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Business Boosters

Good retailing requires ongoing creativity, a strategic vision and a willingness to take a risk — just ask the following retailers. Each is boosting their business by taking a proven concept and making it their own.

Alfresco Casual Living

Color Outside the Lines

    Bright and colorful, Alfresco blurs the line between outdoors and indoors.

When Meg Brownson decided to open her own business four years ago, she knew she wanted to leverage the outdoor room concept but not limit herself to outdoor products.

The result is Alfresco Casual Living for Home and Garden in Stillwater, Minn. The 5,500-sq.-ft. warehouse space is filled with a mix of furniture, accessories, bedding, bed and bath items and children's toys.

"It's a real blurring of the line between indoors and outdoors," Brownson said.

In addition to teak sets from Kingsley-Bate, Brownson carries a range of furniture from Maine Cottage including its new outdoor vinyl wicker. Other crossovers include Tyndall Creek rockers suitable for both the porch and inside the home and such accessories as flower pots that look as good holding utensils in the kitchen as they do full of pansies in the garden.

Most striking about Brownson's store, however, is her use of color. From its periwinkle and apple green stripes to the buttercup and shrimp harlequin pattern and the dancing flowers in all colors of the rainbow, the space brightens the day of anyone who walks in.

"Color cheers you up," she said. "That was my whole concept for the store, especially after 9/11. The mood was so dark."

Her approach completely changed the feel of the building, which previously housed a high-end furniture store specializing in traditional styles. Although beautiful, the classic wood and upholstery products were dark. Alfresco's was such a change that many customers thought Brownson had added more windows.

"The furniture store's walls were actually white, but the dark furniture absorbed the light," she said. "It just shows how adding color to the walls can make a big difference."

Located on the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a destination site for people throughout the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. "It's a beautiful town," Brownson said. "Many of our regular customers often make it a day trip with their friends."

While Brownson offers a wide range of product, she doesn't just dabble. She believes in making a big splash for each supplier's wares. Nor will she hang on to a product if it no longer fits her vision. She recently stopped carrying a line of toys after finding it in Target and now carries toys from Haba, a German company that has been in the United States only three years.

   Splashes of color and deep ranges of products keep customers returning

Fruehauf's Plant and Garden Center

Bagel and Bar Set to Go

Nobody wants to lose a sale to an empty stomach, but how many specialty retailers really want to go into the restaurant business? Fruehauf's Plant and Garden Center, in Boulder, Colo., has come up with the perfect alternative.

This spring Mary Fruehauf, owner of the patio and garden shop, approached nearby Moe's Bagels and asked if it was interested in a win-win marketing arrangement. Fruehauf's would offer its customers an abbreviated version of the bagel company's menu, and Moe's would deliver the orders to the store.

"The orders are placed at our front desk and rung up on our cash register, and then the bagel company bills us," Fruehauf said. Customers pay what they would if ordering at Moe's, while Moe's gives Fruehauf's a volume discount, she said.

Fruehauf started thinking about serving food after creating a stamped concrete patio in front the store where she displays about 10 bistro sets. It was a perfect place for people to sit and relax. Although she considered such options as contracting with someone to bring in food, Fruehauf knew she wanted a simpler solution.

Not only was the arrangement with Moe's easy, it has proven itself time and again. "We had one family who ordered lunch and wanted to eat it at the table they were purchasing," Fruehauf said. "Their sale had been close to $15,000, but while they were eating they kept seeing other pieces they wanted — a couple of lamps, barware and other accessories."

By the time they were done, their order had grown by $7,000.

In this case, the customers even bought lunch for their salesperson, but many customers use lunch on the patio as a chance to talk privately about their considered purchases.

"I think people sometimes need a little bit of privacy," Fruehauf said. "Our patio gives them that without them having to leave the store."

Hungry customers aren't unusual at Fruehauf's. A destination store that draws from many mountain communities around the Boulder area, the business encourages people to come and spend the day.

"We really try to make this a fun place for families," Fruehauf said. "It's an environment with all kinds of different things going on."

Swim & Style

Name that Brand

 Casual furniture sales increased dramatically after Swim & Style adjusted its product mix and business branding.  

   Signage promotes the name new owners selected to clear up customers' confusion about two names. It also provides details of products and services customers can expect to find.

When Audrey and Harry Miller bought into the outdoor business two years ago, they ended up with a patio and pool business in Longwood, Fla., with two names: "Horizons Casual Furnishings" and "Swim and Stuff." The company had been in business for many years and was well established, but the Millers wanted aggressive growth. That, they believed, required honing their brand.

"It was confusing to have two names," Audrey Miller said. "Many of the people who came in to buy outdoor furniture referred to the store as 'Swim and Stuff' and that name was more prominent on the signage. But both sides of the business are pretty much equal and we didn't want to play favorites. So we decided to change the name to 'Swim and Style.'"

They launched the new name last year in conjunction with a refurbishing of the outside of the building that included new awnings, paint, sidewalks and landscaping. They also repainted the outdoor furniture showroom and adjusted their product mix. An extensive advertising campaign stressed the new name and the range of offerings rather than just specific product segments.

"It has worked out very well for us," Miller said. "Outdoor furniture is up by about 36% over last year."

Among the changes to the mix, the Millers dropped spas and added outdoor kitchens. They now are showing four large islands and plan on adding a couple more to their display in the coming months.

Key to their success with outdoor kitchens is the service they provide. In addition to design, construction and installation, they go to the customer's site beforehand to measure the area and produce a blueprint of sorts to ensure that everything will fit as planned.

The Millers were in the restaurant business before buying what would become Swim and Style. Having gone from about 175 employees to 13, they are enjoying their new industry.

"We're working fewer hours and have fewer headaches," Miller said.

The Teak Experience and Park Place

Location, Location

Change is good. Moving is a challenge. Put them together and you can end up with a strategic advantage. Such is the case with both The Teak Experience and Park Place.

Located in Bonita Springs, Fla., The Teak Experience doubled its showroom to about 2,300 square feet and gained much more visibility in December when it moved to a new location on U.S. Highway 41.

"The other location was very good for foot traffic, but this is more of a destination," said Marie Thomas who works in the family business owned by her daughter, Suzanne Thomas.

Suzanne Thomas opened The Teak Experience four years ago. Her sister, Christine, manages the business. Their father Richard is helping Suzanne pursue her plans to develop her own line of teak furniture.

In the meantime, the store carries teak from Alexander Rose, Barlow Tyrie, Botanic Teak, Les Jardins Au Bout De Monde, Trip Trap and Lanevenure.

Visibility wasn't the deciding factor for Park Place's upcoming move. It was more a matter of needing more room. The Washington, D.C. specialty dealer has been in one location for more than 20 years.

"We have been looking for a space we can expand into for quite a long time," said Phil Mitchell, co-owner. "We have also been looking for an opportunity that would be more of a year-round business. We needed to even out the year."

Finding affordable real estate within the District of Columbia has been a challenge, but earlier this year Park Place bought a movie theater just a few miles up the street that will double its floor space to about 12,000 square feet. The building is being renovated with a planned opening sometime this fall. In the meantime, Park Place is operating at a much-reduced level with a temporary showroom in its warehouse.

"We knew that going forward this season would be tough on us, but we still felt that long-term this is going to be a very viable operation," Mitchell said. "In addition to offering high-end outdoor furniture, we will also be offering interior products from Lane."

The new location places the store near a large retail center populated with Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, Tiffany, Gucci and other upscale stores.

"The location is really unbelievable," said Mitchell. "We are very excited."

Percy Guidry Hearth and Home

Designed to be Above Board

 Fireplace products for his clients attracted an interior designer into Percy Guidry Hearth & Home. Once inside, the designer negotiated outdoor furniture deals.  
   Keith Guidry liked the clear-cut arrangement a designer with celebrity clients proposed. He's confident it will bring in big-ticket sales.

Keith Guidry has seldom seen a designer program he liked. Until now, that is. The retail manager of Percy Guidry Hearth and Home, in Lafayette, La., recently entered into an agreement with a well-known designer whose client list includes the likes of Elton John.

The appeal for Guidry was the clear-cut arrangement. "The designer came into the store to buy fireplace products for his customers and in passing said, 'Keith, I would really entertain the idea of doing business through you but your salespeople said that you don't have a designer program,'" Guidry said. "I asked him want he would need and he said that he could go to any market and get 40% off of the MSRP. I said, 'That's what you want.' He said, 'That's what I get.'"

Guidry figured he could handle 40% because it would bring in business he otherwise wouldn't get. He also liked the fact that the designer would take care of the entire sale and selection process. The designer, in turn, liked the fact that Percy Guidry would receive, deliver and set up the outdoor furniture. Freight costs, they agreed, would be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

The clincher for Guidry was that the 40% discount was his only cost. The designer passes his savings along to his customers and makes his money by charging them for his time. As a result, there would be no whispered negotiations in front of the customer — something that had happened far too often in the past.

"Designers come in and starting whispering 'I'm working with this customer, how do you want to handle it, can I get a commission....' It's all of this under-the-table, back-handed stuff, and I don't like it," Guidry said. "If you're whispering about something, you probably aren't doing what you need to be doing."

While Guidry admits the fault has been partially the store's because it didn't have a clearly defined policy for working with designers, he doesn't believe very many designers will be interested in the terms he now has. Those who are will be welcomed to do business with him.

As yet, the agreement with the designer hasn't led to any sales, but Guidry is confident that it is only a matter of time and that it will be well worth the effort.

"These aren't $1,500 sales," Guidry said. "They are whole backyard sales averaging from $15,000 to $50,000. If he brings me 10 customers, it will increase my annual revenue by huge double digits, and I've got the feeling that he can do that."

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