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Florida retailer keeps its products casual

Leader’s Casual Furniture in Sarasota is located on busy U.S. Highway 41, just a few blocks from Robb & Stucky. Although the area is replete with home furnishings stores, only Leader’s is 100% dedicated to selling “casual home furnishings.” As it states on its Web site, there are no formal cherry wood dining sets, no heavy black leather sofas – and no apologies for staying true to its casual roots.

Leader’s Casual Furniture

Rattan and wicker offer casual lifestyle choices at Leader’s.

Leader’s Casual Furniture

Vertical displays maximize floor space at Leader’s.

Founded in 1971, Leader’s Casual Furniture started in St. Petersburg, about 40 miles north of Sarasota, with a single showroom. A steady and consistent growth plan has expanded one showroom into 18 throughout Florida and has earned the company numerous industry accolades along the way.

Four years ago, growth at the Sarasota location merited moving to a larger location next door. In its current 6,800-sq.-ft. space, Leader’s offers a diverse inventory of high-quality rattan, wicker and patio furniture for every room in the house. Top-selling brands include Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics, Tropitone and Capris.

According to Larry Watt, chief marketing officer for Leader’s, business at the Sarasota store is strong. “Our numbers are up here and across the board at our other locations,” he said. How does Leader’s meet the challenge of today’s sluggish and uncertain economy? Watt attributes his company’s success to several key factors.

First and foremost is knowing the customer. “Our customer has changed over the past 17 years and we’re very tuned in to that,” he said. “Where the average Leader’s customer used to be the 55 years and older set, now the profile has a much wider range. Today, our customers are anyone from the 20-somethings and beyond.”

Typical buyers at the Sarasota store – and in fact, at all Leader’s locations in the sunshine state – include young professionals who are furnishing their first home, growing families that are adding an outdoor room to their home, seasonal residents with new or remodeled second homes and condominiums, and empty nesters, who have traded their larger, more traditional home for something smaller that doesn’t necessarily accommodate their existing furniture.

In tandem with understanding its customers is an unwavering emphasis on communication at every level. “As a long-standing, family-owned business, our management philosophy is very interactive, very hands-on,” said Watt. “Whether it’s me or another senior manager, one of us visits each of our 18 stores regularly, and by that I mean something like twice a month, which is pretty unique in this or any business. We call it management by communication, not intimidation, and we really believe in it.”

A typical management visit may entail strategy sessions, marketing meetings or corporate training sessions for new employees. Recently at the Sarasota showroom, Watt dressed down and rolled up his sleeves to assist with a complete two-day floor remodel.

Leader’s open and active management style creates a team-oriented environment and helps keep everyone at all store locations on the same page, Watt said. This, in turn, helps staff communicate with customers confidently and with a consistent brand message.

Floor remodels, by the way, are one of the strategies Leader’s uses to keep existing customers coming back. “It’s our goal to change the floor around at each location about once a year,” he said. “We know it works by how many times customers will come in and say, 'Is this new?’ when actually it was here all along, just in another part of the showroom.”

Leader’s attracts new customers with a combination of print advertising, direct mail and some radio. “Our radio advertising is new to us, but it’s been working well,” Watt said.

Over and above any paid promotion, however, Watt confirmed the word-of-mouth element pays the biggest rewards. While all of Leader’s locations are in Florida, the brand has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading casual furniture retailers. Often stopped at trade shows by people when they see his badge, Watt said, “People know us, love our furniture and want to tell us about it – and really, there’s no better marketing than that.”

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