Apenberry's sees opportunity in down economy
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, July 1, 2009
Eric and Lisa Apen have a knack for defying economic downturns. Not long after they first opened Apenberry's, a high-end outdoor living store in central Florida, they survived the bursting of the Internet bubble. Now, they're enduring the real estate bust in a city where the median house price fell 65% from February 2008 to February 2009.
"We do see that we're down to a core customer," Eric said. "It's not as broad as it once was. But that's what we're all about anyway, so it doesn't bother us. We're really excited by the opportunity to get to know that customer better and really figure out where our sales do come from."
Apen said the store's overhead and cost structure are fine for the level of sales it has so far this year, so he and Lisa have been spared from having to do serious markdowns. He says last winter he saw a "sharks in the water" phenomenon, in which consumers came in looking for deep discounts. But by March, he saw a swell of support, not only for Apenberry's but for other local businesses, as well.
Whether that support translates into sales is another matter, but Apen says he's content to use 2009 as a retrenching year. The couple is in the midst of consolidating and sharpening their vision for the business.
They opened their original 1,700-sq.-ft. shop in Winter Park, just north of Orlando, in 1995. They moved to a larger space in the town's main shopping district in 2001, and two years later bought their current location, a nursery in downtown Orlando's College Park neighborhood that had been around for more than three decades.
"The two businesses were very symbiotic," said Apen, who knew the nursery well as a College Park resident. "We used to refer people back and forth. We didn't do the full complement of plants like they did, and they certainly didn't do anywhere near a complement of the garden accessories like we did. It just made sense."
But efforts to achieve synergy between the two stores didn't work, and last August the Apens closed their Winter Park store.
"We needed to bring the brand into focus for our customers," Apen said. "This store is getting there, and with the new building we'll finish that vision."
Apen was referring to a 4,500-sq.-ft. greenhouse showroom that will run almost the length of the lot behind the current store. The couple plans to fill it with cross-merchandised displays of casual furniture and plants.
"Our vision was to have one location where we could show all the products together," Apen said. "We wanted to be able to work with a customer who has a clean palette and do absolutely everything with them — the plant material, the pots, the fountain, the furniture. Anything and everything they would need for the outside."
For now, however, construction plans are in limbo until the economy rebounds. Original plans had the greenhouse being ready when the business consolidated last summer. Now, Apen says they're aiming for 2010.
In the meantime, the Apens will continue to distance themselves from the competition by offering customers a relatively unique combination of plants and outdoor furniture and accessories from companies including Gensun Casual Living and Brown Jordan. But Apen said that's not the store's main differentiation point.
"We've tried to represent the word 'authentic,'" Apen said. "It's not in the signage or the marketing or the packaging. It's all those things to some degree, but it's really the depth in knowledge we have."
That know-how encompasses the way they dress. Wearing khaki shirts and olive drab cargo pants or shorts, staff members certainly look like authorities on all things garden. They are. It's not uncommon for a customer to come in and spend 15 to 30 minutes with a staff member discussing certain plants and gardening techniques.
That kind of knowledge is even more necessary to sell outdoor furniture, Apen added.
"When you're at the price points we're at, people have to have some assurances they're getting an aesthetic look they want," he said. "But of course there are also a lot of really technical details they're concerned about. It may be as simple as a spousal thing, where the one is very concerned about the look of it but for that kind of money the other is very concerned about the functionality of it."
The Apenberry's staff must reconcile both.
"That's where the store presentation is so key," he said. "The credibility from the aesthetics comes from creating their ideal vision of what they want in the back yard here at the store. Then they say, 'Wow, if they can do it to that level of design, they must know what they're talking about. It's not just made up.'"
Having the same people who created the displays help customers creates the perception of authenticity.
"We don't have a separate merchandising team," Apen said. "Our salespeople are the ones who ordered that combination of fabrics and put those chairs together with maybe a nontraditional stone table. To me, that's really credible to the customer."
And that's how Apenberry's is hanging in there when other small businesses aren't. Apen admits to being a little nervous early on in his main selling season, which runs roughly from Valentine's Day to Mother's Day. Traffic peaked a little late thanks to unseasonably cool weather in late February. But he and his wife handled it like anything else they've faced with their business. It was just another challenge they were determined to overcome.
"Any captain can sail a ship when the seas are smooth, it's when the water is rough that he proves himself," Apen said. "We feel the same way. A lot of businesses survived and were successful on that rising tide theory, and now that business is falling it's really going to separate the market. This is a learning year for us for sure."