BERLIN — Despite the lackluster economy in recent years and a general slowdown in the housing market, Casual Designs Furniture has endured and is marking its 50th anniversary this year.
According to Terry Bell, filling a niche while keeping expansion manageable is responsible for her company’s longevity during a time when so many other businesses have failed.
“You have to pay attention to the changing economy,” said Bell, who has been a buyer and designer for 30 years for the company her father, Dick Ludlam, originally founded.
While the furnishing market on the Eastern Shore can be crowded at times, Bell theorized that Casual Designs has outlasted many of its competitors by constantly searching for products no one else offers.
“We still try to buy unique items,” she said. “We try to always be better.”
Bell acknowledged that having an established history on the shore has helped Casual Designs standout over the years.
Ludlam founded the first store in the early 1960’s in downtown Berlin.
From there, the business expanded. At its largest, the franchise had four stores up and running simultaneously, including locations in Ocean City, Fenwick and South Bethany.
Ludlam also relocated his original store in Berlin to its current site off Route 50, near Stephen Decatur High School about 42 years ago.
“It was kind of hectic sometimes,” admitted Bell, who said that having too many stores made it difficult for Casual Designs to maintain the level of attention to detail and focus on customers that had originally made it popular.
Ludlam eventually decided to scale back to two showrooms — the one off Route 50 and another in Selbyville, Del. Bell supported the move.
“Small is better,” she said, explaining that her father didn’t want Casual Designs to bloat into a generic super-store.
Instead, Bell said that the goal was to keep the store’s Main Street charm, even if it is no longer located in downtown Berlin.
Bell believes that Casual Designs has maintained that goal, pointing out that the store has repeat customers that stretch back 30 or 40 years as well as several recognitions and awards from the industry, including a “Retailer of the Year” award for Maryland, Delaware and Virginia that was received in 2002. That award was granted by the Maryland/D.C. Home Furnishings Representative Association, which is a chapter of the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association.
While Casual Designs has a long history, Bell’s hope for the future is simply to continue the tradition.
When asked where she saw the store in 10 years, she replied that she expects that everyone will “still be learning and still buying unique items.”
Though the store has evolved over the last half century, Bell asserted that the way things are run hasn’t changed much.
“The top priority is to buy merchandise the customer wants,” she said, adding that her father is still very active in the business.
Though locations have changed, Bell also pointed out that the business remembers its roots as a small town furniture store 50 years ago.
“It all started on Main Street in Berlin,” she said.