Chalet Ski & Patio caters to modern-minded customers in capital city, college town
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, November 1, 2007
When Tony Millonig opened Chalet Ski & Patio in Madison in 1983, ski was the store’s dominant focus although summer sports and patio furniture were part of the mix.
Royal Garden Sea Side dining set with Gibson dinnerware display.
“We determined pretty quickly that outdoor furniture and things related to the category were going to be a much better opportunity for us in the long-term future,” said Millonig, owner and president. He decided to phase out other summer businesses and concentrate totally on casual furniture, including wicker and rattan. By 1987-88, its product mix was completely furniture in the summer and ski in the winter.
After Chalet Ski & Patio moved into a 16,000-sq.-ft. location in 1996, the larger freestanding store allowed enough room to keep a substantial amount of casual furniture on the floor this time of year along with everything needed for skiing. “Right now, a little more than half is strictly ski and the other half is divided between outdoor furniture, an indoor/outdoor furniture category and an indoor only department,” he said.
Over the last 20 to 25 years, the store experienced steady growth in all aspects of furniture and so kept trying categories, adding leather and upholstery galleries. “Because Madison is a college town and a white-collar town, there are a lot of modern-minded people who live here,” Millonig said. “As a result, we think they want to buy good quality indoor, modern classic contemporary upholstered furniture.”
As the inventory of the hardcore downhill ski clothing and equipment decreases in February, the store begins to convert to an outdoor furniture store. “By March 1, we are 100% patio and 0% ski,” Millonig said. “We used to make that transition April 1, but we no longer wait because there is so much demand at the beginning of the season for outdoor furniture. Even if there’s snow on the ground (and there always is in the wintertime), people are really chomping at the bit to get their patio furniture decisions made early in the season.”
Chalet follows the same philosophy as many specialty store competitors he visits. “Which is, there’s a consumer out there who is capable of spending a great deal of money on outdoor and casual furniture,” he said. “There’s a consumer with an investment point of view who wants to buy something that’s going to last 10 or 20 years, so they can justify spending more. That’s our customer and that’s who we go after.”
His wife Ann oversees marketing, including hangtags, catalogs, direct mailings and year-round newspaper advertisements, which feature specific merchandise with photos, descriptions and prices. “When a customer reads that ad, they can come in and that exact set in that exact color is sitting on my floor and I have it in stock,” he said. “When I spend money on that newspaper ad, I need to see immediate return and I do, within a week or two we’ve sold seven or eight of that particular set.” Sometimes customers see a similar product and spend more than they would have.
Customers travel 50 miles or more to shop at the store. “Madison is a regional shopping hub; there are no other major cities within maybe 100-120 miles of us so our city and our store is a destination for people who live in small communities,” Millonig said. Many Madison residents also own lake homes farther north, winter homes in Florida or summer homes out West in the mountains, Sun Valley or Vail.
Millonig often selects styles with clean, simple forms and more modern colors. Merchandising inside the store is by category with teak, aluminum or cast aluminum segregated. Chalet’s best-selling outdoor furniture collections are from Winston and Tropitone, primarily aluminum sling lines, plus cast aluminum and promotional aluminum sling from Meridian for consumers who are in small spaces or not ready to reach higher. Millonig provides plenty of imported value products to bridge the huge gap between specialty and mass market prices.
“Two of the best competitors in the whole country are in my city,” Millonig said. “Bruce Company and Benson’s both are extremely good retailers. I’m proud to do business in the same market as them. They have big stores and are bright, capable people that really do a good job. It’s a wonderful place because between the three of us, we have every product line there is. There’s nothing that you can’t find in Madison, Wis., with one exception: If you travel overseas, there’s a whole world of furniture that no one in this country has ever seen before. That’s the only thing I’m able to do that they don’t.”
The primary U.S. markets Millonig shops are the Chicago Casual Market and the High Point Market, usually in the spring, but he also visits the Housewares Show specifically for accessories. In addition, he shops at least three international shows each year, usually the Canton or Dong Guang furniture fairs in China, in Singapore for wood categories or the Philippines for wicker and rattan products.
“I shop overseas more days than I do in this country,” Millonig said. “If the shows are back-to-back then I will stay overseas for a full two weeks and just catch them all, but usually it doesn’t work that way.”
Since the early 1980s, he has maintained relationships with Asian factories to develop products with specific raw materials, colors and modern styles that match his market’s desires. He works a year and a half in advance of when he expects products to arrive.
“When you come into our store there will be lots of products, maybe up to 40% of our total product mix, that no one will find anywhere else because we had involvement in the design, the creation, the color, the fabric selection,” he said. “It was custom-made for us, and that is really what sets us apart.”