Three local furniture retailers have gone belly up in two years, leaving frustrated and angry customers in their wakes. Surviving independent stores in the area say that while business is tougher than it used to be, they’re confident in their ability to survive.

After several decades in business, Rosa’s Home Stores Inc., Crawford Furniture and most recently FWS Home Furnishings have closed their doors, unable to stay in business and owing creditors significant money.

All three had expanded over the years, taking on more debt and store leases that they couldn’t keep up. Crawford was even locked out by its landlord.

Rosa’s and Crawford both filed for bankruptcy, while FWS’ entire inventory was seized by its secured creditor, which is now hiring an agent to manage the company’s liquidation sale and closing. None of the three are operating any longer, although three Rosa brothers started Home Furniture Gallery in two former Rosa’s locations.

All three closures left customers uncertain about whether they would get furniture they had ordered, unable to rely on store warranties or service, and unable to get much recourse. Most recently, angry FWS customers with outstanding orders have been advised to call the retailer and leave a voicemail message so the lender’s agent can contact them.

“The current situation is not something that we had ever dreamed would happen, and we are deeply saddened that we no longer have control over the operations of the company,” FWS co-owners John Wanat and John Grimaldi said in an emailed statement. Grimaldi could not be reached. Wanat declined further comment.

One manufacturer and a furniture retailer in Niagara Falls are trying to help some FWS customers. Decor Rest of Canada has 30 to 40 custom-made pieces of furniture at its warehouse in Toronto that were destined for FWS customers. FWS had fallen behind on paying its bills, so Decor Rest had stopped shipping to FWS.

The company does not have the names or addresses of the customers, but it wants to get the finished items to them, and get paid. So it reached out to Parks Furniture, a Niagara Falls store affiliated with Decor Rest’s biggest North American distributor.

“We’re trying to help,” said Decor Rest sales manager Ron Penny. “We have no access to the FWS files, so we’re just trying to help people who are stranded with furniture in some way to make sure that they get the furniture they’re looking for.”

Parks is asking those affected FWS customers to contact the store at (716) 297-5206, and manager Patrick Gabriel said he will try to help get the furniture. “If I can help them out, if I’m somehow able to contact those people, then we can try to get them their furniture,” he said. “I’m not going to lose money, but I don’t mind not making money.”

Nationwide, the furniture retail business has been struggling for several years, especially for smaller independent stores. Consumers have held back on big-ticket purchases or spent less, and sought to spread out the payments over longer periods.

So hundreds of small retailers have gone out of business and many others are barely holding on, while the biggest companies use their size and scale to eke out a profit.

“The big got bigger and better at what they were doing, and if you didn’t have a good plan as an independent, you either shrunk or closed,” said Dale Bielicki, co-owner of Carolina Furniture and Carolina Kids. “Before the economy went down, it was easy to make money and spend money on advancing your business without worrying about the repercussions of your actions. But now every detail and every decision you make has to be a painstaking decision to ensure the viability.”

Some small companies have been able to thrive, including Calvin’s Furniture on Transit Road in Clarence, Carolina Furniture and Carolina Kids in Amherst and Orchard Park, Newtrend Furniture in Amherst and Sans Furniture in Hamburg. All are family-owned, with a long history.

“It’s definitely challenging, but it’s like anything else. If you work at it and love what you do and put the hours in, you can do well,” said Bob Caruso, vice president at the 60-year-old, family-owned Calvin’s Furniture and son of 88-year-old founder Calvin Caruso Sr. “We’re doing really, really well this year.”

“We’ve been here a long time. We’ve seen lots of ups and downs, and that works to our advantage, not only in terms of loyal customer base but also in knowing how to get through difficult times,” said John Schwegler, owner and president of the 60-year-old Newtrend store, which is in its third-generation of family ownership. “When business turns bad, you have to respond and analyze what your weaknesses are and address them. If you have strengths, capitalize on those, and hopefully your tweaks will be sufficient.”

Among the key differences for those that are doing well:

• They buy their buildings, trucks and other assets with cash. “You can’t overpay for real estate, not in this trading area,” said Bielicki of Carolina Furniture, which is actually taking over the former FWS building at Transitowne Plaza and opening a third store shortly.

• They buy directly from manufacturers, not through wholesalers, distributors or other middlemen that want their own cut. Schwegler attends furniture shows in North Carolina twice a year, to renew and build relationships with suppliers and keep track of new trends.

And Bielicki now travels to North Carolina several times a year to identify and develop ties with the manufacturers.

• They beef up their inventory, to make sure that they are well-stocked with what customers want, in addition to offering the customized products. And they’ve enhanced payment options to meet customers’ needs.

• And the family owners are intricately involved in the day-to-day store operations. “You can’t work part time in the business,” Bielicki said. “As an owner in an independent, if you’re not involved with your business day-to-day, you’ve gone out of business.”