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Nebraska Furniture Mart (wikipedia.org)
170 points by jkuria on Sept 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

> In 1989, at age 95, Mrs. B's family forced her into retirement. Unhappy with this and realizing that Buffett had not made her sign a non-compete agreement, Mrs. B started "Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet" across the street from Nebraska Furniture Mart three months later.

> Two years later, "Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet" was profitable and the third largest carpet outlet in Omaha.

And when she decided to rejoin, Buffett made her sign a non-compete agreement...at the age of 97 (I think)...which is surely a first. Iirc, it was a five year non-compete.

It is worth checking out the relevant chapter in Alice Schroder's Buffett bio. Amazing story.

Iirc, it took her six months just to get out of the USSR, across Russia, through China, then went on a cargo ship. It also covers how she got started which is just as interesting (she got sued for selling too cheap, she can't read, she can't write, etc.).

The stores are also unbelievably large. They seem to be 25-50% bigger than Ikea stores, which is incredible. Only in America (and possibly China in 2030).

There's a door showroom in Chongqing that's so big you drive through it and look at all the doors on offer.

Yes, you drive through it in your car and look at housing doors of all types.

That is really worth a Google. Must require some ventilation. Totally mad.

Rose Blumkin is the classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches-by-hard-work story. I love this story from Warren Buffett in his 1983 letter to shareholders:

"Omaha retailers began to recognize that Mrs. B would offer customers far better deals than they had been giving, and they pressured furniture and carpet manufacturers not to sell to her. But by various strategies she obtained merchandise and cut prices sharply. Mrs. B was then hauled into court for violation of Fair Trade laws. She not only won all the cases, but received invaluable publicity. At the end of one case, after demonstrating to the court that she could profitably sell carpet at a huge discount from the prevailing price, she sold the judge $1400 worth of carpet."

I have no idea why this is on the front page of Hacker News but I'm not hating it.

I moved from Omaha to the Denver/Boulder area two years ago and besides the Henry Doorly Zoo, I miss Nebraska Furniture Mart the most.

NFM is a great place to buy pretty much anything you want to put in your house. Mrs. B really knew how to make a business work. The only weird thing is how antiquated their computer systems are, it's amazing they are so profitable with 70's era technology running the business.

> It's amazing they are so profitable with 70's era technology running the business.

Without knowing any details, I would say that there are people who would argue that this attitude may be one of the reasons they are profitable. Why change a perfectly working system your customer does have no direct interaction with?

Why use old fashioned machines with buttons (which will become muscle memory in a few months) when you can have a buggy, unresponsive and ever changing touchscreen with poor UX?

Because the new system has a sales guy who slyly bribed the right executive, and the other executives don't know why they should defend old tech.

It's obviously impossible to be profitable without using serverless javascript lambadas hosted on aws running node on docker with cassandra in a completely polyglot environment. I mean that stack pretty much prints money, unlike the 1970s technology.

> Why change a perfectly working system your customer does have no direct interaction with?

Because you can't buy replacement parts when something breaks?

Repairability is one of the defining qualities of “old stuff”

only the "old stuff" that survived. all the other "old stuff" (which is most of it) is in a landfill because it was irreparable.

Of course, as is only natural.

Why change stuff that survived?

Seems like you're making quite the leap in assuming they can't buy effective replacement parts.

I'm proposing a reason, that's all. I imagine whatever antiquated electronics they use are readily available at their scale on eBay. Like if I want a Commodore 64 for some reason, I can probably have one tomorrow. But if I need a thousand of them, that will be more difficult. Compare that to AWS, where if I need a thousand of their computers I can have them in 20 minutes.

Not to mention they've had 50yr to refine their process.

I guess tech can be overrated. Mrs B couldn't read of write but knew all the carpet prices and could give you a quote on a say 10x7 piece off the top of her head. Buffett who bought the store never used a computer at work to trade stocks or otherwise but would be the worlds richest man, more than Bezos if he hadn't given about half to charity. He can also quote most financials from memory.

> The only weird thing is how antiquated their computer systems are, it's amazing they are so profitable with 70's era technology running the business.

I live near and have shopped at the largest of their locations many times and all of their associates carry tablets to close sales right there on the floor. Hardly 70s technology (though the UI they use isn't modern necessarily). Their online presence isn't anything scoff at either.

They also have those auto-updating e-ink price tags on everything.

Perhaps that illustrates just how little value we've really added during the last few decades of "improving" business systems...

I derive great value from ordering online and picking up in store, as well as stores that show me inventory and item location.

Catalogues weren't much different many years ago. The fact that sears totally missed the boat on e-commerce is nothing short of astounding.

And yet, theirs can, and does!

I doubt they are doing it with 70s technology. The point of my comment was to demonstrate the improvements since the 70s have added a lot of value to customers, especially the fact that I can compare prices around the nation and even world within minutes.

I grew up in Omaha and there was a time when most of my parents' furniture came from NFM. I remember walking through as a kid, testing out bunk beds and dining room sets. When my dad told me about the other Omaha legend, Warren Buffett, he made it relatable by explaining he had so much money he could afford to buy NFM. That was my introduction to Warren Buffett.

The only weird thing is how antiquated their computer systems are, it's amazing they are so profitable with 70's era technology running the business.

That's what I always think whenever I'm in a Starbucks and see the drive-through orders appearing on an IBM PC-era 80x25 text display. But hey, if it works, and if it's reliable, and if it doesn't have to talk to too many other systems, why not?

If I were to build a POS system from scratch in 2019, ncurses for the interface would be my top choice, and I can't think of many reasons to pick a GUI toolkit, except if there was a need to show pictures.

I'm guessing that Mrs. B. was smart to stay out of the Denver/Boulder area. The Furniture Wars were fought in those foothills. You can still see the corpses of Weberg and Levits stores all down the interstate. Jake Jabbs took no prisoners.

Now, in addition to Jake's American Furniture Warehouse, there's the whole Furniture Row business holding the territory. Now IKEA is trying to find a way in.

Whole books have been written about the Furniture Wars! It's kind of crazy.

If you've never hiked through one, they are quintessential American excess. I know for many of you, their locations are Flyover Country. But actually embark from your stopover next time and spend a full weekend experiencing it. I've lived all over Middle America and the SF Bay Area for several years, and I live in Tulsa now. Nebraska Furniture Mart makes IKEA look like a Mission bodega that ran out of American Spirits and artisan beer.

I will have to give NFM another chance. The Clive IA store was a sleepy, underwhelming selection, and staff either missing or unable to help. We kept trying to buy blinds. After the 3rd try stopping by to talk to an expert we just ended up ordering online from justblinds.

They have moved to a new location in Clive or Urbandale. I haven't stopped in, but it feels like the parking lot is never too full.

The one North of Dallas is bustling with activity whenever I go (evening/weekend). They have had sales on stuff like dyson vacs and we got a custom made couch and the fiance got to see all the fabrics and touch them so there are some definite benefits vs something online. You can't sit on a couch on Amazon!

Also, it's readily displayed what is made in the US which I always choose when possible. The salespeople are very friendly and they get a commission so it's good to support the community.

Fun fact, Nebraska Furniture Mart holds 0x0004 on the list of Linux Manufacturer USB Ids [1]. At my last job we built a product with a custom OpenWRT fork, and I needed to identify an Atmel D21 behind a usb hub on a custom board we built, and I figured I'd never have a collision with any NFM hardware, so I just used that since no one outside our company would never see the device either.

[1] http://www.linux-usb.org/usb.ids

Those aren't Linux IDs, those are USB-IF issued vendor IDs. That list is merely maintained by a Linux dev. That number is so low I wonder why NFM registered it. They have retailed electronics and accessories. Possibly some USB peripheral in the 90s?

Well, sort of. They're Linux's interpretation of a superset of VID/PID combinations recognized by the USB-IF. The USB-IF doesn't allow product IDs to be resold, as was (and still is) done by MCS in the $16D0 VID range, or to party on abandoned/unused IDs like C&T's at $420, as something called the "Celly SIM Card Reader" seems to be doing.

Linux is under no obligation to follow the (absurd) policies of USB-IF, so they basically have to maintain their own parallel list.

Buffett talking about it and Mrs B this year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pg1XfTNKRJk

I love how the founder sold her company to Warren Buffet, and then opened up pretty much the same store right across the street, forcing Buffet to buy that one as well(with an added non-compete clause)

the story is more of business drive than competition (imo):

> She bitterly ''retired'' in 1989 at the age of 95, but after three months returned with characteristic combativeness, setting up a rival store called Mrs. B's Clearance and Factory Outlet across the street from the Furniture Mart.


my understanding from primary sources is she started the second to carry on her ideals when the original iced her out

I think it's important to state that one of the reasons she opened another store was because her family forced her to retire.

She was also notoriously abusive towards staff and her family. That was the reason why her family forced her to retire initially (iirc, and I may be misremembering this, she only has one biological son...the other two married her daughters and they were, perhaps understandably, not keen to carry on after the sale because of the abuse).

Do you have a source for her abuse? A quick search didn’t turn up anything—your comment is the top google result :)

Here's something from http://www.quoteswise.com/rose-blumkin-quotes.html :

>[To Warren Buffett when she had lined up a group of her grandsons and sons-in-law and nephews against a wall and was lecturing them.] See all these guys next to me? If I sell it to you, you can fire them. These people are a bunch of bums, and they are all related to me and I can’t fire them. But you can fire them. They’re bums, bums, bums. [‘She went on like this for an hour, literally. The word ‘bums’ recurred many, many times. Then she dismissed me. I had served my purpose.’ – ###Warren Buffett

The other quotes are quite an interesting read also.

Seriously, the ranking of HN comments in organic Google results is a little bit off-putting in some cases.

Someone dialed up the weights on HN comments way past where IMO a potentially throwaway remark should be scored.

And I say this as someone who tries to make substantive and significant HN posts on the regular.

As I said somewhere else, you should check out Alice Schroder's chapter on NFM in her Buffett bio for a source.

It's an amazing place. At least when I visited, you walk through the door to see some bland looking furniture (some maybe even the cheap MDF self-assembled type that you buy in a cardboard box), but then you walk through a doorway that opens up into a gigantic space of every sort of electronic game, device, accessory, geegaw, tchotchke, peripheral, plaything, and delight you could imagine. The staff were highly trained, happy to be there, knowledgeable, helpful, and made me want to come back and buy more.

Gates & Buffet did a lighthearted tour of the place [1]

[1] Testing Mattresses with Warren Buffett


Just to clarify "largest home furnishing store" the article literally means by sq ft within a single structure. Obviously the Ikeas of the world have much more total sq ft.

Interestingly, built in the same lot where the world's largest sporting goods store is currently being built (opening early next year).

The traffic at the Kansas City location ironically lead to the opening of the Ikea here. Ikea used NFM's gaffs as a playbook to ensure their opening went smooth; everything from choosing location to paying for traffic signal upgrades (and hiring local law enforcement to trigger them manually) was thought out.

Another interesting one is Hickory (NC) Furniture Mart. It started as a drive-in restaurant and pivoted over time into a mall with over 100 furniture stores.

Does anyone here know what exactly is NFM’s moat? Price, Selection, Customer Service? All the above?

Buffett 89 letter:

> NFM and Borsheim's follow precisely the same formula for success: (1) unparalleled depth and breadth of merchandise at one location; (2) the lowest operating costs in the business; (3) the shrewdest of buying, made possible in part by the huge volumes purchased; (4) gross margins, and therefore prices, far below competitors'; and (5) friendly personalized service with family members on hand at all times.

the rest of that is a good read. (http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1989.html)

Selection, IME.

We purchased couches and a desk chair from them. There tends to be three grades: entry, mid, affluent. Their entry are 2X Ikea and maybe 3X the quality of most of what I've seen from Ikea. Mid prices tend to be better than smaller furniture stores, and I can't really comment on affluent.

Personally, all of the above. Most of my furnishings and appliances have been purchased there, the sheer volume of choice coupled with reasonable pricing and ease of purchase/delivery sets them apart from niche stores and/or difficult purchasing processes. It's much easier spending an afternoon walking around dozens of couches than traveling store to store (knowing evaluation must be in person for such an item).

Can they compete against Ikea?

Yes, if you are looking for something that is not particle board.

Are you sure? IKEA has quite cheap solid wood furniture.

And it still seems to last a single move. I hate this disposable culture.

They finance at zero interest for three years and provide good warranties on anything. There are made in America options for everything.

I want to read more about Mrs. B. She sounds like an absolutely remarkable woman!

It's why there is no IKEA in Nebraska!

An awesome American business story! I also love how she never retired.

Omaha represent!


It is entrepreneurship in it's purest form. This is an entrepreneurship forum with a focus on technology.

Mind sharing what you learned, technology-wise, from reading this Wikipedia entry?

10 page report, double spaced, size 12 font, Times New Roman?

Hacker News is specifically _not_ a pure tech forum. Graciously, please don't force people to conform to what you wish it to be.

The takeaway for me was related to business and startups which is a focus of this place. What I got from reading about Mrs. B (who I had never heard of despite buying all my furniture from her store) was that you can be amazingly successful with nothing but tenacity and hard work.

What to Submit

On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures. If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic.


> Most stories about politics ... If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic.

clearly HN does not follow nor enforce these rules, so why pretend when pick-and-choose anyways? And why lecture people on what is "on topic" when objectively "off topic" stuff makes it to the front page all the time?

Who do you see as "lecturing" here?

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