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Gratification in big supply at The Patio Place

You might think a specialty dealer with more warehouse space than showroom might be at the opposite end of the retail spectrum from one with a wildly successful special order business, but you'd be wrong. At least in the case of The Patio Place USA in Palm Desert, Calif.

"We sell primarily to people who come to our area to enjoy their second or third homes, and they expect immediate gratification," owner Ron Bock said.

That gratification might come from the many lines of outdoor furniture and accessories found at the dealer's two locations, the ability to custom order exactly what they want or the abundance of knowledgeable staff people. Whatever his customers are seeking in terms of high-end shopping, Bock makes sure they leave satisfied with their experience.

The Bocks purchased The Patio Place in 1995 after working for the previous owner. Contrary to standard advice for new business owners, they had no business plan when taking over the retail operation. Their strategy then, and now, was simply to be responsive to their customers.

"By focusing on that, everything else takes care of itself," Bock said.

In the nearly 12 years since buying the business, the Bocks have moved it from its original location to a building they bought on the well-traveled Highway 111, opened a replacement cushion manufacturing business, bought and expanded a second retail location, opened a third retail location, purchased two warehouses, closed the second location and built a third warehouse. Today they have 22,200 square feet of retail space and 23,600 square feet of warehouse space, and their pace of change isn't slowing down a bit.

"We are aggressively pursuing a couple of options for other retail locations," Bock said.

People just like to shop

The Patio Place's momentum has been fueled by an affluent customer base, low interest rates and good business sense. Prayer has also had its place, according to Bock, as has his willingness to learn from his mistakes.

In his mind, one of those mistakes was staying small for too long. The newest location, which opened in January 2006, is a 15,000-sq.-ft. showroom in a shopping center that also houses a Costco. It is more than twice the size of the Bocks' other store, which is 7,200 square feet.

Given the differences in size, the feel of the two locations differ as well. The newest store's high ceiling and open space gives customers plenty of room to browse amid vignettes and displays of complete lines. They can also take advantage of the bargain rates of furniture and accessories in the showroom's 3,500-sq.-ft. clearance center area.

The other Patio Place location is in the heart of a residential area on a highway most residents traverse every day. While the same lines are displayed in both places, more five-piece sets and individual pieces give the smaller store a boutique feel.

Many customers shop both locations, in part because The Patio Place's salespeople work both stores and repeat customers have established good relationships that they want to continue. Customers also shop both stores because they can.

"People in this area have plenty of time to drive from store to store and shop," Bock said. One reason he doesn't have a formal customer loyalty program is because he doesn't think it is necessary. "We have people here who just like to shop," he said.

When they do shop, they are often looking for aluminum products which account for 70% of the business. Fastest growing categories include cast aluminum and wicker deep seating, as well as alternative tabletops. While an average sale runs $2,500 to $3,000, five-piece dining sets start at $850 and range up to $7,000.

With 27 full-time employees, Bock said he is generally intentionally over-staffed. "None of our customers is ever ignored," he said.

He believes customer satisfaction turns on employee satisfaction, a philosophy which in turn results in low turnover.

"I sincerely believe the end result of happy employees is usually happy customers — and that goes for everyone in the office, on the sales floor and especially in the warehouses and delivery trucks," Bock said. "One of the key components to our success has been the polite and professional way our delivery people conduct themselves. They are a huge part of the backbone of our company."

Trust is the foundation

The Bocks' replacement cushion company, R and F Cushions, opened in 1998. Custom cushions make up about 80% of the business with the remainder being generic replacement cushions sold exclusively by The Patio Place.

"We saw it as a growing aspect of our business and felt it would be more convenient and more profitable if we made them ourselves," Bock said.

This attitude is typical of Bock's work ethic. One of his biggest challenges, he said, is that there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything he needs, and wants, to do. And he is quick to admire that same drive in others, particularly some of his manufacturers' reps.

"We have a couple of hard-working reps who are clearly intent on widening the performance gap between themselves and the rest of the pack," he said. "That they believe in us motivates our staff to sell their lines.

"There is a lot of laziness in every profession," he added. "When the good ones screw up, they don't deny it. They apologize and quickly take the necessary steps to immediately correct the problem."

What is lacking among suppliers, he said, is a willingness to give dealers a level playing field by ridding the industry of exclusives. While an exclusive might draw a customer to a particular store, Bock believes good customer service is the bigger influence over a customer's purchase and that manufacturers are doing themselves a disservice by not letting a dealer who will represent them in a positive way offer their full selections.

No matter what they have on the floor, good merchandising has been one of Bock's priorities at The Patio Place from the beginning.

"We spend an inordinate amount of time changing our displays to keep them fresh because we are proud of what we sell," he said.

The Bocks made the decision about five years ago to move to a more upscale product mix and stop trying to compete with the mass merchants.

"This was clearly the right choice," Bock said. "Our customers want to be absolutely certain that we are not carrying the same quality as the mass merchants. They are willing to pay what is required for great quality products. They have learned that they can trust us, so they keep coming back."

Store front of The Patio Place's newest showroom in Palm Desert.

Ron and Evetta Bock, owners of The Patio Place with two locations in Palm Desert, Calif.

This Leopard Print Double Chaise by Lloyd/Flanders is one of the hot new items available at The Patio Place.

One of two showrooms of The Patio Place in Palm Desert, Calif.

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