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Destination store draws affluent consumers

Annemarie Mannion -- Casual Living, September 1, 2008

Williams Ski & Patio Store front
Williams Ski & Patio is destination for high-end consumers.

When family-owned Williams Ski and Patio was founded in Chicago in 1881, it sold canopies for carriages. Later, it got into awnings and tents. By the early 1960s, Williams began selling outdoor furniture. It added ski equipment in the late 1960s.

Williams has become a casual furniture destination with more expensive outdoor furniture.

“We carry Tropitone, Gloster, Woodard and Brown Jordan,” Vice President Bruce Erickson said. “We’ve carried those lines for a long time. We’ve built good relationships with them.”

Those long-standing relationships offer the retailer benefits. It has input on product design and, due to its high sales volume, gets better pricing.

Some of the services Williams offers to customers from its 22,000-sq.-ft. store include delivery and set up, replacement products, an on-site warehouse and follow-up with customers after the sale.

“Because we have product in stock and on-site, we can deliver quickly,” Erickson said. “We also work with vendors who have a shorter lead time on special orders.”

The store’s staff of 10 salespeople and customer service representatives stays busy despite a slower economy.

“Big ticket sales have been a big part of our business this year,” Erickson said. “It used to be when you had a $20,000 sale, bells and whistles would go off. Now it’s like, 'Oh, another $20,000 sale. Super.’”

Teak outdoor suit
Teak furniture draws interest.

Erickson attributed the growth in large sales to customers who are willing to spend big bucks on creating outdoor rooms.

“The buzz word out there is 'outdoor rooms,’” he said. “It’s that whole outdoor experience that people want. Just like they spend money on furniture for their family rooms, they are spending money on their outdoor rooms.”

Furniture with deep, comfortable seating that can be set up as chat groups and with 36- or 42-inch high tables also are popular.

Customer interest in teak furniture is another trend Erikson sees. The retailer’s biggest seller this year was a Gloster sectional in teak that costs in the $5,000 range.

“The whole green thing is becoming big for us,” he said. “People like teak because it’s renewable and it takes less energy to produce. We will show more teak next year.”

Williams’ most successful advertising efforts are direct mail pieces sent in spring and summer. The eight-page mailings are printed on high quality paper.

“Patio furniture is a visual thing,” Erickson said. “People like to see it. That drives them into the store.”

He expects the store to continue to thrive because it draws customers from an affluent area who are not as affected by the slow economy. If they are not taking pricey vacations, Erickson said he believes customers will want to invest in making their homes comfortable.

“If people aren’t spending money on travel, a lot of times it gets dumped back in their homes,” he said.

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