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Owners and customers find satisfaction is guaranteed at Churchill's Fireside and Patio

Though Churchill's Fireside and Patio is a smaller specialty store, totaling 3,000 square feet, owners Dorothy and Ray Duhon have had big success with the store that has been part of their lives for the past 18 years. In fact, Dorothy named the store after her San Antonio high school.

 The Duhons love their location —situated between a pet store and dry cleaners.

 The Duhons love their location —situated between a pet store and dry cleaners.

"We are unique because of our longevity," she said. "We've had the same employees here, including Ray and I, since the beginning."

The Duhons, who were married at the start of Churchill's and have since divorced, made the switch from managers to owners four years ago, and have steadily increased sales every year, making it to the $1 million mark in 2006.

Housed in a strip mall in Westlake Hills, an upscale suburb in southwest Austin where the median income is well over $100,000 and the median house value is more than $330,000, Churchill's retail neighbors include a pet store, dry cleaners and Starbucks, a location Duhon appreciates. "People always have dirty clothes and pets," Dorothy said with a laugh.

The store concentrates on a product mix of hearth and casual furniture. Grills used to be a part of the product offering, but the Duhons decided to drop the category because they weren't making any profit.

"We decided to get out because of the margins and who was carrying them," Dorothy said. "We're too small; we don't have our own trucks. And it didn't hurt us a bit."

During the winter, the showroom floor displays actual wood-burning fireplaces, along with vented gas logs, screens, toolsets, glass doors and other hearth-related products, with some patio furniture. Between March and August, the display flip-flops to showcase the casual furniture, organized by vendor or color to keep the experience "shopper-friendly." Outdoor lamps from Shady Lady, Couristan rugs, WeatherPrint art from Open Air Designs, KNF Designs' mosaic tables and Galtech umbrellas round out the accessory category, something a little new to Churchill's. Dorothy attended the Dallas Gift Show for the first time last winter to expand the category. Other trade shows the Duhons attend include the Casual Market and the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo.

During the warmer months, Churchill 

 During the warmer months, Churchill's showroom undergoes a swap, where casual furniture takes the main stage and replaces hearth products and accessories.

"I wanted to add dressing to the upper end products, like accessorizing tables," she said. "I try and do fun things with the accessories, try and have some little gadgets that are not always very expensive."

Because of Churchill's product mix, there is a balance of men and women shoppers, usually between the ages of 35 and 65, with incomes upward of $100,000. "We basically furnished a whole street, where each house was bigger than the next," Duhon said. "It doesn't surprise me if a customer has six or seven fireplaces.

"My customer is pretty much upper-end," she continued. "If they want the lower end, I can't handle it. We focus on quality, and if they are focusing on price, I'll send them someplace else. A customer will not object if they feel comfortable knowing why (a product) is at a higher price point."

Top three vendors at the store include American Gas Logs, Summer Classics and Dagan. Other vendors on the floor include Winston, Stoll, Design Specialties, Portland Willamette, Golden Blount, Uniflame, Pilgrim, Electriflame, Adams, Cast Classics, Mallin, Telescope and Casual Creations.

The Duhons focus on newspaper advertising, especially since their local paper offered them an option to purchase space every Saturday on page A2 — the inside of the front page — and the business partners have had tremendous success.

"The first Saturday we did four times the business we did the last year, and the same thing happened the following Saturday," Dorothy said. "Newspaper has always been good to us."

Churchill's doesn't hold sales regularly. Besides doing clearance sales for hearth products at the end of a season or clearing out a product that may not be moving, Dorothy said they tend to keep the patio furniture at the manufacturer's price.

Asked if she and Ray have ever had any challenges or wishes to expand in the future, Dorothy said they learned from the previous owners what works and what doesn't.

"If anything, it was not purchasing space next to us so we could be bigger," she said. "We want to stay the same size, just the two of us. If space on either side of the store was available, we might do that. I've been in the retail business so long and have seen retailers that expanded and it killed them. I'm very satisfied."


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