Seasonal Specialty Stores
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, November 3, 2011
IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE JEANNE LARSSEN AND Dennis DiPaolo, owners of Seasonal Specialty Stores in Amherst, N.H., wondered whether they would make it in the pool and patio business. But in 1990, when they sold everything to buy the store from the wholesale pool distributor that owned a chain of 14 locations, their outlook didn't look so good.
The economy had just taken a second dip after the 1987 stock market crash. Oil prices were high and consumer confidence was low, leaving many retailers panicking about their inventories. And their first location, in Nashua, next door to an appliance rental business, was less than ideal.
Larssen and DiPaolo acted fast. Within months, they moved to a better spot in nearby Merrimack and leveraged DiPaolo's deep expertise in the pool business to build a good reputation in that category. They also decided Larssen would take over the patio furniture department, which dovetailed with their move to abandon the factory outlet model established by the previous owner and become a specialty store with quality, high-end lines such as Telescope Casual, Tropitone and Lloyd/Flanders.
"We have a Wal-Mart down the street from us now and a Lowe's we share a parking lot with," Larssen said. "If I think I can compete with them, they're going to squish me like a bug. I can't buy the way they buy, but I can do high-end on a small scale and be successful."
She was right, especially when it came to the people who bought high-end furniture.
"We learned that in a tough economy, people who have money still have money," said Larssen. "They still want to buy things."
Larssen encouraged patio furniture customers who couldn't find what they wanted in the store to place special orders, a strategy that set Seasonal Specialty apart from other patio furniture outlets.
"We didn't want to be a store where what you saw was what we had," Larssen said. "I always like to have special-order capability. If a person comes in willing to spend money, I don't want them walking out the door empty-handed."
Now, about a third of the store's outdoor furniture sales are special orders.
"Other retailers resent having to deal with special orders, but I'm thrilled to get them," said Larssen. "I'm not losing a sale and I'm making someone very happy. Most people love to tell guests they had a dining set or chat set made special for them. Who wouldn't?"
Her focus on special orders and high-end product resulted in a whopping 380% sales increase that first year, and growth has been steady ever since. Larssen is modest about it, saying that she simply paid attention to a category that had languished under previous management.
But Larssen also has a knack for reading her customers' tastes and creating appealing and user-friendly displays. She did, and still does, group furniture by style and price point so customers don't have to crisscross the store to see everything in their range.
"We want to make the shopping as little work as possible because the deciding part is hard enough," she said.
Another strategy she has stuck with from the start is ensuring everything on the floor is clean and inviting.
"I just worked those sales in that first year," Larssen said. "Knowing you could be living in your car if you don't make a go of it really motivates you. Failure wasn't an option for us."
Not only did Larssen and DiPaolo succeed, they established an outdoor living destination for all of New England and a business model that generates steady sales amid economic highs and lows.
Every economic downturn is different, however. Larssen said what made the latest one tough was that even people with disposable income stopped spending for a little while in 2009.
"It was so devastating people thought it was almost in bad taste to buy things new and shiny," she said. "There also was that general fear whether things would get even worse."
Several factors helped the store survive through it. First, she and DiPaolo own their building in Amherst, where they relocated in 1999. It has more than 32,000 square feet of indoor showroom space and 15,000 square feet more outside. While they're in charge of all the maintenance, she said, they don't have to worry about getting kicked out when a landlord gets a better offer from a national chain.
Since they relocated to Amherst, other retail outlets have sprung up around them. In addition to Lowe's, a Bed, Bath & Beyond store is across the street and a Staples outlet is next door to Lowe's.
"All that commercial development is definitely bringing shopping traffic past our door," Larssen said. "One of the nice things about having this location right on a main highway is that it's really the best advertising we do. We consider what we paid for this location, to have the frontage, as part of our advertising expense."
Speaking of advertising, DiPaolo sensed where marketing trends were going in the late '90s and started investing in online marketing strategies that are now paying off. They sunk money to develop a website that represents the store well. They also appointed one of their employees to manage a surprisingly successful Facebook page.
"We were thinking, ‘Who would care we were on Facebook?'" admitted Larssen. "But we're the generation before the height of Internet and social media use. Customers who are active on Facebook come by to make a comment or see if we have new sales or promotions or reminders. We get people looking at it."
Finally, Larssen and her staff never stopped experimenting with merchandising. Some ideas have worked, others haven't. For instance, she thought taking advantage of all the outdoor space devoted to pools was a no-brainer and set up several furniture vignettes near the pools.
"Even though our sales help was good about bringing customers out there, people didn't want to go," said Larssen, who is still baffled the idea didn't work. "We kept the sets clean, and people knew they were getting shiny new sets, not the display sets. Still, they wouldn't buy what we had out there."
So Larssen and her team refocused inside, where they came up with another idea that has worked extremely well. As the warehouse empties out, she said, they are often left with stray chairs and tables from different sets that didn't sell. Larssen takes these pieces and creates what she calls "Frankensets."
"We'll put four chairs from one company in a discontinued fabric with a table from another company that coordinates and sell them together as a total bargain," said Larssen. "Customers don't care if it's not a perfect match. They just want a comfortable, durable chair. We've cleared out so much of our odds and ends that way."
Larssen watches inventory carefully to see which Frankenset could be next and which other lines should be discounted and moved.
"Even if we're selling something at a big discount, at least we're getting our money back and having people leave and tell others they bought it at Seasonal," she said. "They're putting the word out there that we're still selling."
It's just another example of Larssen's and DiPaolo's ability to think on their feet and put what they learn about their customers to good use.
"There are always ups and downs with the economy," said Larssen. "But again, people who have money still have it. It's just a matter of adjusting to who's out there willing to spend at the time."
Few retailers are better at that than Seasonal Specialty's dynamic duo.
Transitioning to high-end outdoor furniture and keeping clean and attractive displays defi ned by design and color have helped make Seasonal Specialty Stores a casual living destination for New Englanders.
Owners Jeanne Larssen and Dennis DiPaolo moved fast to relocate the store they bought in 1990, which gave Larssen the space she needed to display outdoor furniture properly.
A key lesson Larssen learned from the recession of the early ‘90s is that highend customers will continue to spend money on quality furniture regardless of the economic climate.
The merchandising strategy at Seasonal Specialty Stores is purposeful, with furniture grouped by price point and style to save customers time when browsing.
Left to right: Ann Auker, assistant furniture buyer, Jeanne Larssen with pets Dixie and Jada, and Dennis DiPaolo.