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Cinde W. Ingram

Agio expands exposure by adding veteran retailer

Andy Sokol brings experience from Macy's and Fortunoff

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AGIO INTERNATIONAL MOVED FORWARD IN ITS plans to supply casual furniture to more full-line furniture stores with the addition of veteran retailer Andy Sokol as vice president.
     Sokol brings recent experience of leading Macy's successful rollout of outdoor furnishings in the Northeast last year and expanding it nationwide this spring. After 25 years with Fortunoff, he had contacted Macy's in the wake of Fortunoff's closing in early 2009 and convinced the retail chain to add the category. Now, he will consult with full-line furniture retailers who may have objected to adding the outdoor category.
     "Andy Sokol has the handson, multi-decade experience on how to do it successfully," Agio President Bob Gaylord said. "There's tremendous credibility here. Andy has been in their shoes for almost 30 years."
     Gaylord and Sokol share the perspective that selling outdoor furnishings through full-line furniture stores represents the future because the walls have come down between indoor and outdoor spaces.
     When Sokol reached out to furniture stores in 2009, he found Macy's interested because it saw opportunity in adding the outdoor category. While working for Fortunoff had been a great experience, Sokol was excited to work with Macy's Furniture Galleries as they took the outdoor category nationwide. When he visited stores, Sokol shared the excitement of salespeople who said they loved him because the outdoor initiative brought in a new customer.
     "When you bring in a new category, such as outdoor furniture, it just makes everybody energized - from the sales force through the delivery department," Sokol said. "No disrespect to indoor furniture, but when customers shop for outdoor furniture there's a different buzz the consumer has. There's a different vibe. It's a happier experience because they know they are going to use this stuff to entertain. They're going to have people in their backyard. They're going to sit out in the sun, by the pool. Whatever they are going to do with their outdoor furniture, they are going to have a good time. The level of enthusiasm during the purchasing process is a more uplifting experience. Everywhere I've gone I've also seen that people are willing to spend more on their outdoor purchase than indoor. People are willing to spend the extra."
     In his work with Agio, Sokol expects to be on the road much of the time visiting retailers.
     "Even though my title is vice president of sales for the furniture division, I don't really consider myself just a salesperson or a VP of sales," Sokol said. "I consider myself in a lot of ways a consultant because I'm there to help the retailer with everything they need to know to be successful in outdoor furniture - from ceiling heights, to how much space they need per setting, to how to order the merchandise and flow in the merchandise. Whatever I do as a consultant, in addition to a sales VP, will be to help them learn and understand what they need to be successful. I personally feel that by offering my services to anyone who wants to take advantage of them, I can cut down their learning curve by three or four years."
     Sokol's responsibility will be to overcome the objections of full-line furniture retailers who don't think they can be successful in the outdoor business, Gaylord said. Common objections to adding outdoor lines include not knowing anything about the category, previous unsuccessful attempts or disliking seasonal businesses.
     "All legitimate except for one thing - we have a very legitimate industry where the wall between indoor and outdoor is coming down so obviously," Gaylord said. "It's a natural extension of their business. It just makes sense that women would want to buy our furniture in the type of environment that these indoor furniture retailers offer. They have great selection, great displays and salespeople."
     Gaylord said he thinks it's a shame the casual furniture category is so underrepresented in full-line furniture stores. The difference now is "we're starting to get their attention," he said. "I think we have close to 50 full-line furniture retailers, representing about 300 stores, and there will be some new ones coming on board next year."
     Because full-line furniture stores invest more heavily in advertising and promotion, he thinks their addition of the outdoor category will be a win for the overall casual industry.
     "It's no secret that I think our industry has way too much potential and is way too important to rest on the future of either the boutique specialty industry or home centers or mass merchants," Gaylord said. "Not that all these people don't do a good job. Certainly, the boutique specialty retailers are the right retailer, but the problem is it's not enough exposure."

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