Saddleback: Settling in at Saddleback of San Diego
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, July 1, 2007
Saddleback of San Diego has undergone numerous changes in the past two years, when it became part of the foundation for the growing Carls Patio West retail chain.
Updates in the store's internal systems and cultures may not have been obvious to customers, but few repeat visitors could ignore other retrofits. In addition to repainting, new carpeting and lighting, the front counter was replaced by a marble entrance and relocated toward the right wall to improve customers' movement into the store. Manual entry systems were replaced by electronic ones to make the stores' transactions nearly paperless.
Another one of the first moves overseen by retail veteran Lyle Ecoff, vice president, was to close the warehouse operation that had operated in back of the San Diego store to expand the retail showroom from 8,000 square feet to 14,000. The company's main warehouse in Los Angeles now serves this store as well as Berk's, a second approximately 14,500-sq.-ft. location in Santa Monica. It also will serve a third store, nestled among seven other high-end home furnishings stores and set to open after Labor Day in Agora Hills, northwest of Santa Monica. And those three are just the beginning for future stores, which will operate under the Berk's name.
"I've been looking for a location in Orange County since we've been here," Ecoff said. "I certainly see five to six stores in Los Angeles. Probably long term, we probably won't open another store in San Diego until the fourth or fifth store is done in that northern area, I mean greater Los Angeles and Orange County. We're in a centrally located spot (related to competitors), and I'm not interested in cannibalizing the business."
His search is on for premium retail locations, similar to the former Ethan Allen retail space Saddleback occupies. Ecoff said he is not too concerned that the next new location will be opening at the end of the season although he does see significant differences in off-season sells even in Southern California.
"The higher-end customer is out there all year to some degree," Ecoff said. "It's fun to be in California because they love the outside, and patio furniture is a status symbol, like their car is a status symbol."
Ecoff brought with him more than 20 years of experience in casual furniture. He has worked extensively on both the wholesale and retail side, and started the Robb & Stucky patio division on Florida's west coast where he served as its president. After a stint at Porch & Patio in Connecticut, he and his brother Gary Ecoff, president of Carls Patio on Florida's east coast, decided they wanted to work together on a project. "I said the only place I'd like to do it would be Southern California," Lyle Ecoff said. "There weren't any large chains to speak of here and we thought if we could pop open six or seven stores in a five-year period we could accomplish the same thing Gary accomplished on the east coast of Florida and I did on the west coast of Florida."
Because the brothers knew the Crown family owned Berk's and they were in transition as well, the Ecoffs approached them and asked if they were interested in selling it. "One store is certainly not enough for us," he said, "and ironically, Gary and I were on our way to go skiing to hang out a little bit together when Gary opened The Wall Street Journal and found (this) patio store was for sale."
Former owners Tony and Donna Stevens had run Saddleback for 28 years and were looking to retire so the timing fit the Ecoff brothers' plans. "Real quickly it became apparent we could roll up these two stores and that would be our foundation for a Southern California presence," Ecoff said. "So we purchased two stores within a month of each other, May '05 was Saddleback and June '05 was Berk's."
And so the retrofit began. At Berk's, exterior fabric panels in lighter colors provided the store a more contemporary look, in addition to the painting and carpeting replacement inside.
"Santa Monica has been 'teak central' for years and years, and that has changed," Ecoff said. "We see a lot of people coming in saying they don't want teak anymore, they don't want to maintain it. But we're still selling a lot of it. I think we're doing different things; we're showing teak sling and combinations of it."
Best-selling outdoor furniture lines at Saddleback are Woodard, Woodard Landgrave and Brown Jordan, although Century Leisure "has been an important separator for us," Ecoff said. Also performing well on the stores' showroom floors are Pride Family Brands' Castelle lines as well as those of Laneventure, Lloyd/Flanders, Les Jardin and the stores' own direct imports.
Replacement cushions, fire pits, outdoor heaters and furniture covers also are selling well. "You get an announcement in here that it's going to rain three days and people rush in here like there's no tomorrow," Ecoff said.
While the San Diego store is advertised on television as well as regional magazines, adding the Agora Hills store to advertising for Berk's, the Santa Monica store will make ads in The Los Angeles Times more cost effective. "Two stores will afford us the ability to be on television and have more presence there so I'm excited about that," Ecoff said.
Looking back, he said, "It's been a lot of fun doing this project. It's been a ton of legwork, working hours and hours, but at the end of the day when you have a good day, your customers are happy and your salespeople made money and there's money in the bank, it's very rewarding to me. I've been doing this for 25 years and buying for a long time too, but I still get a lot of self-gratification in choosing the coloration, pricing it properly and having the public say 'I really love that.'"
Despite his lengthy buying experience, Ecoff likes to return with products for his staff to consider. "I listen to my staff and allow them input. I have people who spend as much time on the floor if not more than I do, and I think it's important if they have a vested interest in how the store looks and what the product looks like. And I also find once they decide, they can claim ownership of it and they'll sell the product. I also have people who have great backgrounds. Both my managers come out of Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, and a lot of my staff is very fluent in colorations. I definitely want their opinions. They're the ones who are on the battlefront."
All of the salespeople on the staff of 30 in the first two stores also have switched to a commission salary pay system, Ecoff said, so they are making more money.
"The other gratifying thing is I'm doing this with Gary — we're having a blast together," Ecoff said of his brother. "And that's as important as anything."