Picture it: a wide-open space, bright ceiling lights and row after row of outdoor furniture. First thing in the morning, fluorescent tubes flicker to life, the door’s unlocked and the customers see patio furniture. Maybe there’s a row of chairs, then a row of tables, then a row of sofas. In the back, maybe there are some umbrellas. Pillows. Outdoor drinkware, maybe some coolers. The walls are painted off-white.
Maybe they’ll buy. Maybe they won’t. Either way, it’s pretty certain that they won’t be back until the next time they need something for their patio or deck, if then. The key is to get them to come in and buy something, even if they don’t know what they want until after they get there. Coming in for an outdoor dining set or a couple of Adirondack chairs and adding in a serving tray and maybe a few cushions adds to the bottom line.
The best in the outdoor category know that and have taken a page from successful indoor retailers like Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and West Elm by changing things around and making their stores look different enough (often enough) to get customers to keep coming back in. The idea is to change a trip to the store into an experience.
Bew White, president of Summer Classics, says that idea is key to his company’s success across its 15 Summer Classics Home locations. It starts when his in-house creative team comes up with visual looks that differentiate the store from other retailers.
“That can be as simple as paint or as elaborate as new flooring,” says White. “It can also be very unusual openings onto rooms or thick walls, along with merchandising in general and fabrics, drapes and pillows.”
White says that existing stores were renovated into a new Summer Classics look and then, as stores were added, the new look was incorporated into them. “We have Garden Party in Birmingham, Alabama, every summer, and we use this venue to experiment with different looks,” White says. “During that process and during the shows—the preview show in July and the September casual show—we come up with a plan on how we would like the stores to look. This includes accessories, floor changes, paint colors.”
He says that the store does a floor re-set three times a year, usually two major and one or two smaller re-sets, usually seasonal and with its own nickname: Fruit Basket Turnover.
“You have to stay fresh,” says White. “If you’re not reinventing yourself every three to four years, you’re going to get behind pretty quickly. A major re-do in each store of approximately $50,000 to $100,000 every four years is probably about the right time to reassess your floor and make the changes. Sometimes, you can wait a little longer, depending on the trend of furniture. But the market is moving swiftly from traditional to modern and you need to implement the modern ideas within the store and give it a fresh look.”
But looks aren’t everything.
“Ultimately, it’s about the product,” White says. “If the product doesn’t deliver what the retail experience does, it’s going to be difficult to make the whole thing work. Your product has to be in line with the quality of the store experience or even better. It’s great to have Restoration Hardware as a way to build customer comfort with higher-end products and not be afraid of luxury merchandise. It elevates all of us.”
“As always, in certain stores it worked better than others,” says White. “Some of our stores were up between 20% and 30% last year, so I guess you could say in those particular stores that it worked extremely well.”
One of the stores where it works is the Summer Classics Home location in Chicago. Owner and president Bruce Erickson says the idea is to attract customers frequently and each time they come, have something new for them to see.
“We are trying to create the environment here in the store with new and different things and try to inspire them to do different things,” Erickson says. “Accessories play a part; colors play a part. Another thing we do, especially in mass collections, is that we buy a collection that matches, but then we do a lot of mixing and matching within different collections. In your living room or family room, you don’t have all matching furniture. We create the idea in someone’s mind that you don’t have to match everything on your patio or deck, either.”
Erickson also says that he pays particular attention to accessories, from pillows and trays and the like, more so than you would see at a Restoration Hardware.
“We tend to put things on the tables, more pillows on the sofa, more art on the walls,” says Erickson. “We don’t want to copy them; we want to be unique but we take ideas from everybody and formulate our own.”
One thing that clearly doesn’t work is jamming in merchandise and hoping it will sell, as had been the case in other categories such as clothing in big-box department stores.
“That’s really from days gone by and the demise of some big department stores that are full of just stuff, all kinds of clothes, which really makes it hard to shop well,” says Erickson. “It’s not a fun place to shop and what has made some of the specialty stores in the clothing category survive where department stores are not doing that great is that they make it a fun place to shop, and people come back. That’s really the challenge.”
Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University’s School of Business, says it’s a challenge worth pursuing.
“Brick-and-mortar retailers are realizing that they have to offer more than a low price and more than product selection, because people can get both onlie,” Beahm says. “How do you differentiate yourself relative to Internet sales? You provide them with a unique experience that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Through upgrading and modernizing the store, retailers can turn shopping into more of a way that consumers can entertain themselves and less of an in-and-out errand that must be run.
“It’s no secret that impulse items are bypassed when you are online,” says Beahm. “You have a list and you shop your list. The idea of generating impulse purchases is something you can do with an in-store experience.”
Store innovations mean that new customers who hear about you come in for the first time—and returning customers develop more loyalty to your brand as they come back again and again.
Beahm says that some stores are using e-commerce as an additional path to the sale, by keeping inventory on hand that customers can pick up after making an order online; or by shrinking a showroom and using the remaining space as a warehouse from which items can be shipped quickly to online customers in the area.
“They realize they don’t need as much space, yet they still need to provide that space to people who want to come in,” says Beahm. “They can use it to support e-commerce and use it in the supply chain but not necessarily on the customer-facing side.”
Within the outdoor furniture category, the idea of customers coming in, trying it out and making a purchase is here to stay, as long as the retailer takes it seriously, White says.
“The brick-and-mortar model is going nowhere, especially in this product category,” he says. “I think you’re going to find more and more people swing back towards brick and mortar as they look for comfort and for a different type of experience in their purchases. I believe there’s a huge opportunity in retail right now, particularly in the outdoor category. A lot of people are playing around with the category, but they’re not serious and don’t have the floor space or the staff to introduce luxury products in the way it needs to be sold, in a compelling and educated atmosphere.”