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Casual Marketplace: Living the future they planned

 Harold and Petey Fleischut work together to nurture Casual Marketplace

 Harold and Petey Fleischut work together to nurture Casual Marketplace's growth.

Ten years after attending her first Casual Furniture Retailers Association Forum, Petey Fleischut returned from the February 2006 event feeling more energized, more positive and better informed than ever about how to move her business forward — which is saying a lot.

If anybody embodies the passion of the casual furniture industry, it's Petey Fleischut. As owner of Casual Marketplace with her husband Harold and as current president of CFR, Petey has been an industry advocate since 1996 when she opened her store in Hockessin, Del.

"My passion and drive come from my love of this industry," she said. "There is nothing else I want to be doing."

Her attitude is contagious and a big part of why Casual Marketplace has won two Apollo Awards. The first came in 1999 in the single store category. The Fleischuts won a second Apollo in 2005, this time in the multiple store category, two years after opening their Lewes, Del., showroom.

"We've tried to create a specialty store through a well-trained staff and a diversity of product that gives our customers the very best selection from the strongest manufacturers in the industry," she said.

A dynamic mix

 Casual Marketplace displays an average of 20 electric fireplaces and parlor stoves in its showrooms through a partnership with hearth manufacturer Dimplex.

 Casual Marketplace displays an average of 20 electric fireplaces and parlor stoves in its showrooms through a partnership with hearth manufacturer Dimplex.

Casual Marketplace always carried a mix of outdoor and indoor casual furniture, but the ratio evolved over the years as outdoor living grew in importance. Today the 13,000-sq.-ft. Hockessin showroom is 60% outdoor and 40% indoor product. At the Lewes location, nearly 4,000 square feet of outdoor display area complements a 6,000-sq.-ft. showroom, so the ratio is about 70:30.

Given the surge in deep seating, outdoor seating is given a room of its own at the Hockessin store. "Our other casual outdoor product is shown by manufacturer, but outdoor seating is shown by category," Petey said. "We dedicate a tremendous amount of space to it."

Petey's merchandising talent is apparent throughout. "It is a continual process and your showroom must be reworked daily" Petey said.

The showrooms' comfortable yet sophisticated ambience reflects her personal taste and knowledge of her customer base. Many customers have designers who accompany them when they shop Casual Marketplace. For those who don't, the staff will visit homes to help customers plan outdoor living areas.

"We feel confident we offer the very best and largest selection of what the industry has to offer," Petey said. "We can help our customers with whatever they need for the relaxation and enjoyment of their homes."

 Outdoor seating is always shown by category at Casual Marketplace. The showrooms are tweaked daily into stylish vignettes.

 Outdoor seating is always shown by category at Casual Marketplace. The showrooms are tweaked daily into stylish vignettes.

That includes indoor casual furniture. Casual Marketplace offers a complete selection of indoor wicker and rattan, enhanced with a special order program in upholstery and slipcovers.

Two other important categories for the business are hearth and Christmas.

Christmas begins the day after the Fleischuts return from the Casual Market in September. "Our Christmas business is large but very different than most other specialty dealers' in that it caters to making a customer's home special for the holidays," Petey said. "We are more focused on home decorating than novelty Christmas."

Floral designers on staff will go on-site and decorate customers' homes. Staff also will set up Christmas trees of present and past customers, and take care of any service issues with the prelit product.

The company's hearth category revolves around its partnership with Dimplex. Year-round, they display an average of 15 electric fireplaces and parlor stoves in the Hockessin showroom and 20–25 units in Lewes. Under Harold's direction, the hearth category also became a successful contract venture, marketed via direct mailings to legal offices, retirement communities and medical facilities.

"We consider it to be just as major as a line from our outdoor furniture manufacturers," Harold said.

Joining forces

 The Delaware store now offers a complete selection of indoor and outdoor wicker and rattan, enhanced by a special order program in upholstery and slipcovers.

 The Delaware store now offers a complete selection of indoor and outdoor wicker and rattan, enhanced by a special order program in upholstery and slipcovers.

Partnerships are at the core of Casual Marketplace's success, beginning with the partnership between Petey and Harold. His decision to become more involved in the day-to-day management of the business sparked the addition of the second location.

"Harold has always handled the financial part of the business, but he was in the background until he retired from his other career after 35 years," Petey said. "After he elected to become much more involved, the opportunity for the other location came up and for the first time I felt like I could do it."

Their partnership with employees is also vital. While everyone is treated like family, there is a strong emphasis on training and professionalism.

"To meet customers' needs, you have to not only offer them great product and great service, you also have to elevate the value of everything you offer by the way you do business," she said. "We have a very mature selling staff, so customers come into a mature setting where we take responsibility for what we offer."

The partnership with suppliers is the third leg supporting Casual Marketplace's success. Petey's approach is direct. In meeting with a new potential supplier, she lays it on the line.

"I will represent them, protect them, be honest with them and never be less than what is expected," she said. But she expects just as much support in return. And while she has wonderful things to say about specific suppliers, she also has a few bones of contention. For example, with Internet sales.

Although cameras are not allowed in Casual Marketplace, the staff continues to be challenged by an influx of consumers who either shop the showroom and then buy online, or shop online and then ask Casual Marketplace to meet the price.

"We will not meet the price, nor will we service what they buy online; we make that very clear," she said. "There are manufacturers who have made the tough decision to eliminate Internet business and I consider those people my partners. Others in our industry say they are trying but don't seem to be trying hard enough. They seem willing to accept the business regardless of where it comes from."

Another challenge comes from mass merchants. "I think the mass merchant and big box business is more detrimental to our business today than ever, and unless you combat it through buying, merchandising and sales training, you are going to be hurt more than you know," Petey said.

After years of refusing to participate in direct imports, Petey began selective container buying a few years ago as part of her strategy for competing against the mass merchants.

"With a few of my manufacturers, container buying is the only way to purchase their goods but in most cases it is absolutely not the way for me to be profitable and successful in selling their product," she said.

The biggest pitfalls she experienced were the costs of warehousing products and the money required up-front.

"Unless you can sell the product in a very timely manner, there is no advantage to the business," she said. "The only manufacturers I will now consider doing container business with are U.S. manufacturers that I have an established relationship with and that I know going forward will support me from beginning to end."

Specialty retailers can't be everything to everybody, but Casual Marketplace stays in touch with customers via e-mail and occesionally offers special sales for those on the list.

One of the biggest ways the Fleischuts plan for success in the future is by living passionately in the present. They not only love what they do every day, they love how they do it.

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