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Naples Patio growing on Florida's Gulf Coast

David Howell may not be a native Floridian, but he helps Florida homeowners fulfill their decorating dreams at his six Naples Patio stores along the Gulf Coast.

He's actually from Indiana and moved to Florida in 1979. During college, he worked part time at a casual furniture retailer and eventually wound up at Rhodes Furniture, relocating to Naples and working for the interior furniture retailer for a decade.

"I got to Naples and fell in love with the place," Howell said. "After 10 years with Rhodes, I had a retirement option and wanted to do something different."

That "something different" resulted in Naples Patio, which opened its doors in May 1995. "I enjoyed the casual part of the business," Howell said. "It's so clean and easy to start up ... and a whole lot of fun."

The casual business has fewer customer service problems, such as damaged goods, than the interior business does, he said.

The second Naples Patio opened in November 1997. The chain now numbers six, with three stores in Naples and one each in Bonita Springs, Sarasota and Bradenton. The average showroom is 8,500 square feet and is chock-full of furniture from Winston, Brown Jordan, Vineyard, Suncoast, Hanamint, Windham Castings, Lloyd/Flanders, Whitecraft and Homecrest, lighting from Olympia Lighting and umbrellas from Treasure Garden and Galtech.

Casual furniture stores in Florida are as ubiquitous as retirees on a golf course, so Howell has to work hard to help Naples Patio stand out. "The two things I hear from customers — and I spend 70% of my time in the stores — is we have a wide range of products with quality looks and immediate delivery and good sales people," Howell said. "It's fun to come into one of our stores, and it shows."

Turnover among the sales staff is virtually non-existent, and new employees spend two weeks in intensive training before working their first shift on the sales floor. Howell covers policies and procedures, while buyer Scott Andrews covers products with help from sales reps who also come in to discuss their lines. Computer training is part of the package.

The company opened a 60,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in south Fort Myers in January 2004, but the facility soon was overrun with merchandise from the six Naples Patios as well as the three Elegant Outdoors shops that Howell owns in Naples, Sarasota and Tampa. The warehouse has been sold, and construction is under way on a 100,000-sq.-ft. facility across the street.

Howell devised the Brown Jordan International Elegant Outdoors concept while on a company-sponsored cruise 2 ½ years ago and sold BJI management on the concept of offering a variety of furniture lines in one place. After the first store opened in November 2003 in Naples, BJI contacted Howell for permission to use the name in other stores. In addition to Howell's three stores, there are an additional 30 Elegant Outdoors Stores across the country, supported by BJI advertising in those market areas.

"Naples Patio hits the middle of the road and touches the high end," Howell said. "I wanted to do something higher end under a separate company name."

And it appears to be a success. The average ticket at Naples Patio is $1,375, compared to $2,800 at Elegant Outdoors. "We truly are hitting a different customer," Howell said.

Advertising for both brands is the same, with 80% of ad dollars going to television on shows that hit the 34-and-up female demographic such as "Today" and "Dr. Phil," with the remainder going to Yellow Pages advertising and limited newspaper advertising around specific events.

Naples Patio has tent sales in April and September, as well as two- or three-day sales in November, January, February and March.

Over the next five years, Howell sees his empire growing to nine Naples Patio stores, including the two scheduled to open later this year in Tampa and Fort Myers, and six Elegant Outdoors outlets.

"I never in a million years thought this would happen," Howell said of his success. "I never thought past the second store."

He credits his 53 employees, from sales people to the warehouse staff that delivers up to 500 pieces of furniture a day with no problem.

"I really don't see an end in sight," he said.

Photography by Erik Kellar

Lloyd Flanders' Island Way Collection is highlighted at Naples Patio in a smart vignette featuring greenery, coordinating outdoor lamps, tableware and home accents.

Another vignette, above, utilizes Pegallo columns and trellises from Erwin & Sons Direct Imports, paired with Windham Castings club seating. Left, Erwin & Sons' Tahiti Dining Group.

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