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Sequoia Out Back: Sequoia Out Back builds from the ground up

Sequoia Out Back: Sequoia Out Back builds from the ground up

Showroom display
Outdoor furniture and accessories complete the setting for customers.

Sequoia Out Back made an impressive debut this year. The store drew customers from a 100-mile radius that included Philadelphia, Trenton and Princeton, N.J., and laid the foundation for an even better 2009.

Owner John Keller had opened Sequoia Supply 14 years ago, selling composite decking, wood decking and decking supplies to homeowners and contractors. That was his specialty, and he was good at it.

When Keller needed distribution closer to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he opened an 80,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Hatfield, less than 30 miles north of Philadelphia, and used 30,000 square feet of that space to showcase his decking in a retail setting. That led him to carry outdoor kitchens, hot tubs and patio furniture.

Eli Hymer and John Keller.
Eli Hymer and John Keller.

Keller's specialty now is outdoor living, and he appears to be good at that, too. For starters, he hired Eli Hymer, a veteran of more than 20 years in outdoor retail, to be general manager of the store. Right away, Hymer saw the store's potential.

"So many people come in here with their contractor when they're designing their deck, and they walk [to the store] to buy their patio furniture," Hymer said. "This concept makes a lot of sense."

In its first summer, Sequoia Out Back pulled out all the stops to generate traffic. Its outdoor kitchen area hosted Iron Chef-style cookoffs with local chefs. It also had every sales rep on hand for the grand opening a year ago, when it hosted a builder's show that included a seminar on grilling.

Keller's background in construction gave him the expertise and contacts he needed to build the store to his specifications.

The results are impressive. Shoppers are greeted by a large water fountain surrounded by dining sets. A multilevel deck with a built-in hot tub spreads out to the right of the entrance, and different chat sets are placed strategically all over the deck. Further back, Keller set up a working outdoor kitchen area that has proven to be a focal point.

"What we're doing is showing [customers] we can work with them from conception to completion," Keller said. "We have every element of a deck or patio under one roof. A customer can pick up a chair and walk over to a gray paver patio to see if it looks good."

Sequoia's other main advantage is the financial security Keller's decking business offers. He can afford to be patient with the patio furniture category as it grows.

"It would probably be tough otherwise, with the economic environment right now," Keller said. "But every day we have furniture customers or deck customers in here, and both sides of the business feed off one another."

Keller and Hymer plan to shake up the product mix next summer based on what they observed in 2008.

"We had two kinds of customers last summer," Keller said. "Customers who walked in the door looking for the $599 set and walked out when they didn't see it. And customers who came in for a mid-range, $2,000 set."

Sequoia captured the latter but didn't have time to talk to customers looking for more moderately priced outdoor furniture. So next summer Sequoia Out Back will have it. The hope is it will keep customers in the store long enough for Keller's staff to up-sell them on mid- to high-end dining and chat sets. Even if that doesn't work, he and Hymer agree the store should at least address that part of the market.

"We sell decks to people with $100,000 and $200,000 homes," Keller said. "Chances are, they'll buy a $699 set from us."

So will customers who spend most or all of their budgets on their new deck. In the meantime, Keller said, they'll remember the store has higher-end furniture when their budgets are back in line.

Keller said many industry representatives have urged him to stick to high-end furniture, and even he admits he's not sure his strategy will work. But at the very least, it will give Hymer and his sales staff more opportunities to make a sale, which is crucial in a time of economic uncertainty.

"Today you have to be a true salesman," Hymer said. "We have more people coming in who shop at Wal-Mart and Costco, and we have to work harder for their business.

"We have to do whatever we can to make their shopping experience with us a positive one."

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