Sun Country Leisure
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, May 9, 2011
FROM THE COUNTER IN THE BACK OF HIS STORE, ANDY PAUL WATCHES HIS CUSTOMERS CAREFULLY. The owner of Sun Country Leisure Products in St. Catharines, Ontario, notices where they go first and how long they linger in certain sections. He remembers their questions and their reactions to prices.
Paul processes all this information and makes adjustments. Paul learned long ago that he couldn't sell just high-end furniture and grills. And after watching and interacting with customers in the last three years, he learned to narrow his range of price points even further.
"This is a blue-collar community," Paul said of St. Catharines, which lies about 30 miles northwest of Buffalo near the shore of Lake Ontario. "Our economy grew on the back of General Motors and other manufacturing here that, with the recession, have had a tough go of it."
So like many other casual furniture stores across Canada and the United States, Paul took a more conservative buying tact, focusing on core products and avoiding fl ashier lines that may or may not sell in his store.
"I think the economy here is bouncing back," he said, "but there are still a lot of people who are unemployed."
Paul certainly isn't trying to go toe-to-toe with the mass merchants. The store sells Lloyd/Flanders, Telescope Casual and other high-quality specialty brands. And grill sales increased in 2010, Paul said, thanks in part to the fact that he sells only brands made in North America.
"That's important to us and to our customers," Paul said. "We know we can get parts and service if we need it."
Sun Country sells Broil King, Weber and Napoleon grills, lining them up on about a third of the floor space. Half are gas grills and the other half is divided between portables and charcoal.
"We have seen a resurgence in charcoal cooking," Paul said. "Cooking a meal outdoors can be an event where people gather around the grill and smell the smells. Gas barbecues are still our bread-and-butter, but people seem to get more excited about barbecuing on charcoal."
Paul said it's usually not an either/or decision for his customers. Many will buy gas grills for convenience cooking during the week, then buy a charcoal grill for more leisurely grilling on the weekends.
His full-time staff of six includes his wife, Debi, his son, Mike, and Mike's wife, Janine. To keep the staff sharp, Paul sends them to manufacturer training and includes them in in-store demonstrations. "Staff lunches are also oft en cooked on one of our barbecues," he said.
Product and service have helped make Sun Country a grill destination, Paul said. Mass-merchant stores are a bigger threat to that part of the business than to furniture sales. If not for the store's longevity, he said, business would be a lot tougher today.
Andy Paul, left, and his son Mike share the same instincts for watching and responding to their customers’ shopping habits.
Paul's father, Leonard, opened Sun Country in the tiny Ontario town of Wainfleet in 1963. Like so many other pioneers in the casual business, Leonard started out selling a product he made himself, in this case, cedar lawn furniture.
Paul, meanwhile, grew up planning to do something else. After graduating from college, he took a job with Kodak in Toronto. Big-city life and corporate culture didn't agree with him.
"I guess I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit," Paul said. "I enjoy having some control over what I do with my life."
Paul returned home in 1984 to help his father. Until that time, Leonard was also wholesaling his furniture. Paul, paying close attention to the shopping and buying behavior of the store's early customers, convinced his father that the business could do better solely as a retail operation. Sun Country quickly evolved into a full-line casual furniture store.
In 2002, Paul expanded to the store's current location to be closer to the center of the region's population. The building happened to house another casual store, so the transition was nearly seamless. In 2006, he closed the Wainfleet store and concentrated the business in St. Catharines.
"Despite the economy, this is still a good community to do business in," Paul said. "People here have been fairly loyal to our company. I think the fact we've been around for 47 years and this particular store has been selling patio furniture for so long creates a sense of permanence. People know they can trust us."
Casual furniture and accessories displays were shifted to the right of the store’s entrance, an area that draws customer traffi c fl ow.
This season, the store has a fresh new look thanks mostly to something Paul noticed last season. Customers, he said, instinctively veered right at the front door and walked to the grill section, where the ceilings also happened to be higher.
In December, he and the family and staff installed wood-laminate flooring to lighten up the space. They also flipped the grill and furniture displays. Now, customers who go right at the door will head into the furniture section.
Paul said he doesn't think grill sales will suffer since those customers tend to be destination shoppers. Whether the move stimulates furniture sales is anyone's guess, Paul said. He does, however, have a knack for getting these things right.
Several years ago, he noticed customers who ventured downstairs to the store's vast basement level were oft en left alone there to browse the dining and chat sets. They'd oft en come back up and leave the store. So, Paul began hanging out down there.
"It's amazing how many sales you can make just by being nearby to answer questions," he said.
Now, Paul is watching his son exhibit those same instincts. Mike has been around the family business all his life and, after earning a master's degree in business administration, didn't hesitate to come back home to put his education to use at Sun Country.
"Mike is definitely in it for the long haul," his father said. Mike created a website for the store and is exploring social media as a possible marketing avenue. He is also in the midst of streamlining the back-end operations of the business to find more efficiencies.
The succession plan is in place, and some day Mike and Janine will take over for Paul and Debi. Until then, Paul will be there at the counter watching his customers carefully so he can continue to adapt and meet their needs.
Grill sales increased last year at Sun Country, where gas grills share the fl oor space with charcoal and portable options. A full range of grill accessories are displayed nearby.