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Laurie Rudd

11 retail tips for 2011

AS ANOTHER year begins with questions ranging from consumer confidence to product trends and world economics to weather, this may be the perfect time to share the collective insight that exists within our ranks.
     Whether a long-standing industry icon or a newcomer to the retailing game, all who toil in the casual trenches daily have experiences and tips worth sharing.

TIP 1 - Plan ahead
     "Make sure you are thinking months in advance from an inventory point of view," said Chad Scheinerman, CEO of Today's Patio, Scottsdale, Ariz. "It's all too common for us to not pay close attention and then realize our busy season is approaching only to find our containers/orders are taking two to four months to get in."
     Planning in a world of short windows of opportunity and casual seasonality is crucial. For Scheinerman, a computer software system helps with his planning process. "It gives reports that show sales rates on virtually any product within any date range we select," Scheinerman said. However, he notes that with annual and seasonal variations, the software has limitations. "There are many factors that can change, such as trends or tastes," he said. "The software at least gives some guidance versus shooting in the dark."

TIP 2 - Fresh is best
     Because Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Laacke & Joys has found average customers shop its stores three-to-four times before making a casual furniture purchase, enticing these shoppers by keeping displays fresh is its top tip.
     "By re-merchandising each of our casual furniture selling floors a minimum of four times in-season, it gives the customer the feeling they are seeing something new and fresh, and can regenerate their enthusiasm for shopping Laacke & Joys," said Mary Mann, vice president, purchasing. No matter the size of the display space, freshening things up should be a priority.
     "Moving furniture around, continuously changing not only the location, but the fabrics and the mix within the pieces on display, is important," said Eric Brenner, owner of AthenTeak Outdoor Furniture, Atlanta, Ga. "If a collection has been historically a good one for us, we continue to display it, but with new items, fabrics and accessories."
     The ability to keep displays updated, repositioned and reappointed further sets the high quality casual retailers apart from the stale, preplanned product placement found in most big box retailers.

TIP 3 - Buy reputation
     "As a high-end furniture retailer, set your business up with reputable manufacturers that offer quality products, quick shipping on both furniture and cushions, and an ability to take care of warranty claims in a reasonable period of time," said Tommy Stallings, owner of Madison Fireplace and Patio, Madison, Miss. "There actually are still companies that do these things." This is sound advice for any businessperson, and years of vendor experience is not necessarily required to discover the lines with quality reputations. The tip is to not settle for less.

TIP 4 - Market brand
     Capitalizing on brands in marketing is a tip Jim Van Norman, general manager of Rich's for the Home, Lynnwood, Wash., offers. Van Norman credits his company's tremendous growth during the 2010 season to utilizing the single advertising medium of television and incorporating brand marketing messages.
     "In 2010, Rich's for the Home experienced significant growth due in part to our ‘branding' advertising run between ‘sale' advertising," Van Norman said. Branding separates the quality products a retailer carries from lesser items carried elsewhere. As a product's reputation or brand was an important factor in its selection by the retailer, the same is true for consumers when sifting through product choices available.

TIP 5 - Keep employees happy
     If you have great people, doing what it takes to keep them happy is a tip worth taking. "Nothing is worse than having bad morale in the workplace," Scheinerman said. "The customers can read and feel the vibe."
     Keeping employees happy begins with training, according to Scheinerman. When employees are empowered with product knowledge, a sense of personal satisfaction and involvement is realized and confidence and a positive outlook are the results. For Today's Patio, a successful combination is the use of manufacturer representatives and veteran employees to assist with product and sales knowledge along with ownership leading by example. "At the end of the day, if it weren't for them, we wouldn't be where we are today," Scheinerman said.

TIP 6 - Mix it up
     "Higher style merchandising includes a mix of collections, materials, fabrics and accessories within one single vignette," Brenner said. "Taking cues from inside the house, the sofa and the coffee table are not of the same materials. Why shouldn't it be like that in their outdoor space?" To create a successful display, purchase accessories with specific furniture fabric colorations and styling in mind, he said.
     "Mixing in big-margin categories such as umbrellas and cushions can help to give an instant makeover to any furniture group," Mann said. "We use other add-on categories such as lighting, floor coverings and home décor to help the customer personalize their purchase to match the style of their outdoor living space."

TIP 7 - Show up
     Taking advantage of what regional and national trade shows have to offer throughout the year is a tip followed by retailers, whether small or large. Although the economy has forced some retailers to limit show attendance during the past few years, this has resulted in greater emphasis being placed on capitalizing on the information and experiences.
     Keith Guidry, owner of Percy Guidry Hearth and Patio in Lafayette, La., said he has benefited from his experience attending trade shows over the past 20 years. "The new product knowledge is a given, but I also enjoy the community that comes together at shows," he said. "I feel you get out of it what you put in, and in round-table sessions I have found that getting to openly communicate with other retailers has benefits. We can all learn from each other's experiences."

TIP 8 - Teach by comparison
     "A successful training idea we have used is actually purchasing lower-quality products from our competitors and have our salespeople compare the items to the products we sell and discuss the differences," said Mary Fruehauf, owner, Fruehauf's Patio & Garden in Boulder, Colo.
     Exposing the competitive products to the elements provides an additional visual tool. "We have seen poor quality chairs actually fall apart in just a few days. It helps the salespeople to feel confident about the products we sell," Fruehauf said. "The knowledge comparison and examples also come in handy when a customer claims they can find a similar product elsewhere for less."

TIP 9 - Partner to promote
     Creating ways to stretch marketing dollars is always a good tip, especially in challenging times. Guidry, finds partnering with charities on functions such as golf tournaments results in exposure within a desirable target group and also generates a great deal of community good will. "We sponsor charity golf tournaments that target patrons that are also our customers," Guidry said. "Although men are not our normal buyer, getting our name in front of these people is powerful." Guidry said this partnering works even in a down economy as the cost and time is the same. He also recommends retailers to be selective. "Be careful, if you do it and do it well, it will get around and you will be asked by every charity," Guidry said. "Pick and choose. We do three-to-four a year and that's plenty of ‘good will' for us."

TIP 10 - Be a joiner
     "Joining our casual industry association is a tip that wouldn't necessarily provide credibility with customers, but it provides credibility within the industry," said Bruce Aronson, owner, Pool and Patio Center, Metairie, La. Benefits are available that are designed to reach out to the varied membership now included in the ICFA membership.
     "I joined for the credibility belonging provided with regard to vendors and the exchange of ideas with others in the industry," Aronson said. "But one benefit I am taking advantage of is purchasing the new sales training DVD. If I received nothing else, that would have been worth my joining."

TIP 11 - Create personal service
     "Giving personalized attention and taking time to go beyond the expected norm is a relationship builder that cannot be underestimated in today's retail climate," Daughtridge said. "The quality of service can be the ‘deal breaker' for consumers."
     When customer service takes on a personal nature, it sets the specialty retailer apart from the mass serve yourself environment that abounds. "Service is our most important product," Daughtridge said. Take a tip from these experts among us and capture opportunities for a prosperous year.

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