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At Inside-Out, cutting-edge sophistication drives success

It's that time of year again. When sugar plums dance, sleigh bells jingle and customers call Inside-Out Home Furnishings to ask if they can have their family photos taken in front of one of the many decorated Christmas trees on display in the showroom.

And no wonder. The 14 designer trees offer themes for every taste, in colors ranging from traditional reds and golds to the latest in hot pinks and lime greens. Displayed throughout the showroom, each tree appears among the seating groups and vignettes just as if it were in a customer's home. Fresh-baked cookies and hot cider complete the homey holiday atmosphere.

"Christmas at Inside-Out has become a Nashville tradition," said Paulette Stroupe, owner of the Brentwood, Tenn.-based store with her husband, Jerry, and their daughter, Keely Anderson. "Every year we have customers tell us that it wouldn't be Christmas without a visit to the store. They'll even bring in their out-of-town guests."

Inside-Out has been doing Christmas for 17 years. As with other outdoor furniture specialty dealers, the Stroupes added the category as a counter-seasonal balance. But unlike most other dealers, Inside-Out also carries interior furnishings year-round.

Paulette's vision when the store opened in 1984 was to create a destination boutique where high-end consumers could find the best quality and latest styles in both outdoor and indoor furnishings. Her instinct was right on. Inside-Out was immediately successful, so much so that it produced the Stroupes' projected revenue for the entire year in the first three months. "We didn't have any idea that we would grow so fast," Jerry said.

Their first showroom expansion came about a year after they opened. Inside-Out shared a building with a quick print company. When the print shop went out of business, the Stroupes took over the entire place. Other expansions included the addition of a sunroom and a larger outside display area after renovation of the parking lot.

Today, Inside-Out consists of a 5,500-sq.-ft. showroom and about 4,500 square feet of display area outdoors, 60% of which is covered.

 This vignette features one of 14 designer Christmas trees Inside-Out is known for.  

   Keely Anderson works alongside her parents, Jerry and Paulette Stroupe.

Fashion first

The Stroupes can point to several factors leading to the rapid success of Inside-Out, but Jerry says the real key is Paulette's and Keely's sophisticated taste.

"Both of my partners have a flair for color and accessorizing the lines, and I think that's what makes it work," he said.

Outdoor furniture has always been displayed with the same care as the indoor furniture. Everything is merchandised with artwork, lighting, throw pillows and decorative accessories — whatever it takes to set it off to help customers imagine it in their own homes and back yards.

As soon as the Stroupes select their outdoor product, a decision that all three take part in, Paulette and Keely get fabric samples from the manufacturers so they can buy specific accessories for selected collections. Such attention to detail ensures all of the products are shown to their best advantage. And in fact, their customers aren't the only ones who have been impressed by the results.

"When the national sales manager of one of our major accessories lines saw how we incorporated looks from several of their collections with the Laneventure groups we had on the floor last year, she took pictures so she could show her corporate office how they could use their different collections together," Keely said.

Fashion sense is a must for catering to Inside-Out's customer base. Among the high-end group are many of Nashville's social elite, from nationally prominent business executives to country music stars and other entertainers to the Tennessee Titans coaching staff and team.

"Most of them have at least one other home in another part of the country, so we usually furnish those for them as well," Jerry said.

These customers develop their expectations by traveling the world. Still, they need help in putting it all together, and that requires the right salesperson.

"Our salespeople ask questions and listen to our customers so they can guide them in creating the outdoor lifestyle they picture," Keely said.

To stay on the cutting edge, Paulette and Keely look to women's fashion knowing whatever is hot there will eventually be translated to furniture and home accessories — these days, sooner rather than later. They brought in lime green Christmas ornaments, for example, three years ago, and the past two years, sold out by Thanksgiving.

Of course, when you're on the cutting edge, there is always the risk of being too far ahead of the curve. Inside-Out carried double chaises five or six years ago and bombed. Now, double chaises are selling big time. Despite the occasional dud, the Stroupes prefer leading the trends over following them.

"Sometimes we get too far out, but I think it's important to stay there," Jerry said.

 Jerry credits the store's success to the sophisticated taste of his wife and daughter.  

Family solidarity

Given that being on the cutting edge requires innovative products, Inside-Out expects the same from its manufacturers that its customers expect from the store: exceptional quality, style and customer service.

The Stroupes are pleased with the manufacturers who have listened to retailers like themselves and their customers.

"The industry is recognizing that if it doesn't change, the business will go to the big boxes," Jerry said. "The major manufacturers are addressing that and I congratulate them."

Still, indoor furniture sales are growing much faster than outdoor at Inside-Out.

"It is occurring throughout the country because of the incredible competition from the big box stores," he said. "They are very smart with merchandising and they've upgraded their looks, and some customers just want to put something on their decks."

At the same time, indoor furniture sales are getting a boost.

"The indoor manufacturers are giving us incredible designs and comfort right now," Jerry said. "In addition, all of the indoor wicker resources are now addressing the outdoor market, and as a result, they are growing tremendously."

Christmas is another big growth area for Inside-Out. The Stroupes began displaying decorated trees throughout the store a few years ago rather than having everything concentrated in a holiday department at the recommendation of Jim Marvin, the celebrated designer who does holiday displays for the White House as well as for prominent hotels and department stores. In addition to selling some of decorated trees off the floor, Keely also custom-designs trees for customers.

For those who want to do the decorating themselves, Inside-Out offers the Christmas Tree Farm with as many as 56 artificial trees on display. Many of them are exclusive.

"We've been able to do our own designs — specifying color, number of lights and shape — for the last five years, and this year we are fortunate enough to be able to have our logo on all of the boxes," Jerry said.

   Keely can custom-design Christmas trees for customers, but the store also provides a Christmas Tree Farm, with many on display for purchase.

The holiday season draws many of Inside-Out's customers in just to visit, giving the Stroupes an opportunity to re-establish relationships and give customers a peek at what to expect in the coming season. To make it easy for them to get excited, Keely creates boards with product shots and fabric samples of the new collections.

"Our daughter has brought so much to this operation," Jerry said. "It's fun to have someone like her come into the organization and grow as much as she has. I think as parent, your goal is to be a mentor so that your children grow beyond you, and Paulette has done an incredible job in doing that."

With two decades in the business behind them, Paulette and Jerry are excited about the future.

"A couple of years ago, we had a manufacturer ask us if we were going to stay in the outdoor business, and I told him that I was probably more excited about it now than when we opened," Jerry said.

"As the industry changes, you have to change with it, whether it is cast which has now peaked or wrought iron which is coming back because the manufacturers are addressing deep seating or whatever. The people who are addressing what is going on in the marketplace are the ones who will be successful, and we want to be part of that."

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