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There's nothing leisurely in the passion behind Leisure Living

When Sharon McDonald walked into Leisure Living and saw that first barbecue island on her showroom floor more than a decade ago, she was less than thrilled. "Nobody is going to buy an $8,000 barbecue island," she told her husband, Marc McDonald, president of the couple's Salt Lake City outdoor specialty business.

 Marc and Sharon McDonald follow their instincts to lead the family business.

 Marc and Sharon McDonald follow their instincts to lead the family business.

Maybe it's a guy thing.

Although Leisure Living was among the first specialty retailers to display barbecue islands, Marc was pretty sure the category would be a hit. And he was right. The island sold its second day on the floor.

"From then on, she's let me buy as many of them as I want," Marc said.

Looking back, it isn't surprising Leisure Living would be in the vanguard for barbecue islands. Marc has honed his retail instincts over decades, having grown up in the family-owned furniture business watching his parents break ground in selling outdoor furnishings.

Leisure Living now specializes in outdoor furniture, barbecue and barstools. As one of the premier showrooms in the West — Leisure Living won second place in the 2005 Apollo Awards single store category — it draws high-end customers from throughout the Salt Lake City area with a combination of high standards and flat-out passion.

Focus for growth

Marc and Sharon opened Leisure Living in 1982 in partnership with Marc's parents, Charles and Beth Ann McDonald, but the store's roots go back to 1925. That was when Marc's grandfather founded South East Furniture Co. Charles and Beth Ann managed the company's patio department for years.

"It was probably the most successful department within South East Furniture, Mom and Dad did such a great job with it," Marc said. "So when South East closed, we thought we could open up again in the same location and sell patio furniture."

 Grill islands, a variety of outdoor furniture and replacement cushions keep customers coming year-round to this Salt Lake City patio store.

 Grill islands, a variety of outdoor furniture and replacement cushions keep customers coming year-round to this Salt Lake City patio store.

 Alternative tabletops and deep seating became popular at Leisure Living 15 years ago.

 Alternative tabletops and deep seating became popular at Leisure Living 15 years ago.

Like the family business before it, Leisure Living initially carried indoor furniture as well as outdoor. The ratio was just flipped, with outdoor furniture making up the bulk of the business. By the early 1990s, Marc realized he needed to concentrate on just a few areas to drive the growth he wanted.

"I felt like the store looked too much like my competitors and that we didn't offer anything unique or special," Marc said. "I knew we needed to change. Patio was our first love, what my parents and I really enjoyed selling, so we decided to just be a full-line patio store."

With one exception, he added.

"We started selling barstools in 1982," Marc said. "We bought, stocked and advertised a lot of them, making them the most successful piece of the furniture side of our business. Since they dovetailed nicely with the patio business, we became a patio and barstool specialist."

Barbecue became the third leg of the success formula a few years later.

Barbecue now takes up about 1,000 square feet of the 17,500-sq.-ft. showroom. Barstools take another 1,000 square feet and the rest is dedicated to outdoor furniture and accessories.

In its day, South East Furniture was known for customer service and high-quality products. Those standards set the tone for Leisure Living as well. Behind its emphasis on customer service is a well-stocked warehouse that allows the retailer to offer quick delivery. In addition, the three specialty categories are kept on the floor year-round, greatly extending the company's selling season.

"Typically, some of my competitors don't get new product out until May, so by being able to show it year-round I think we've established ourselves as a real specialist," Marc said. "I can deliver the next day and that is a real asset."

Give 'em what they want

The McDonalds' philosophy has been if they take care of their business, it will take care of them. Personal time and financial resources have always been put back into the business, and as a result, Leisure Living is totally debt free.

"We have been able to grow the business to the point where we can pay cash for inventory, so we are in a solid financial position to be very competitive," Marc said.

In general, Leisure Living's prices are a little lower than other mid- to high-end dealers, but once set, the price is non-negotiable. "We've never dickered," he said. "If you need to dicker, your price is too high."

Although the mix is mostly mid- to upper-end, the store does carry hot selling entry-price items. For example, back when resin began flying out of the big box stores, Leisure Living still sold thousands of Grosfillex and Allibert chairs.

"I don't think it makes sense that when something is red hot, you don't carry it and have to send your customer down to Kmart," Marc said. "We still carry resin chairs and sell quite a few of them."

Trends tend to hit Leisure Living later than other parts of the country. For instance, Marc couldn't believe resin had dropped out of sight for most dealers when it still sold like gangbusters for him. A year later, he became a believer.

That said, there are trends Leisure Living has been way out front of, for example, deep seating.

"It's always been hot," Marc said. "O.W. Lee's Old World Collection has been a home run in our store for the last 15 years."

Alternative tabletops also were in high demand at Leisure Living long before the industry discovered them. Customers loved Samsonite's Body Glove and Woodard's Margarita collections, which both had a 54-inch white werzalit [a wood core with laminae finish] tabletop.

"That was the most dominant sale in the store. In fact, they amounted to probably 50% of all of our sales," he said. "They sat well but people bought them because they loved the table."

Although Marc and Beth Ann searched, it would be years before they found alternative tabletops in abundance. He believes manufacturers are finally listening to retailers better.

"It's improved a ton over the last four or five years because of the competition," Marc said. "There are more vendors to pick from now. There are say 20 good vendors to buy sling from now; if you don't have the right alternative tabletop or deep seating, there are 19 other vendors a dealer can buy from who might."

Build on relationships

While Marc acknowledges there are many great vendors, his highest praise goes to Gold Crest Industries, supplier of the thousands upon thousands of replacement cushions Leisure Living has sold over the years.

"I have more respect for this company and its people than anyone I've ever done business with," he said. "Selling replacement cushions is a difficult business. Nobody does it better than Gold Crest."

Good communication is key to the relationship, he said. The two businesses started at about the same time and have grown together over the years.

Marc has developed strong relationships with other vendors as well, some dating to before the store opened. His dad, for example, was close friends with the Stevens family at Weber. While at South East Furniture, Charles would host demonstrations of the Weber kettle grills and sell more than 100 grills a day.

Marc has nurtured his own good relationship with Weber over the years. "They were the first vendor we went into barbecue with," he said. "They are wonderful people to do business with."

Get Marc going on good vendors, and the list gets longer and longer.

"Tropitone, O.W. Lee ... there are many of them whom I enjoy doing business with," he said. "That's the fun side of this business. And when you are friends with and have the respect of the manufacturers, if you have a curve ball come at you, you can hit it out of the park. When it's a partnership, there are really no challenges because everybody is committed to making it happen."

That philosophy includes employees. Marc is proud of hiring all of his salespeople from within. His assistant manager, Michelle Poole, started with the store when she was in high school. Such commitment, loyalty and strong relationships reflect the family standards set long ago.

"I guess I was born to be in this business," Marc said. "My dad taught me to stare a hard day's work in the face like it's nothing, so I've been blessed with a good work ethic. I have a lot of passion for what I do and I've always tried to do the best I can."

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