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Awning maker adapts as outdoor retailer

Since 1988, Bradenton-based Discount Awnings has been a top manufacturer of residential and commercial awnings. The company’s established success with custom-designed and installed awnings prompted its expansion into the outdoor furnishings and decor business.

Backyard ExperienceIn 2004, at the height of the real estate boom, which was even more dynamic in Southwest Florida than other areas of the country, Discount Awnings owners Steven and Kim Judd opened Backyard Experience.

“They had this great open space in the front of their building that was a natural for a showroom,” said Carrie Birm, sales manager, Backyard Experience. Though not as expansive as larger chain store showrooms, Backyard Experience makes practical and creative use of every square inch. Several outdoor room vignettes have been created, each starting with its own charming mural backdrop that sets the tone for a complete array of outdoor settings.

While a tightening economy has caused Brim to narrow the store’s furniture brands to two, a diversity of products and services keeps customers coming in the door. In addition to outdoor furnishings from O.W. Lee and Windham Castings, Backyard Experience showcases and sells custom-designed, fully appointed outdoor kitchens, bistros and bars, mosaic, stone and granite fire pits, water features, landscape and lighting elements, outdoor decorative accessories, cushions, custom umbrellas, and of course, awnings.

“The one-stop shopping approach appeals to our customers,” Birm said, “because planning and creating a complete outdoor space requires a lot of planning and many steps.”

Backyard Experience

Murals and tile floor set the stage for outdoor furniture vignettes.

A couple with a newly constructed home may come in wanting to learn more about Discount Awnings’ popular retractable awning product, Birm said. Once they discover the retractable awnings are custom-made with Sunbrella fabrics, they may want to order a deep seating set with coordinating Sunbrella cushions.

Other customers who come to Backyard Experience shopping for a teak or wrought iron dining set with coordinating bar chairs may also find the store can help design and build their entire outdoor kitchen. “We work closely with subcontractors who we trust to represent us in the best fashion,” she said.

Both Backyard Experience and Discount Awnings generate most of their business through referrals.” Not only do our residential customers refer us to one another,” Birm said, “our commercial business for Discount Awnings also brings us business, which is especially helpful during this slower time.”

Discount Awnings’ customized products, constructed of aluminum and canvas or vinyl, are a popular feature in Southwest Florida architecture on both residential and commercial buildings. The company was recently contracted to create and install the unique purple awnings throughout the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, a prominent structure on Sarasota’s prized bay front.

Birm said extensive promotions for the two businesses are not in the budget at this time. To supplement referral-based leads, its Web site does generate inquiries. Surprisingly, phone book advertising is proving to be a viable resource.

“With two larger independent outdoor stores in this area recently going out of business, people who start with the yellow pages are finding us faster,” she said.

“We may be battling the Lowe’s, Home Depots and Wal-Mart’s of the world,” Birm said, “but there are still plenty of customers out there who would prefer to do business with smaller, more hands-on companies like ours.”

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