Cecile Corral -- Casual Living, April 20, 2012
Carl and Mary LaManto embrace the tropical lifestyle.
"If we had a crystal ball we might not have done it then, but despite the economy, it has been a really good move for us," said Mary LaManto.
Relocating was one of a handful of pivotal decisions the LaMantos made after purchasing Sunshine Wicker in 2005 that have expanded both the company's customer base and the very essence of the business itself.
While still a regional destination site for wicker - its focus since its launch in 1981 - today Sunshine Wicker is positioned as a casual furniture store that is known as much for its outdoor furniture as for its indoor offerings.
The style remains tropical, but upholstery has been added to the indoor mix. Those wanting options to outdoor wicker can now view tubular aluminum in the showroom as well as have special-order access to cast aluminum, teak and other materials.
"We're evolving toward ‘soup to nuts' and will always be looking for that something extra for our customers," LaManto said.
SELLING WHAT THEY LOVE
The LaMantos bought Sunshine Wicker and Design from Ray LeFebvre, who started the company by selling wicker baskets out of the back of his truck.
LeFebvre was a childhood friend of Carl's. Not only had the friends stayed in touch, the LaMantos were also loyal customers and had purchased both indoor and outdoor furniture from LeFebvre.
Soup to nuts styling and merchandising translate into sales.
"We have Whitecraft 's Giardino in our backyard, which I still love," LaManto said.
LeFebvre started considering retirement about the time the LaMantos were ready to move on from the graphic arts business Mary started in the mid-1990s. Despite a lack of retail experience, they jumped at the chance to enter the furniture industry.
"I'm a fast learner so none of it scared me," she said. "Also, coming from a service business, it was easy to keep that up."
LeFebvre stayed with the company for about a year while Carl and Mary learned the ropes. Carl's brother, Joe, also joined the company early on and continues to manage back of-the-house operations.
One of Mary's first priorities was adding more accessories to dress up the showroom, creating an inviting, warm environment that quickly translated into increased sales. That emphasis continues and earned Sunshine Wicker and Design the 2010 Casual Living Merchandising Award for best use of accessories in a single store.
Another priority for the couple was to make a deeper commitment to outdoor furniture. That side of the business now accounts for nearly half of their furniture sales, due in large part they believe to the increasing confidence their customers have in outdoor woven products.
"People are more comfortable with it than ever before because they know it will last in the Florida environment," she said. "It is also showing up a lot more in the magazines, and the more people see it, the more they think they want it."
The LaMantos added tubular aluminum last year because their customers were looking for smaller scale pieces at lower price points.
Mary estimates that about 30% of their customers are snowbirds with permanent residences in the area. Overall they are well educated about the categories and seek out Sunshine Wicker and Design specifically for its tropical specialization. Mary exaggerates that there isn't a solid cushion in the store.
"The tropical look has become our bread-and-butter so design, quality and color are all important to us," she said. "We love being able to offer people hundreds of different fabrics and colors."
Sunshine Wicker and Design's tropical focus is also a draw for its Caribbean customers. Much of this business is done at a distance, leveraging Mary's graphic design skills, email and phone calls.
"We provide as much or as little service as they need and want," she said. "I can design their whole home or just a space layout on the computer. We are very flexible with our Caribbean customers and make it very, very easy for them to shop with us."
That flexibility includes holding orders in their attached warehouse to accommodate fluid home construction schedules.
"It's all about communication," she said.
PENT UP DEMAND
While Sunshine Wicker and Design's Caribbean business dropped along with its other categories during the recession, the LaMantos report a notable increase in all aspects of the business this season.
"There's a feeling here in south Florida that our housing market has hit bottom, so people are jumping at the opportunity to pick up properties at what they think will be the lowest price, and then they come in and shop," Mary said.
She is also seeing increased interest from condo associations and other contract customers that she ascribes to pent-up demand more than seasonal sales.
"It used to be that we would know what to expect or count on depen
Bold color, dramatic accessories and sea- and sun-inspired vignettes defi ne the store’s fl oor plan
LaManto credits the new location, the level of service and specialization, as well as the company's longevity with keeping Sunshine Wicker and Design healthy over the past few years.
To celebrate Sunshine Wicker and Design's 30th anniversary, the couple offered a series of "thank you sales," which Mary believes were more meaningful to their widespread customer base than a big one-time event.
As they look forward to even more success, the La-Mantos have no regrets about their leap into retail.
"Carl and I are very straightforward," Mary said. "We put as much as we can into what we are doing and back it up. Our biggest challenge is doing this every day, but it is a challenge in a good way. We're happy to be here."