Retail Profile - Stover adapts to market changes
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, November 8, 2010
STOVER HEARTH & Patio has grown with the community of Frederick, Md. And because of that symbiotic relationship, the store is starting to look a little different this winter.
"Our name says ‘hearth' because back when we started 32 years ago, wood stoves and gas logs were popular," said Becky Stover, the store's founder who has gradually turned most of the daily control of the business to her son, Chris.
The historic charm of Frederick, located less than 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., helped it develop into a major retirement community, Stover said. But newcomers didn't want wood stoves anymore, either because they moved into condos or because they simply didn't want to deal with the upkeep.
"They liked gas logs, so we did that for a while," she said. "But that category became too much of an appliance for us. We're slowly leaving it, even though our name still has ‘hearth' in it."
The store still sells electric fireplaces and tools, which the Stover staff cross-merchandises with outdoor furniture on the second floor and fills the first floor with beginning in September. But Stover admits neither she nor Chris are sure what the hearth business will be like this winter season.
Stover said she and Chris want to find a new category to replace hearth and give customers another reason to shop. If nothing else, they certainly have the gumption to come up with something good.
From consumer to retailer
Stover Hearth & Patio wouldn't exist without Becky Stover's initiative and her frustration over the dearth of stylish out-door furniture in her area 32 years ago.
"I was looking for something other than what I could find at Sears," she recalled. "I wanted strap furniture that was a little nicer."
Stover was a real estate agent at the time, and she wasn't enjoying that career direction. When she discovered an untapped market, her entrepreneurial instincts told her it was time for a change.
"My Dad was a builder and all my uncles were electricians and plumbers," she said. "Over the dinner table, I heard all about being an entrepreneur, all the problems and joys that go with it."
Stover also knew how much she enjoyed shopping for home furnishings and browsing different fabrics. Retailing, she decided, would be fun. Her husband, a masonry contractor, encouraged her to go for it.
"He said, ‘Go find a piece of property and I'll help you open a store,'" said Stover, who found a prime parcel with an abandoned gas station on high-traffic Baltimore National Pike. "We added to the building and bought land in the back. As he had time, he built another building."
Stover opened the store with only a couple furniture lines and gradually added more over the years. When Winston launched its line in 1975, Stover said she bought in and advertised it heavily, a move that paid longterm dividends.
"They sell a well-made product for affordable pricing, which seemed to fitnicely in place here," she said. "Because of the competition in Rockville that we're up against from time to time, we had the territory for Winston sewn up pretty well. I guess that's why Winston became our No. 1 seller for years and years."
The store continues to add new lines. The addition of Pride Family Brands furniture this season, for instance, went very well, Stover said. Other lines it sells include Lane Venture, Lloyd/Flanders, Classic Rattan and Hanamint.
"I think customers expect us to have the latest looks," Stover said. "When they get a Front Gate catalog, for instance, and see something they like, they'll come in here first. They come in with the catalog."
Customers almost always find what they're looking for, and because they know the store is a family business they're compelled to buy at the store instead of the catalog.
"That's the biggest key for us, to have the touch of a family atmosphere," Stover said. "They like the fact that there's always a Stover around here. They feel safe. I guess that's why we do a lot of special orders. They trust us. It's the trust of a family."
But just as the store is evolving out of the hearth business, Stover is gradually handing the day-to-day operations over to Chris. She spends the off seasons at her tropical vacation home.
"I'll come back the first of April and stay active in the business all through the main season because I enjoy doing it," she said. "I always enjoyed doing this, but it's also good to step back. When you're tied down in retail, you're working when you could be playing."
Figuring out how to give the off-season business a boost will be Chris' responsibility. Luckily, his mother has already laid the groundwork.
Founder Becky Stover will hand over day-today operations to her son, Chris.
Casual furniture and electric fireplaces are displayed in vignettes during the winter.
An array of accessories, from wall art to pillows, keep off-season business steady.
A surprisingly strong accessory category at Stover has been tabletop, a product of the growth in home entertaining.
Wicker in the winter
As the housing market has changed with the influx of retirees, Stover has picked up on something else. Sunrooms are all the rage. "People want the view," said Stover. "We have gorgeous views here. Usually you can look out over the countryside, and people want to have the windows to do that."
Case goods can't handle that kind of sun exposure. Wicker can, and Stover has noticed that during the last few winters people come in wanting wicker for their sunrooms. "It's affordable and it's comfortable and it sells," she said.
She has tailored her assortment of winter furniture to her clientele.
"We change things up with color, and we'll bring in more natural wicker," she said. "In the summer, we fill the floor with more sets of the synthetic."
Stover also changes the winter product mix by adding more accessories, ranging from lamps to rugs to tableware.
"That keeps us afloat," she said. "In January, we start to promote special orders of patio furniture and wicker. That tides us over until we sell off the samples and bring in more of the patio sets and outdoor items."
If beautifully cross-merchandised displays like this aren’t enough to entice customers, Stover’s family ownership is. Customers love knowing a Stover is always on the floor.
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As Stover Hearth & Patio phases out hearth, the store is finding strong off-season demand for wicker. Customers are placing these pieces in sunrooms, which are popular in the store's Frederick, Md., market.
But just staying afloat isn't good enough. Not for a woman who turned her shopping frustration into a successful, 32-year-old retail business. She knows something better is always out there and she enjoys the search.