McClatchy Newspapers

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Modern-style furniture retailer Inmod survived the recession that closed many furniture stores by letting the customer self-design pillows and bed linens and by adding lower-cost items.

Another reason it persevered, said co-founder and President Alan Finkelstein, is the Harrington Park, N.J.-based business never sold one of its ball chairs or sputnik chandeliers in a showroom.

To Finkelstein, 33, a website developer, physical showrooms are noticed only by those who drive by or live near them.

“I believe fundamentally the investment you put into marketing on the Internet is a better investment (than into real estate) because you have far more eyes on your marketing efforts than a local brick and mortar store would have,” said Finkelstein. “I have no limit to where I can sell.”

Inmod has no retail space but sells its modern-style furniture and home decor online to consumers, hotel chains, clothing designers, television stations and restaurants.

Last year, as the cascading downturn claimed nearby stores such as Fortunoff and Levitz Furniture, Inmod sales rose almost 8 percent to $3.5 million from 2008. And by mid-May this year, sales had increased 58 percent over the same time last year and Finkelstein anticipates revenue could reach $5 million by the end of the year.

Inmod began as an e-commerce website development business that Finkelstein founded in the early 2000s with friend Casey Choron. Both had web development education and graphic design skills, so they began by building fan websites for musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and by designing promotional materials for concerts.

After developing a website for a family friend to help lift sales at his office furniture supply company, the pair discovered that developing websites was not profitable enough to continue.

“We spent more time educating clients than anything else,” said Finkelstein. “Businesses needed to be sold on the idea of having a website; it was still new, and a hard sell back then.”

But their brief time with furniture design left Finkelstein and Choron intrigued with the field — specifically the mid-century modern style — and the two founded Evofurniture LLC in 2003, which does business as Inmod, to sell reproductions of pieces from that period.

They found a U.S.-based manufacturer and sold five products — including the iconic ball and egg chairs — on a website they built and designed themselves.

“We understood the Internet and knew how to market there and knew how to drive traffic,” said Finkelstein. “Anyone looking for these products found us pretty quickly.”

The two found more manufacturers at trade shows, but also found challenges convincing the often 100-year-old companies that furniture could be sold online, Finkelstein said.

That same resistance to selling online meant there was little competition for Inmod and its flashy, trendy, colorful website created by a growing team of programmers and developers with art backgrounds.

Inmod focused on the mid-century modern style before the style appeared in department stores, clothing designers, television stations and hotels. As a result, Inmod’s biggest customers are Macy’s Inc., Nordstrom Inc. and the Golden Nugget Hotels and Casinos in Las Vegas.

A key relationship has been with a textile designer producing handmade items in India, said Finkelstein, enabling a real-time website feature for consumers to choose patterns, colors and materials for pillows and bed linens.

Sales of duvets, which can start in the low $200s for a queen-sized bed, and the $40 pillows account for 10 percent of overall sales, said Finkelstein. Rugs, drapery, kitchen cabinets and fixtures are the next items that consumers will be able to design themselves, he said.

“Offering customizable products has been tremendous for us,” said Finkelstein.

When the recession began at the end of 2007, Inmod responded by bringing in 500 new items for less than $200, including designer candles and bean-bag chairs for college dorms. The average-order amounts dropped to $700 from $1,000, said Finkelstein, but order volume climbed 20 percent.

Inmod has since broadened its offerings to include current modern and contemporary furniture and decor at midlevel prices.

“We’re definitely the middle ground right now,” said Finkelstein. “It’s become a strategy.”