MILTON-FREEWATER - Wilcox Furniture, the Oregon retailer whose inventory has been a fixture in homes across the region for more than six decades, will close its doors this summer and reopen as Walker's Furniture outlets.
Owners of Wilcox announced Friday they will immediately begin to liquidate about $2.5 million in inventory at their five Umatilla County stores. An exact closure date depends on how quickly the inventory goes, said John Wilcox, president of the family-owned operation.
He said most of the 70 people employed at the company's stores in Hermiston, Pendleton and at Stateline in Milton-Freewater will be able to carry on under the new operators. Almost a third of the people working at Wilcox have been employed by the business more than 10 years.
"A real key to our success has always been the excellent employees that have worked at Wilcox Furniture," he said in a prepared statement. "More than anything else, I will miss the camaraderie and friendship with the Wilcox staff."
Financial terms of the changeover were not disclosed in the announcement. Wilcox said Saturday he isn't sure what the Walker's expansion might mean for that company's Walla Walla store at 410 Ash St.
The Spokane Valley, Wash.,-based Walker's has seven stores in Washington and North Idaho, including Walla Walla's. According to a report in the Spokane Journal of Business, Walker's plans to open outlets in the Wilcox spaces by September.
Wilcox emphasized the closure was a personal decision by him and his brothers, Alan and Bruce Wilcox, collectively known in their advertising as "The Wilcox Boys."
"We're going out because we want to. Not because we had to," he said. "The decision truly had nothing to do with finances."
The Wilcox Boys said they're all ready to pursue new opportunities and challenges after decades each working for the company.
"We'll miss the community involvement," Bruce Wilcox added in a statement. "But after spending over 30 yeas in the furniture business, it is time to do something different."
The business that started in 1951 by Charles Wilcox, the Wilcox's uncle, and was taken over in 1959 by their parents, Les and Joyce Wilcox, began as a one-store operation in Hermiston with eight employees.
The Wilcox boys got an early start working there - Alan was in elementary school when he started working part-time for his folks on Saturdays. John Wilcox said when he was in college he had one professional goal in mind: "Anything but the furniture business," he quipped. "I saw how hard my dad worked, and I knew I didn't want to do that."
Nevertheless he got his start on the sales floor under the general management of his brother, Alan.
"It just turned out differently than what I had planned," John Wilcox said.
Back in the early days Wilcox was more than just a furniture store. It also carried small appliances such as can openers, coffee pots, toasters and television sets. The company philosophy was to change with the times to meet the needs of local consumers.
So when water beds became the trend du jour, you could find them at Wilcox. When no other store in Hermiston carried video rentals, the furniture store had them.
The company added a clearance store in Hermiston in the 1970s. It opened a Wilcox in Pendleton in 1985. Four years after that the Milton-Freewater store opened on Highway 11. In 1996 a clearance store opened next to the original.
These days the furniture trends tend to reflect new developments in technology. Home entertainment centers are sleeker as tube televisions are replaced with flat screens. The story is similar with office furniture that is more likely to accommodate laptops and tablets over old-school monitors.
"The process has been evolutionary," Wilcox said. "As the market changes and the needs of the consumer change, we act accordingly."
Consumer demand hasn't been the only source of changes over the years. Wilcox said when he first started in the business most of the furniture was supplied by U.S. manufacturers. Now much of it comes from Asia, where labor costs are cheaper and regulations fewer.
The number of dedicated furniture stores, too, seems to have changed drastically since he started at Wilcox in a market that had seven or eight other furniture stores. Nowadays, consumers can buy online or pick pieces from a smaller selection at a big-box retailer.
Wilcox said the timing of the store's latest transition was perfect. Though neither he nor his brothers knew it until they made a call to Walker's, that company has been interested in expanding into Oregon.
"I think the main goal with Walker's was simply they were looking to expand at the same time we were looking to find a business to take over our operations," he said.
Walker's started in 1980. It has showrooms in Spokane, the Spokane Valley, Kennewick, East Wenatchee, Yakima, Walla Walla and Coeur d'Alene. After this summer, it will add three Oregon cities to that list - a transition that's bittersweet for the Wilcoxes,
"I can honestly say I've thoroughly enjoyed my time in the furniture business. I've loved most of it," John Wilcox said.
He said he and his brothers plan to pursue a number of opportunities, from charity work to potential new businesses. He particularly looks forward to more time with his 10 grandkids who live in various parts of the country.
But he's also glad to have been a part of a 61-year legacy that will continue, even if under a different name.
"It was great to be able to take the business my father had" and continue to build on it, he said.