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Await & adapt: Weather makes spring business unpredictable for Northern retailers

Retail Profile

On a chilly February morning, Gerald Visel stepped outside his casual living store in Ann Arbor, Mich., and looked skyward. About 900 miles away in Berwick, Maine, Keith Lowery did the same thing. Both tried to read the clouds like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.

“We have to get a little lightening in the weather to get our business going in the spring,” said Visel, owner of Cornwell Pool & Patio in Ann Arbor and Plymouth. “We need a little sun to let people know summer is right around the corner. All it takes is a few nice days.”

Last year, the spring weather was not ideal. Michigan endured cooler than usual temperatures, and Visel said business did not pick up until late April. Lowery said his spring was better. The owner ofLowery's Lawn & Patio Furniture said the weather was nice and dry, and his clientele of high-end customers, many of them second homeowners, started their shopping right on schedule in early April.

For casual living retailers based in the northern half of the United States and Canada, the biggest worry every spring isn't the economy. Nor is the housing market or competition from the home improvement centers at the top of their list of concerns. It's the unpredictable weather, which offers them no guarantees even if spring is unseasonably warm.

“The weather is such a roll of the dice,” Lowery said. “Last year, once we got into the summer it started raining and never stopped. We actually had a good spring, but it slowed down in the summer. Then, it stopped raining and our fall business was up” over the previous year.

HOM furniture
HOM Furniture handles special orders for high-end outdoor areas early each year, but ramps up its marketing efforts in April to attract mid-range customers.

The weather makes planning difficult, but cold-weather retailers soldier on anyway, trying to create a schedule based loosely on past business patterns. For instance, Rod Johansen, co-owner of HOM Furniture in Coon Rapids, Minn., always anticipates special orders from high-end customers and commercial clients starting in February.

“We still have plenty of customers who know what they want and, because they're spending good money, we want to make sure they get what they want,” Johansen said. “It's the mid-range customers who are more influenced by the weather.”

Generally, Johansen and his northern peers begin marketing to those mid-range customers on April 1. They place ads in local newspapers and magazines and begin running regular spots on radio and television to warm up their target audience. Then again, it is April Fool's Day.

“Your marketing is always hit-or-miss,” Johansen said. “If we go out and do a big advertising push and it's a cold weekend, we're not going to see the traffic from it. If we do the same thing on a beautiful weekend, we will have great traffic. You never know. All we can do is hope to have a good early spring to get our season off on the right foot.”

Sun Country
Sun Country Leisure Products sells electric fireplaces and indoor wicker and rattan, but not enough to keep cash flow coming through the winter.

Andy Paul, president ofSun Country Leisure Products in St. Catharines, Ontario, said there is some margin of error for marketing mis-hits. He said many consumers in his area are eager for spring and summer by the time April arrives, regardless of the temperatures.

“Even if the weather here isn't 100% where we want it to be, people are anxious to get outside and get shopping,” Paul said. “We still have to try to entice people through advertising and marketing, but generally they're ready to receive our message because they've been cooped up all winter. In fact, the selling season starts with a vengeance. It goes from nothing to us being overwhelmed.”

That makes staffing a big issue for Paul, who, like many other casual living retailers in the North, cuts his staff in half during the off season. Finding seasonal employees isn't the problem. A local university and the college summer break typically supply him with plenty of good candidates, he said. The issue is training them and getting them up to speed on the product as quickly as possible. Sales reps help, but Paul said categories such as deep seating require more salesmanship because customers tend to fret over durability in the unpredictable Canadian climate.

cast furniture

Cast aluminum furniture and sling chairs sell well at Sun Country Leisure Products because those pieces stand up to Ontario's uneven springs and bitterly cold winters.

“We're fortunate that our core staff, which is mostly family at this point, is very good,” Paul said. “These are five people who have been in the business for quite some time and know the products well. They just guide our seasonal employees until they're comfortable and know the product.”

While Paul courts college students, Lowery said he draws his seasonal staffers from the local retirement community.

“It's a great situation, because [retirees] tend to be people who just want something to help them stay busy and don't mind working a few months and taking the winter off,” he said. “They also tend to be reliable and loyal. The good ones come back year after year.”

With any luck, seasonal employees are busy all the way through August, when business tails off and retailers begin to shut things down for the fall. Paul said he maintains a good line of credit with a local bank to sustain his business through the winter.

“We just haven't found anything that will work for us [in the off season] after many years of trying,” Paul said. “We've resigned ourselves to the fact that we just have to work like crazy in the spring and summer to make this business work.”

Johansen, on the other hand, said his stores stay busy in the winter with indoor furniture. Visel said his Plymouth store sells artificial trees and Christmas decor during the holiday season. And because he is in Berwick, a vacation spot on the Salmon Falls River near the New Hampshire border, Lowery said his store gets off-season business from local hotels and restaurants planning ahead for the spring.

“We never know when they'll come in,” he said. “Typically, they don't call first. They're waiting at the gate when we come in and already know what they want.”

But Lowery isn't complaining. Given how crazy the weather can be in Maine, he's accustomed to expecting the unexpected.



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