the boys had no formal business training.

"At the beginning, who knew it was going to end up the way it is today?" said Mike Zeiden, whose family-owned corporation, based in Gardena, expects sales this year in excess of $90 million.

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Within a few months, the first Z Gallerie began to thrive. Poster art was hot in 1979, and the brothers ran the stores with the passionate attention that only people who own a business bring to it. They made it a point to remember what every customer bought so they could serve him or her better the next time. The business quickly expanded to seven poster galleries in the Los Angeles area.

In 1980, the boys asked their sister, Carole, to join the company. Right out of high school, she had gone to work at Bullock's department store in Sherman Oaks, in the very mall that now features a Z Gallerie. At Bullock's, she managed the accessories department--everything from scarves to sunglasses--and also women's blouses. Bullock's provided her with a valuable education in retail, she said, one that she uses at Z Gallerie in her role as vice president and the principal shaper of the firm's merchandising strategy.

In the early 1980s, faced with a tsunami of competing poster stores, the Zeidens looked for ways to diversify. They briefly tried selling clothing, which flopped. They then added accessories, such as desk items to their stock, and finally, in 1983, furniture. The first present-style Z Gallerie opened in San Francisco that year. Today, Mike said, the mix at most of the stores, including the one in Sherman Oaks, is 45% furniture, 20% home accents, 17% posters and 18% other, including personal care items and housewares.

Z Gallerie offers what the trade calls a "lifestyle" approach to merchandising. Like Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and similar chains, its comfy furniture and vaguely ethnic accessories appeal mostly to upscale customers who want nice things and care what happens to the rain forest.

Mike said the target market is roughly between the ages of 30 and 45. But the Zeidens decided early on to reach a fairly wide audience, which is one of the reasons they abandoned the stark black-and-white look of their first stores, which they felt was too limited in its appeal.

One way the Zeidens try to distinguish themselves from their competitors is by offering items not sold elsewhere. Malfatti estimates that up to 85% of the stores' offerings are exclusive to Z Gallerie. Twice a year, she said, she and her design staff of five decide what colors will be featured in the stores and also what themes will determine the look of the shops, where furniture and other items are often arranged in movie-set-like "vignettes."

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Between now and the end of the year, Morocco is a major theme, she said, which is why so many of the fabrics and accessories in the stores feature rich, jewel tones, including deep purples and burgundy.

To come up with new ideas for the stores, Malfatti attends trade shows, reads fashion, trade and home magazines and travels extensively. Hong Kong, Italy, Germany and France are regular stops on her itinerary.

Often, she said, a trip will stimulate her imagination in unexpected ways. A visit to Paris last year, for instance, led to the current presence in many Z Gallerie stores of items featuring the iconic Eiffel Tower.

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