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Retailers compete for top honors

"Partnering" gets plenty of lip service in retail but the concept behind the cliche sets those who do far apart from those who just talk about it. This year's finalists in the annual Apollo Awards program are such a group. Their understanding of what it means to work with their vendors for their mutual success goes hand-in-glove with their desire to provide outstanding customer service. Whether it's their first Apollo nomination or their seventh, each has the vision and the tenacity to be a leader.

Winners will be announced at the Apollo Awards banquet on Sept. 15, at the International Casual Furniture and Accessories Market in Chicago, co-sponsored by the SCFMA and Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. — Profiles written by Kristine Ellis

Dodds & Eder, Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Dodds & Eder has been catering to Long Island's Gold Coast elite since it first opened in 1897 as a feed and supply company. While the company's mix, its services and even its name have changed over the last century, the focus on service and relationships has not.

"Dottie (Dorothy Simons, general manager) and the crew cater completely to our customers. There is nothing that they won't do," said Joe McLaughlin, president of the Oyster Bay, N.Y., specialty store.

McLaughlin credits that thoroughness for this year's strong season, particularly the increase in referral business. Referrals come from both customers and other businesses such as local builders. In the coming year, McLaughlin and Simons plan to expand their relationships with local interior designers to grow the referral business even more.

For the most part, their high-end customers prefer a traditional classic design. Dodds & Eder's major outdoor lines include Ancient Mosaic, Basta Sole, Brown Jordan International, Cast Classics, Century and Paleck.

McLaughlin and Simons cherry-pick when it comes to buying for their 12,000-sq.-ft. showroom leaving container orders to others. Meticulous record keeping helps ensure the dealer's sales people can follow up with suggestions as well as provide timely service on past purchases. In fact, the Dodds & Eder crew knows their customers so well, McLaughlin and Simons have been known to purchase items to fit a specific customer site, speculating that the customer would likely want the piece. And usually they are right.

In addition to outdoor furniture, Dodds & Eder also has a landscaping division.

Dodds & Eder took third in the 2005 Apollo Awards in the single store category.

That diversity helps during the ebb and flow of the economy, but the never-wavering commitment to service and building relationships proves a winning strategy in every situation.

"The size of our orders continually goes up," McL

Fruehauf's Patio and Garden, Boulder, Colo.

Established in 1977 as a nursery, Fruehauf's Patio and Garden, Boulder, Colo., has evolved into a casual furniture destination site with two acres of themed displays. Today outdoor furniture is its largest category, enhanced by live plants, gifts, old-fashioned candy, ice cream and more.

"We think of ourselves as the Disneyland of patio furniture stores," said Mariah Maydew, manager.

More than 400 sets of outdoor furniture are displayed throughout the site. Each area, whether in the multi-level, pyramid-shaped showroom or one of three outbuildings, centers around a different theme — from a pirate theme with tropical prints and gift accessories to twilight dining and the California seashore.

Owners Mary Fruehauf and David Daum pride themselves in the attention to service, including same-day delivery. Out-of-state delivery can also be arranged and it isn't unusual for a Fruehauf delivery truck to take the seven-hour drive south to Santa Fe. Customers also drive down from Wyoming or over from Nebraska for the day just to see what's new. And there is always something. Furniture stays on the floor year-round, although the company does a huge Christmas business as well.

"We display over 200 themed trees, but they are small, two and three feet, so we just add them to the furniture displays," Maydew said, adding the trees seldom feature traditional ornaments.

Fruehauf's vendors include Homecrest, Meadowcraft, Kingley-Bate, Brown Jordan, Cast Classics, Gloster, Hanamint, KNF Design, Laneventure, Lloyd/Flanders, O.W. Lee, Pride Family Brands, Seaside Casual, Three Coins and Treasure Garden.

This is the specialty dealer's first Apollo nomination.

The Kolo Collection, Atlanta

Nominated for an Apollo Award for the second time in two years, the Kolo Collection in Atlanta began 2006 by remodeling its 4,500-sq.-ft. showroom.

"We removed the stockroom so that we would have more selling space. It really opened up the floor and added a lot more light," said Greg Martin who founded the store with his wife, Michelle, in 2003.

Always known as a high-quality, high-design specialty dealer, the Kolo Collection continues to draw Atlanta's discriminating customer who is willing and able to pay for customization, a growing category for the business. In particular, demand grew this season for custom pillows, concrete tabletops on iron bases and ipe wood furniture.

"People want the custom design to make their spaces unique," Martin said. "Nobody wants their outdoor space to look just like somebody else's space."

He expects that trend will continue, which fits with the store's philosophy of personal customer service. The Martins and their four employees spend considerable time with customers and designers alike to ensure they more than meet their expectations.

In addition to carrying Brown Jordan, Janus et Cie, Lister, Pavilion, Skagerak, Century, FIM and TUUCI, the Kolo Collection added Cane Line woven products this season.

"This was the first time we bought a container direct from Denmark, and we have had amazing success with the product," Martin said. "It's been a real highlight."

Another highlight was the annual Kolo Collection spring party. This year, the event was co-sponsored by Atlanta magazine.

Leisure Living, Salt Lake City

Continuous process improvement isn't just a manufacturing strategy. Marc McDonald embodies the philosophy in running the family business, Leisure Living in Salt Lake City.

"Each year we evaluate what we did the past year and try to improve on it, and for the most part, I think we've done that again this year," McDonald said.

The proof is in the bottom line, and that keeps improving. McDonald and his wife, Sharon, opened Leisure Living in 1982 in partnership with Marc's parents, Charles and Beth Ann McDonald. The store's roots go back to 1925 when Marc's grandfather founded South East Furniture Co., and his mother managed the patio department.

Today Leisure Living specializes in outdoor furniture, barbecue and barstools. Major outdoor vendors include O.W. Lee, Kingsley-Bate, Gloster, Hanamint, Tropitone, Mallin, Cast Classics, Lloyd/Flanders, Meadowcraft, Winston, Brown Jordan, Treasure Garden and Gold Crest.

While the 17,500-sq.-ft. showroom remains adequate for the business, Leisure Living has grown out of its warehouse space and so is making plans for a new distribution center that will be ready by early 2008.

"It's exciting as it will better prepare us for our busy summer months," McDonald said. "We are in desperate need for more elbowroom, and this will give us more room for inventory as well as more room for servicing and staging product."

Leisure Living won second place in the 2005 Apollo Awards single store category, its first Apollo nomination.

Paine's Patio, West Falmouth, Mass.

Backed by six generations of New England furniture experience, it's little wonder that owners Doug and Kristin Shearer are pros when it comes to managing Paine's Patio for success. Paine's Patio continues the same commitment to service that has been the Shearer family's retail success story for the last 171 years.

Doug and Kristin opened their outdoor specialty business in 2002 in Pocasset, Mass., on Cape Cod. Their approach is direct.

"We focus first on the customer," said Kristin Shearer.

Paine's Patio includes an 8,000-sq.-ft. showroom and 5,000 square feet of deck and patio space, displaying product from Laneventure, Telescope, Tropitone, Carter Grandle, Kingsley-Bate, KNF Design, Rock Wood, Outdoor Lifestyles, Kettler and Seaside Casual.

Honored locally numerous times and nominated for an Apollo Award last year for the first time, Paine's Patio works to be the best. In particular, the Shearers and their staff pride themselves on providing exceptional customer service.

"The sales staff is knowledgeable, energetic and committed to exemplary service to our customers," Shearer said.

Sunnyland Furniture, Dallas

Winner of the 2005 Apollo Award single store category, Sunnyland has come a long way since owners David and Debbie Schweig opened their business in 1970. Today's 35,000-sq.-ft. showroom constantly changes, providing customers with distinct outdoor lifestyle experiences as they browse area to area.

Such lifestyle marketing not only helps them visualize what different materials and styles of outdoor furniture would look like in their own back yards, but also keeps Sunnyland on the cutting edge of the outdoor industry. The Schweigs have never been afraid to try new ideas to keep their showroom fresh.

Behind the willingness to change and push the envelope is both an understanding of what their customers want and the desire to go beyond their expectations.

"Our goal has always been to exceed our customers' expectations in every aspect of the business," David Schweig said.

In addition to exceptional presentations and a knowledgeable 23-member staff led by general manager Ron Joiner, Sunnyland exceeds customer expectations by offering a vast selection of product. Sunnyland's vendors include Ancient Mosaics, Arlington House, Brown Jordan, Carter Grandle, HammockSource, Hanamint, Homecrest, Jensen Jarrah, Laneventure, Lloyd/Flanders, Mallin, O.W. Lee, Olympia Lighting, Outdoor Lifestyle, Telescope, Tropitone, Winston, Woodard and more.

This is the third Apollo Award nomination for Sunnyland Furniture.

Multistore Category:

Carls Patio, Coconut Creek, Fla.

Carls Patio has been steadily building momentum — and new locations — since it opened its doors in 1992 in Palm Beach, Fla. The company's 12th location, a 15,000-sq.-ft. showroom north of Palm Beach in Stuart, Fla., opened in April. A new 10,000-sq.-ft. Carls Patio is slated to open in North Miami in November, while the company's third Berk's location, a 15,000-sq.-ft. store in the Los Angeles Valley, is expected to open by March 2007.

"California has been a real highlight for our company this year," said Gary Ecoff, president of Carls Patio, based in Boca Raton, Fla. "We've been there a year now and it has exceeded our expectations."

Carls Patio moved into California in 2005 with the purchase the well-established Berk's casual retail business and made remodeling a priority at both locations. Now looking like a brand new store, the San Diego showroom was expanded from 9,000 to 16,000 square feet and completely remodeled. At the Berk's showroom in Santa Monica, the storefront was completely redone, while the interior will be remodeled after the season ends.

"The store front hadn't changed in 50 years, so it made quite an impression," Ecoff said. "These were businesses that had 25-year-old carpeting on the floor, and in this industry it's all about presentation. If you want to sell a chaise lounge for $1,500, it'd better look like it is worth it and that depends on the environment that you place it in. In our mind, that means keeping the facilities up-to-date, clean and new looking."

With the growth, Carls Patio now has about 85 employees. Major vendors for the retailer include Ancient Mosaics, Brown Jordan International, Castelle, Century Gloster, Laneventure, Lloyd/ Flanders and Woodard.

Georgia Backyard, Suwanee, Ga.

With the opening of the 25,000-sq.-ft. American Backyard in Southlake, Texas, in April, Dean Luckino and his team are well on their way to developing American Backyard into a national brand. The high-end store, which will be a footprint for future expansions, creates a new category well beyond the typical outdoor furniture store.

"We aren't a counter-seasonal item," said Luckino, president and CEO. "I never take casual furniture off the floor, so to be important year-round, it has to be presented differently. You want to convince the customer that it is just as nice to sit outside in November as it is in May, and you do that through your advertising, your branding of your name and the presentation of your stores. We've gone a long way in creating that kind of environment in the Southlake store."

Successful expansion requires commitment from vendors and employees alike, and Luckino makes sure he has both before going into a new market. In fact, he sees the many Apollo nominations over the years as testament to that commitment.

"We honestly enjoy our relationships with our vendors," he said. "It really is partnering. I can't open a marketplace without their support and we've been able to have that."

As far as getting the right team of people in place for an expansion, Luckino's philosophy is it's about developing good people rather than finding good people. He continues to stress training, much of which is delivered online. Being nominated for an Apollo Award aids in that development.

"My employees love the Apollo nominations," Luckino said. "We put a lot of emphasis on being the best and doing things differently, and being nominated recognizes their effort."

Greenhouse Mall, Austin, Texas

A full year after building a new 8,000-sq.-ft. showroom for Greenhouse Mall's Austin location, Karen Galindo has nothing but good things to say about the expansion.

"It has definitely increased our business," said Galindo, who manages the company with her husband, Paul. "We have also done some more landscaping this year and add more vignettes and outside displays, and increased our use of accessories."

Turning the original showroom into a discount clearance center also proved to be a good business move. The center offers customers a lower price point on closeouts and special purchases.

"It draws customers from a different demographic base than we've had in the past," Galindo said. "It's really done well. We've had good success with Jensen Jarrah and Carter Grandle there, in particular."

It's been a good year at the San Antonio location as well.

"We've had two years there now and business continues to grow," she said. "It's been especially gratifying to see how many referrals we are getting. It shows that we are making an impression on the market there."

Both locations offer high-end merchandise from manufacturers such as O.W. Lee, Laneventure, Gloster, Windham Castings, Kessler, Brown Jordan International, Olympia Lighting, TUUCI, Lloyd/Flanders and more. Hot sellers this season have included Windham deep seating and O.W. Lee's Chateau Collection, as well as Treasure Garden's AKZ cantilever umbrella. Laurie Bell sales were also particularly strong.

The Greenhouse Mall won the 2002 Apollo Award single store category and has been nominated several times.

Patio & Hearth Shoppes, Centerville, Ohio

With a move to a new location in Columbus, Ohio this year, Patio & Hearth Shoppes continues to position itself for future expansion. All four stores — Patio & Hearth showrooms in Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Elegant Outdoors store in the Indianapolis market — are thriving. Next on the planning board is a second Elegant Outdoors store.

In the meantime, key executives Deborah Stegman, president; Thomas Stegman, vice president; and Brent Severson, general sales manager, concentrate on delivering outstanding service and exceptional presentation of merchandise.

Stores average 12,000 square feet and offer medium and high-end merchandise. Key vendors include Brown Jordan, Winston, Lloyd/Flanders, Tropitone, Cast Classics, Meadowcraft, Telescope, Treasure Garden, Ancient Mosaics and new for this year, Tommy Bahama.

Established in 1987, Patio & Hearth has been nominated for the Apollo Awards six times.

Patios Plus, Rancho, Mirage, Calif.

Just as specialty retailers around the country hit their stride in May, Patios Plus winds down its season as the snowbirds head north and leave the southern California desert behind.

"It was 118 degrees here last weekend," said Jim Schultz, Patios Plus president. "Nobody is buying outdoor furniture in that heat."

Schultz owns the business with his sister, Kristine Schultz Hutchinson, and their parents, Les and Janice Schultz. The company opened in 1978 in Rancho Mirage and added another location.

While smaller than the 30,000-sq.-ft. Rancho Mirage location, the 6,000-sq.-ft. La Quinta showroom now carries the same high-end product. But this wasn't the original plan.

"When we first opened the second store, we thought there could be a little lower price point there," Schultz said. "But people would come in and say it didn't look like a Patios Plus store. When we put our best sellers from the other location on the floor, we did much better with sales. It's all about image."

And that image is all about design, he added. A little more than half of the Rancho Mirage store is devoted to an interior design department — Kristine is an ASID designer — and her influence carries over to the outdoor furniture displays as well. All are exquisitely accessorized.

Patios Plus concentrates on just a handful of vendors, including O.W. Lee, Brown Jordan, Winston, Gloster, Kingsley-Bate and Lloyd/Flanders. Given the season ends for Patios Plus by May, the premarkets are serious business.

"We need to have the floor ready for the new season in September," Schultz said.

With their seventh Apollo nomination in eight years, Schultz credits their willingness to keep changing as key to their ongoing success.

"We believe in change," he said. "Every year, we do something different."

Waterloo Gardens, Exton, Pa.

Ask and you shall receive. At least that's what Carol Christensen discovered this season. As patio director for Waterloo Gardens, located in Devon and Exton, Penn., Christensen got the season off to a big start this year with mailings and preseason sales in February and March.

"We have really had a successful season so far with a significant increase in sales, probably because we asked for the business early," she said.

A large part of it has come in special orders, which are up 35% this year. Christensen also credits this year's success to listening to last year's customer.

"We really listened to our customers last year and then targeted our buys to those who spent money with us," she said. "They wanted furniture that was more comfortable and that had personality. They also wanted more colors and exciting tabletops."

Waterloo Gardens has a mailing list of more than 100,000, including people who bought furniture 15 years ago but who keep coming into the store to see what's new. "People who already own furniture always have it in the back of their minds that they will replace it some day," Christensen said. "If your floor is exciting and if you have something on it that is absolutely irresistible, they will be willing to give up what have and buy."

Although still a garden center, outdoor furniture is the largest category at Waterloo Gardens, which is owned by Linda LeBoutillier, CEO, and Bobby LeBoutillier, president. Key vendors include Brown Jordan, Carter Grandle, Castelle, Gloster, Hanamint, Kingsley-Bate, Lloyd/Flanders, Meadowcraft, Outdoor Lifestyle, Winston, Woodard, Treasure Garden and Zip Jack.

This is the specialty dealer's first Apollo Award nomination.

Joe McLaughlin, Joann Perkins, Dorothy Simons and Carrie Leopold, seated.

Mary Fruehauf, David Daum and Mariah Maydew

Owners Greg and Michelle Martin

Marc and Sharon McDonald

Kristin and Doug Shearer

Debbie and David Schweig

Gary Ecoff, standing, and Paul Otowchits

Brian McMillan, Lee Recchia, Dean Luckino and Tirro Luckino

Tracy Wolfrom and Karen Galindo, standing, and Steve Snyder and Paul Galindo

Tom and Deborah Stegman, seated, with Brent Severson

Kristine and Jim Schultz

From left, Bobby LeBoutillier, Carol Christensen, Georgann Aton and Bob Kressler

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