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Backyard Outfitters A specialty store with a twist

 Backyard Outfitters designs and builds custom fireplaces.  Backyard Outfitters designs and builds custom fireplaces. Customers can choose stucco color, rock style and color.


After nearly 15 years at Home Depot, Scott Hassman entered the specialty market believing specialty dealers give mass merchants way too much credit when it comes to reaching the outdoor market. He and the other three owners of the new Backyard Outfitters in Redlands, Calif., share a different attitude.

Rather than walking away from what they see as a substantial amount of business just to avoid going head-to-head with a big box, they offer it all. From dining sets to deep seating, grills to barbecue islands, spas to pool toys, Backyard Outfitters' product mix includes everything a customer might need or want for their back yard, at whatever price point they can afford.

 From left, owners Rich Maggio, Scott Hassman and Chris Ancona of Backyard Outfitters
 From left, owners Rich Maggio, Scott Hassman and Chris Ancona

"I've heard that if Home Depot or Lowe's adds a $900 patio set, specialty dealers should give them that business and move to the high end," Hassman said. "But I look at that and think, Home Depot has room to carry one $900 set. We'll carry 10 and bridge the gap."

Hassman calls the results of their effort "a specialty store with a twist."

Backyard Outfitters opened its Redlands showroom in March 2005. At press time, the owners were finalizing a second location scheduled to open this spring, while a third location in Corona, Calif., is set to open in August. Plans are in the works for at least two, possibility three more locations to open in 2007.

Obviously, Hassman believes there's a niche out there waiting to be filled.

"When I worked for Home Depot, I traveled a lot and I would always visit the outdoor specialty stores wherever I'd go," Hassman said. "By the time I left, I realized what an opportunity there was in the category for offering everything under one roof."

So far, his experience has proved him right. In its first season, the Backyard Outfitters performed nearly dollar to dollar to the owners' business plan. The one diversion was the owners' decision to open their own 5,000-sq.-ft. custom barbecue island manufacturing facility in late summer.

"We had a contract with a third party to build the custom islands, but it worked out that it was in our best interests to do it ourselves," Hassman said. "Custom is a challenge in and of itself, so to have 100 percent control of the quality has been a win for us."

Given the combined experience of Backyard Outfitters' owners, the lack of the unexpected during their first season was predictable. Damian Hobson, a friend of Hassman's since middle school, also owns a skateboard and snowboard specialty business with three locations. The other two owners, Rich Maggio and Chris Ancona, each have more than 20 years of experience in importing goods from China, including four years of importing patio furniture.

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From dining sets to deep seating, grills to barbecue islands, spas to pool toys, Backyard Outfitters' product mix includes everything a customer might need or want for their back yard, at whatever price point they can afford.  

 


Backyard Outfitters offers a full selection of hammocks from The HammockSource. Co-owner Scott Hassman said displays are a big hit and customers love to lie in the hammocks to test them.

Redlands, located in southern California's Inland Empire, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with plenty of new homeowners who need to completely furnish their decks and back yards. When they enter Backyard Outfitters, they can browse the 18,000-sq.-ft. showroom's many vignettes, merchandised with accessories ranging from fountains to outdoor artwork to tools. In barbecue alone, the store carries between 200 and 300 SKUs.

"We do an incredible business with sauces, smoker chips, rubs ... consumable items that create a lot of trips back to the store," Hassman said.

The newest attraction is a "chip bar," where consumers can buy chips by the scoop from 17 or 18 different flavors of wood.

There seems to be almost as much selection in outdoor furniture, with dining sets ranging from $200 to $5,000. At the entry level, Backyard Outfitters offers its own line of imports, a big advantage when it comes to competing with the mass merchants. Again, Hassman stressed, the biggest edge in competing with the big boxes is to not be afraid of them.

"Having been on the inside, I know that what might come off as a strength is often viewed by the big boxes as a challenge," Hassman said. "A specialty dealer might be worried that Lowe's, say, tripled its space for patio, but that space is still only a few thousand square feet."

Customers coming into Backyard Outfitters want the same thing no matter what their budget, he added. They all want something that looks different from what their neighbors have.

By offering all price points, Hassman believes they better serve their customers. For one thing, they never are disparaging another product.

"I don't have to tell a customer to go back to Home Depot and look at their products to see if the quality is as good as what we offer," he said. "I can take a chair that is similar to something offered by a big box and show them the difference in what they get for their money. Then they can decide based on their budget, and they won't feel like we talked down to them. We want to create the customer who is going to come back. Maybe next time they will be in the market for the higher priced set."

Refining the mix

Cast aluminum and deep seating have been the hottest trends at Backyard Outfitters, while wicker is solid but not exceptional. Based on the strong sales of Mr. Kwila products, made from the hardwood kwila from New Guinea, the company also added teak late in the season.

As with other startups, Backyard Outfitters faced the "catch-22" of needing to prove itself to potential vendors at the same time it needed the product that would allow it to do so.

"It's been a challenge but we understand it," Hassman said. "We have no issue with it because we are in this for the long haul."

One helpful thing has been the vendor partnerships he developed at Home Depot. He had solid contacts with Bull and Weber, for example, who were willing to work with him from the beginning. And it has paid off. Both have been big sellers.

At the same time, new relationships have also been a win-win. Big Green Egg, for example, has been a big hit with customers thanks to the cooking classes centered around it. "I think 90 percent of the sales of it have been related to the cooking class," Hassman said.

Backyard Outfitters will continue to add to its events going forward. In the offing this spring are cooking classes with the renown barbecue chef, John Henry, and on the patio side, Hassman is working with local landscapers on an event.

Although all of the owners are very involved in the business, none are in the store day to day. General management is handled by Brian Mcgehee and Brad Carter. Of the four owners, Hobson is on site the most because his snowboarding stores are located in the Redlands area and the two companies share warehouse space.

While it has been challenging to find good employees, the owners have great confidence in Mcgehee, Carter and the employees they now have.

"These guys are willing to do anything and everything so that our customers are never disappointed," Hassman said. "That's our culture. We're new, we're going to make mistakes, but we'll fix them so well that a customer will never forget it."

  Three to four spas are typically running in the store's spa area. The selection ranges from 110-volt plug and play type spas to larger spas that can seat up to ten people.


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