Aspiring entrepreneurs can find opportunities in the smallest things, including where they reside. When Ernie Swanson opened a grocery store in the ‘40s, he didn’t realize the prominence he would have in the small town of Ceresco, Nebraska. Swapping TVs for appliances and expanding into furniture and flooring, the former food mart transformed into a one-stop shop for all home-furnishing needs. Today, Ernie’s in Ceresco serves as the largest family-owned total home-furnishing store in the state and continues to craft the customer experience.
The company has grown to serve more than Saunders County—Lincoln, West Omaha, and small towns like Wahoo and David City make up plenty of the business’s market. President Tyler Swanson, grandson of Ernie Swanson, said this speaks to the company’s versatility and illustrates that his team knows how to speak to a variety of customers. “We listen, and we want our customers happy,” Swanson said. “Our job is to help them achieve what they’re trying to accomplish within their space.” Encompassing over 100,000 square feet between its showroom and warehouse, Swanson said the large inventory helps capture instant gratification and build client relationships with people across the state. “The population of Nebraska is too small to not do it right, so you have to have that repeat customer. We try really hard to live up to those standards.”
From rural modern farmhouses to urban lofts in the city, the Omaha market continues to help the company fuel its growth. Dubbing Ernie’s as a hidden gem, Swanson said different people have different motivations, and marrying high-quality brands with versatile price points allows the company to attract distinct audiences like West Omaha. “It’s attention to detail, and we try to slow the process down and meet them [customers] where they’re at,” he said. Even if a specific item isn’t in the store, Swanson said his team’s job is to stay on top of trends and know where to go when something isn’t available so they can meet customers’ needs.
Despite its prominence as a large Nebraska retailer, the small-town store has relationships with niche vendors, allowing it to offer items that can’t be found in bigger markets. From traditional to contemporary, Ernie’s provides unique furnishings that people typically wouldn’t find at mass merchandisers—all in a town just shy of 1,000 people. “You’ve got to have things that are unique to your look, and that adds to the experience,” Swanson said. “We’re not meant to be transactional—we’re meant to be experiential.”
Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic reshape the way people work, but it also changed how people view their homes. Furniture stores like Ernie’s benefited from these adjustments thanks to the 2020 remote work revolution. “People got used to being home; it became more of a sanctuary during COVID,” Swanson said. Despite obstacles with shortages and distribution, Ernie’s learned to be fleet of foot and work within the supply chain better than some of its competitors.
The company’s team is a key factor to Ernie’s continued accelerated growth. When speaking about the staff, Swanson dubbed his team a “strength point” for the store, noting they have the experience and demeanor customers want. “Our sales professionals are more than fast-track retail associates—they pay attention to detail and take time on every individual project.” When hiring installers, all contractors are certified through buying groups, which Swanson said exemplifies the company’s care for investing in people who are experts in their industry.
To stay relevant in a small town, Swanson said the key to success is to continue evolving with customers while attracting new ones along the way. “A lot of that is done through experience. Once they have a good experience, they tend to stay with you.” He said the store holds the highest customer return rate in the region, which he attributes to daily walk-in traffic and strong client relationships. A stroll through Ernie’s doors invites people on a journey that starts with the aroma of freshly popped popcorn available to every customer. This tradition traces back to Ernie Swanson’s college days when he sold popcorn at drive-in movie theatres. From the oil it’s popped in to where the popcorn is sourced, the meticulous care that goes into this salty snack represents the company’s operations philosophy.
Building a business takes time, dedication, and a commitment to delivering a quality customer experience. Whether it’s the savory scent of its signature popcorn or the countless furnishings that decorate the spacious showroom, the company’s notable features keep people coming back for generations. The prominence of Ernie’s is the culmination of relevant pricing and precise attention to detail all while staying true to its humble Ceresco roots. Since 1946, the third-generation store continues to succeed by delivering quality experiences near and far—one customer at a time.
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