Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, July 26, 2010
On a gorgeous summer morning in Vero Beach, Fla., a customer ambled into Sunshine Furniture and asked store owner and President Gail Williams for the impossible.
Sunshine Furniture expanded into a vacant store space next door, giving president Gail Williams more room to set up inviting room vignettes (above) accessorized with items Williams finds at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market.
He had bought a set of Lloyd/Flanders furniture from her 15 years ago and he needed to replace one of the chairs. Did she have it?
It wasn't the first time Williams has fielded a question like that. She has customers who have shopped with her from the beginning, when she took over a little 2,000-sq.-ft. store called Sunshine Patio Land 20 years ago. Customers who go years between purchases often come back expecting the store to be the same, even though it clearly isn't. Williams moved into her current spot seven years ago and has expanded there from 10,000 to 35,000 square feet.
"Expanding to 35,000 square feet bumped us up to another level of retail," Williams said.
She had to add several new employees - bringing the total to 10 - and her son, George, took over more than half of the operation, including all the ordering, receiving and customer service. But the one constant, and the reason a store so vastly different still feels familiar to long-time customers, is Williams herself.
She didn't scoff at the man asking about a 15-year-old chair. She ushered him into the store and invited him to sit in one of Lloyd/Flanders' latest chat sets. Their conversation covered his aspirations for an outdoor room. She may not have had the chair he wanted, but the customer left with bigger ideas floating around in his head. He promised to be back.
Most customers do return, because buying furniture at Sunshine feels more personal than shopping at another local outdoor retailer.
George and Gail Williams
"People have seen George in here when he was 2," Williams said. "I'm doing homes for some of my original customers' kids and grandkids now. It shows you your mortality. You're like, ‘Oh my god.'"
Williams laughed, and it was easy to see why Sunshine customers feel so at ease with her. She can make a stranger feel like an old friend. But that's not the only reason the business continues to be a success after two full decades.
Williams is a designer at heart, and her skill at creating a retail environment that is both inviting and functional is impressive. From the entrance, furniture appears to stretch to the horizon. But each dining set, chat set and lounge group is clustered together in fully accessorized vignettes that make the store feel manageable and help customers envision what the product would look like at their homes. She even pipes in ocean sounds for added effect.
Brand names are displayed prominently, none more so than Lloyd/Flanders, which provides Williams with its own logo signage.
"We take any kind of brand signage manufacturers can give us, but not many have it to offer," she said. "Our customers want brands."
Williams said many customers are already brand savvy, asking for names like Lloyd/Flanders, Winston and Brown Jordan. They often already have those brands at their permanent homes in the North and want the same for their vacation homes in Florida, she said. For the uninitiated, Williams and her staff do an excellent job of telling customers what sets one brand apart from another.
Sunshine Furniture also has videos running on constant loops. Williams is particularly fond of Classic Rattan, a Kentucky-based outdoor furniture vendor she has carried for all 20 years. She says the owner invested in a DVD showing how the furniture line is manufactured, and customers love it.
Sunshine Furniture customers are condominium owners, catered to with scaled down furniture that can fit on balconies and relatively small patios.
"We say, ‘Go to that TV and watch your furniture being made,'" Williams said. "People will go over there and watch the whole thing. The fact is, we're in an information society now. Customers like to know as much as they can about what they're buying."
Sunshine customers also respond well to Williams' knack for accessorizing. Williams missed the Casual market last year for the first time in 15 years, and she's unsure whether she'll go this year. It's more of a networking opportunity, she said, and George is much better at that. But she will travel to the Atlanta Market this month to buy lamps, rugs, mirrors, picture frames and anything else she can find.
"I just wander the showrooms and see what catches my eye," she said. "I go in all the showrooms, because tucked back in the back of one may be a cool little mermaid thing our customers would love."
It was on one of those buying trips that she found a woman in New England who hand-paints signs. For the last couple of years, signs reading, "It's a Great Day in Vero Beach" have become a top seller.
"I went into a shell showroom in Atlanta and was putting in an order for shell mirrors," Williams recalled. "The owner had a sign that caught my eye, and I asked where he got it. [The vendor] wasn't at the show, but I got her e-mail address and I e-mailed her. I love it when that happens."
Lately, Williams has taken a hard line with her furniture vendors to survive the economic downturn. The experience has made her reflect on the changes she has seen over the last 20 years.
Sunshine Furniture customers are surprisingly brand conscious. Most seek the same brands for their vacation home that they have at their permanent residences in the North.
She says the casual living business in Florida has evolved from just mom-and-pop retailers to a retail landscape dominated by chain stores that exert more control over vendors. The business climate has gone from collaborative to combative at times, with mom-and-pops forced to assume more risk than ever before.
"[Vendors] make you do early buys to keep discounts down and I think that's wrong," she said. "Years ago, you would buy on what you sold last year. I told our vendors this year that we're in this together or we're not together at all. They've responded. They've all been wonderful."
And now Sunshine Casual is reaping the benefits. Sales in March were up 30% over 2009, and she said customers have been noticeably happier.
"Last year, people came into the store and didn't even want to talk to you," she said. "This year, they've made money back in the stock market and they're happy again."
Williams has remained a happy presence throughout. And that's why after 20 years in business, the store continues to have a bright future ahead of it.