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The Silent Sales Assistant

Why good merchandising is just as important to a sale as great customer service

Jim CalhounJim Calhoun
Jim Calhoun, vice President of retail for Summer Classics, was reminded how vital good merchandising is for outdoor living retailers when he recently visited the company's retail store in San Antonio. The place had just gotten a makeover, and he was astounded by what he saw.
     "It was just amazing," recalled Calhoun, who has been merchandising stores for 30 years. "Even I was inspired by what they'd done."
     The San Antonio staff had found a few dated accessories hidden in a back storage room, merchandise that is usually hastily gathered in a back corner and marked down. Instead, they coordinated it by color and texture in vignette displays of new furniture, and suddenly everything was more appealing - including the old stuff , which sold briskly.
     "So often good display is undervalued by stores," Calhoun said. "It's one of the first things to go when budgets need to be scaled back. But we have customers who walk in and say, ‘I want it just like it's displayed.' Good merchandising shortens the selling cycle and eliminates so many objections right off the bat."
     Of course, merchandising outdoor furniture and accessories isn't easy. Most retailers are conflicted between allowing the space necessary to create good lifestyle displays and maximizing dollars per square foot. But Faye Schimke, manager of Housewarmings in Lexington, Ky., says dealers won't get many dollars per square foot if they don't put the effort into display.
     "Creating vignettes helps visually break down the space so customers can focus on the collection in the display and not see just a sea of furniture," she said.
     Gail Williams of Sunshine Furniture in Vero Beach, Fla., said adding accessories is another crucial part of good merchandising. While her furniture rotates infrequently, she and her staff are constantly refreshing accessories in every display.
     "We change up the cushions and add and change out accessories like lamps and picture frames," she said. "We have two rooms in the back where we stockpile accessories, so when we sell them we can replace them right away."
Gail WilliamsGail Williams

     The strategy has made the category big business for Williams. It has helped her get every penny she can from her 35,000-sq.-ft. space.
     "What you have to do is get out of the store and go look at small gift stores," Williams said. "Look at a Hallmark store. They're usually pretty small and use every inch to display every little thing they have. Even if you have a 5,000-sq.-ft. store, you have to use every inch of space you have. That's why accessories are great."
     Williams uses slat walls to create intimate vignettes with her furniture, then hangs hooks on the slats to display wall art. Outdoor rugs are always underfoot, and dining sets are covered with tabletop items.
     "We don't have clutter exactly but we're packed," she said. "I don't worry about it. Everyone loves it except the salespeople when they have to rearrange all the pillows."
     Calhoun agreed clutter isn't necessarily bad as long as it all makes sense together, and color is usually what makes outdoor furniture displays work.
     Geneva Wallace, executive and co-owner of Yard Art and Patio in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said she's not one to match. Rather, she coordinates different pieces and accessories, often by color. Lately, Wallace has adopted a new strategy, going bigger with fewer collections on the floor.
     "We used to do a sofa and a chair and show a ton of collections," she said. "Now we'll have on the floor a sofa, loveseat and chair and potentially a chaise lounge. People tend to be visual about their patio setup and like to see everything that's available to them."
     While merchandising is an art that requires plenty of creativity, it also demands good organizational skills. The best merchandisers are planners who go to the wholesale markets with a plan already in mind and on paper, Calhoun said. "From the beginning they're not just buying furniture and accessories they like then trying to make it work when it gets to the store," he said.
     Wallace has five large bulletin boards in a conference room where she and her staff tack up photos they snapped of new furniture and accessories at the Preview Show and Casual Market. The photos are arranged by frame construction - iron, wood, aluminum and wicker. She said they also have a sling category.
     "We take photos of everything we like then put it on the board," Wallace said. "It lets us see what fabrics go with what frames and helps us make sure we don't buy too much of one color or frame type. That's why we're large premarket advocates."
Geneva WallaceGeneva Wallace

     Calhoun said his merchandising plans also take price points into account. He never puts the most expensive item near the store entrance, for instance.
     "There's an acclimation process when customers walk in the door," he said. "Their eyes and mindset are adjusting, which is why we put our introductory price points near the front and our best-sellers in the third or fourth position where people spend most of their time. You want your best-sellers in a spot customers walk toward and have a view of the whole group, like where traffic turns or at the end of an aisle."
     Williams, Wallace and Calhoun are all double-threats, planning and creating their own displays. But not everyone can do both, and that's OK.
     "There are people who are just gifted merchandisers, and they may not even be part of your staff ," Calhoun said.
     Calhoun knows of plenty of stores that hire contractors who are professional interior designers, department store merchandisers or even retail merchandising freelancers. He said they're easy to find via word of mouth.
     "The key is finding someone who is talented," he said. "There are a lot of people who are decorators but may not be able to achieve the ‘wow' factor you need."
     He suggests that dealers do their due diligence. "You can do short interviews with two or three candidates and say, ‘Make this room look better for me,'" Calhoun said. "Give them a setting or two to redo."
     Calhoun said dealers will know when they find the right candidate. They'll be inspired by the display just like he was by his merchandising team in San Antonio. And customers will be inspired to buy, no sales pitches necessary.

There are no
There are no surprises when orders arrive at Summer Classics stores. All buying follows a comprehensive plan mapped out before the trade shows to ensure accessories coordinate with furniture groups and make merchandising easier.
Summer Classics VP of Retail Jim Calhoun said packing a space with product, using even the ceiling for light fi xtures, can be effective as long as everything goes together to tell the same story.
Summer Classics
By frequently rotating
By frequently rotating accessories such as pillows and wall art, Gail Williams and her staff keep Sunshine Furniture displays looking fresh and new without having to move the furniture.
At Housewarmings in Lexington, Ky., outdoor displays are built around outdoor kitchen and grill islands to help customers visually break down a sea of furniture and grills and focus on each vignette.
At Housewarmings
Although most customers
Although most customers of Yard Art Patio & Fireplace in Dallas are conservative, co-owner Geneva Wallace likes to include a few “wow” pieces in her merchandising schemes, such as this transitional couch with bright green cushions, so customers remember the store.

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