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Florida retail tour finds bright spots

As the outdoor furniture season drew to a close last fall in most northern states, patio dealers in the South were just beginning to launch their sales season from November through April.

The climate for almost all home furnishings purchases was very chilly in Midwest manufacturing states, with most experiencing high unemployment. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the nation due to the state’s dependence on the slumping automotive industry. Heading south in October, I was eager to find bright spots in the casual furniture business in sunny Florida.

Patio stores galore

There are at least 40 outdoor furniture specialty stores in Florida, plus dozens of casual furniture departments within full service furniture stores. There are several designer-only casual furniture showrooms in the Design Center of The Americas near Miami, and a few more in the new Southwest Florida Design Center that recently opened near Naples. Robb & Stucky and Carl’s furniture chains also operate patio specialty stores throughout the state.

Beginning in Jacksonville and looping down the peninsula along the Atlantic coast then across “alligator alley” and up Florida’s western coast, I visited a core group of 16 free-standing patio stores and several furniture stores with patio departments. In addition to the core group, I stopped at 15 more that I noticed as I traveled through the state.

The biggest bright spot I discovered was on my very last stop of the trip.

In Spring Hill, northeast of Tampa near Weeki Wachee Springs, I found an attractive new store with interesting and optimistic owners. Stewart Campbell has a pleasant English accent, revealing his heritage. After he completed a career in the British Marines, Stewart and his wife Amanda entered an adventuresome real estate business selling Mediterranean and Florida vacation properties to wealthy families in England. When the second home market in Great Britain began to taper off, they moved to America.

The Campbells operated Patio Paradise, a small patio furniture store near Tampa and recently moved to a new destination shopping center in a high growth suburban area. They were putting the finishing touches on the store while I visited them in early November. They present top lines in attractive and carefully accessorized Outdoor Room settings.

The Campbells’ store features Tropitone, Gloster, Brown Jordan and Lloyd/Flanders along with several other lines.

With typical British reserve, Stewart said he is “cash positive” and reported the new store has been successful. His strategy is to sell better products in attractive vignettes because, in his words, “I am surrounded by low-end stuff.” He calculated that Sears, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Sam’s Club and Target are all within a 20-mile radius, and they all promote lower-priced outdoor furniture.

“We see a lot of brown around, so we mix color into our floor: yellow, red, blue … and we use silk flowers to carry color into our vignettes,” he said. A silk flower supplier makes custom flower arrangements to fit each vignette.

Most of Patio Paradise’s sales are to homes within a 20-mile radius, but they recently delivered a large order to Orlando, 100 miles away. Stewart has his eye on another location for a patio store in a high growth area of Florida. He is using his experience in real estate to help him predict where growth areas will sprout.

Florida is a unique market. The problems resulting from damaging hurricanes combined with a faltering national economy have affected its high-flying real estate market. However, the sunshine state still provides tremendous long-term potential for the casual furniture industry. Inevitably the migration of retirees will resume, and the real estate bubble that burst will inflate again.

The Campbells’ successful effort to swim against the economic tide is encouraging. One might expect Patio Paradise to become a market leader in a wide area north of Tampa.

Other patio store visits

Jacksonville, a good-sized and often overlooked market, showed some encouraging signs of revitalization. Casual furniture stores there do a brisk fall and winter business with affordable indoor wicker.

The Furniture Mart on Beach Boulevard is a prominent store in this region, carrying several top brands of indoor furniture and a second-floor gallery of outdoor furniture. I also visited Tropi Casual which carries Tommy Bahama, Brown Jordan, Braxton Culler, Carlton, Douglas, Whitecraft, Tropitone and Winston.

Orlando still booming

The continuing growth and vibrancy of Orlando is apparent from the skyline of construction cranes and fresh new shopping areas. There are several fine furniture and patio stores in this area. I visited Fireplace & Verandah, Palm Casual and Saxon Clark among others. Business owners reported conditions are more stable than the economy nearer the coasts.

One of the most interesting stops was Apenberry’s in the affluent enclave of Winter Park. Apenberry’s is a cozy little shop that sells floral arrangements as well as outdoor accessories and one-of-a-kind furniture items. The store is merchandised for an affluent and fashion-forward clientele. Large, elegant floral arrangements made an interesting mix with its eclectic furniture and accessories.

From Orlando I drove east back to the 101 and followed this crowded boulevard down the coast to Miami, stopping frequently to explore furniture and patio stores. Owners ranged from cautious to pessimistic in their attitudes about the approaching season. Jerry Shingary of Paradise Stores was especially cautious. Fear of hurricanes and spiking insurance rates caused him to expect a continued slow-down in sales. Housing prices have plummeted and slower growth seems certain for this year, according to Shingary.

Hurricane wary

As I worked my way south, a tropical storm was churning its way north just 20 miles out in Atlantic, near the Bahamas. Anxious weathermen were concerned the storm might curve west toward the mainland and increase to hurricane strength after it raked The Bahamas. Every store employee and owner in Florida is watchful and concerned about storms that might evolve into hurricanes. One more might be catastrophic for business, not only for the possible damage but also due to the effect it would have on tourists and insurance rates. Watching and worrying about the weather has become a serious part of the business climate in Florida.

Dark clouds formed a low ceiling on the sky on the drive west toward Naples. It was as dark as a cave and one could not see either sky or land on either side of the long, perfectly flat expressway across “alligator alley.”

At the west end of “alligator alley” is Naples, where employees at Naples Patio were putting brown paper over store windows for a “Going Out of Business” event the week I arrived. Naples Patio’s combination of good store locations and direct importing seemed to be a smart formula. Their lack of success is worrisome even to their competitors in southwest Florida. The real estate market in the area is rumored to be experiencing an adjustment, a condition which will “float all boats.”

While working my way north along the Gulf Coast, I saw new patio stores and established businesses every 30 miles or so all the way to Sarasota.

A recent phone survey indicates patio furniture sales in Florida are generally flat or declining. The most attractive and carefully planned stores seem to be the least vulnerable.

Robb & Stucky, serving the highest-income consumers in the area with very attractive and well-merchandised stores on both Florida coasts, reported its sales are strong.

Primary colors and light fabrics abound inside Patio Paradise.

Plants and accessories complete customers’ visions for outdoor spaces inside Patio Paradise.

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