Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, December 21, 2012
Michigan's largest Furniture retailer and the Midwest's only independent, family-owned furniture store is branching out from 50-year-old roots with outdoor furniture departments, called Art's Backyard.
"We are always looking for sales growth outside of normal categories," said David Van Elslander, VP of Art's Backyard. "Outdoor furniture is one of the industry's fastest growing segments. It just made good business sense."
Art Van's decision to expand outdoors in a big way was facilitated through the company's 2009 purchase of Jimmies Rustics, a former well-known Detroit-area outdoor furniture retailer operated by James Sica. Sica stayed on board through last year to direct seasonal products as Art Van opened Art's Backyard areas of approximately 4,000 square feet in several of its largest locations in Warren, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Novi, Taylor, Sterling Heights, Petoskey, Ann Arbor and Traverse City, Mich.
All of the Top 100 retailer's 34 full-line locations now feature outdoor furnishings in departments, which range upward from 2,000 square feet.
Although not a big change from an operational standpoint, one of the largest challenges the retailer faced in moving outdoors involved training all of its 950 sales associates. One of the first things they had to learn was "not to be intimidated by the price," Van Elslander said. "For example, our average selling price of a residential sofa is $699. Can you imagine what a residential sofa would like after 90 days outside?"
Manufacturer sales representatives played a big role in the training process. Furnishings from Michigan manufacturers Lloyd Flanders and Woodard are among the more than 1,000 items featured in Art's Backyard settings as well as NorthCape International, Siesta/Sinos, South Sea Rattan, Treasure Garden and other sources.
"Our Art Van University training team had to learn the business first," Van Elslander said. "They then developed a training program that each salesperson went through."
David Van Elslander VP of Art’s Backyard
Siesta/Sinos’ Pacifi ca seating collection
NorthCape International’s Tangiers seating
Another big challenge involved "making the people of Michigan aware that we are now in the outdoor furniture business," he said. Buying Jimmies Rustics "gave us instant recognition as ‘the place' to shop for outdoor furniture in Metro Detroit," Van Elslander said. "They had a great reputation and guests were pre-sold because of it. Once guests made the connection - it was easy."
Both domestic and imported products sell well at Art's Backyard because the retailer is known for selling products of quality, durability and style. "Our private label line, Jimmie's Rustics, is very popular because of the reputation that retailer had here," Van Elslander said.
Art's Backyard staff works overseas to develop product exclusive to Art Van, paying close attention to quality and detail, Van Elslander said. Asked how important specific trade shows are for forcing product, he was emphatic in his answer. "Chicago is THE place for outdoor because you see everything in the business and identify trends," Van Eslander said.
Expanding into the outdoor furniture category "has given our guests a new reason to shop Art Van and gave people who hadn't considered Art Van before to take notice if they were in the market for outdoor furniture," Van Elslander said.
The company's target customer for Art's Backyard is "the same guest who buys our premium bedding," he said. "It's an Art Van guest - but one with a bit more discretionary income."
With its large number of locations, customers never have to travel far to find an Art Van or Art's Backyard. "Some people say we have a store on every corner," Van Elslander said. "With 34 locations statewide, you can reach a store in less than an hour from any city."
When asked whether he is seeing sales growth at Art's Backyard, Van Elslander's answer was "Absolutely! In year one, we doubled sales. Year 2 - 25% growth. Year 3 - 25% growth. We are projecting the same for the next two to three years."
Siesta/Sinos’ seven-piece Ely dining
Agio’s Veranda dining group
Art Van and Art’s Backyard take a modern approach to business – as shown in their store front design.
Barbecue grills, added to Art's Backyard offerings this year, sold very well, Van Elslander said
To maximize off-season sales, Van Elslander said, the company changes its focus to "what we call our ‘stake in the ground' businesses. We sell more sofas, mattresses and bedroom." Art's Backyard kicks off the outdoor selling season in March and wraps it up just after Labor Day weekend.
Having to consider off-season sales is just another change for the retailer that started after Van Elslander's father, Art Van Elslander, chairman and founder of Art Van Furniture, began working in a Detroit furniture store as a young man. In just a few short years, he was ready for a bigger challenge and opened his own store in 1959. Known then as "Art Vans," Art Van Elslander was the sole employee of the store, which featured Danish and contemporary home furnishings. Though Detroit's economy was struggling, the company grew, and between 1959 and 1964 Art Van Elslander took on three business partners and opened seven more stores. Later, the name was changed to the current Art Van Furniture.
Struggling to save the business in 1964, when the company hit hard times, Art Van Elslander held a liquidation sale at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. He was worried this bold move might not work. The Beatles were performing at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit and the show was broadcast to the crowds at the Fairgrounds, so Art Van Elslander thought it would doom sales. But he was wrong. In what became a legendary moment in Art Van Furniture history, Van Elslander sold everything. This remarkable sale was a turning point, and put Art Van back on the map.
Growth continued and eventually Art Van Eslander bought out his partners and become sole owner once more. Art Van Furniture soon became known for innovation in furniture retail. Art Van's massive in-store inventory and delivery capabilities ensured that customers not only received great value, but they could also enjoy their furniture immediately. Another recent innovation was completed in 2001: the automated warehouse. This one-of-a-kind 183,000-sq.-ft. storage and retrieval system allows Art Van Furniture to leave a smaller environmental footprint than a traditional warehouse by using 75% less lighting, heating and cooling.
With more than 2,500 associates and 400 service and delivery vehicles, Art Van has grown into an amazing company with a story to tell. Now with Art's Backyard, the Van Elslanders are cultivating fresh innovation and growth expanding into the outdoors.