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Outdoor Elegance targets extreme high end

Retail Profile

Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, October 1, 2009

the people of outdoor elegance
Doug and Sharon Sanicola, seated, with General Manager Tom Kay

When Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center hosted a designer appreciation night last spring, Doug Sanicola hired a motor coach to drive his guests from Pasadena to his store in La Verne, Calif., 20 miles away.

“That time of day it takes an hour to get here, and I didn’t want them to have to hassle the traffic,” said Sanicola, who owns Outdoor Elegance with his wife, Sharon. “Let me tell you, that was a big deal. They are still talking about it.”

This wasn’t the first time Sanicola has gone out of his way to nurture his relationship with interior designers, nor will it be the last. Designers, contractors and hospitality buyers comprise a large portion of his customer base and have helped the retailer achieve double-digit growth when many other specialty retailers in Southern California are struggling.

“My business is up 28 percent over any year previous, and with O.W. Lee, I’m up over 200 percent,” Sanicola said.

Quick to add that the recession has left its mark, primarily slowing sales to the $500-$2,500 customer, Sanicola believes it is superb customer service that drives Outdoor Elegance’s growth.

Add that to a new 20,000-sq.-ft. building that includes a 13,000-sq.-ft. showroom, 15,000 square feet of outdoor space and a separate area for the interior design and other commercial trade — along with numerous events and Sanicola’s aggressive optimism and energy — and the growth rate makes perfect sense.

“We do a lot to make sure that people understand who we are and why they have a good reason to come here,” he said. “We give them a lot of incentives.”

Going outdoor

fountain courtyard
Fountains account for 10% of the retailer’s sales.

Outdoor Elegance started out as Cathy’s Cottage, established in 1990. The Sanicolas bought the business in May 2001 simply to acquire the lease option on its 2-acre location. Sanicola was in insurance lending and marketing. Although he and Sharon had shopped at Cathy’s Cottage for many years, they had no intention of going into the outdoor furniture business.

But things change.

“In the two years it took to exercise the option, my wife and I fell in love with the industry, so here we sit,” he said.

They changed the name but remained working out of the 4,500-sq.-ft. and 900-sq.-ft. showrooms on the lot until 2007. It was then the Sanicolas decided to focus on the extreme high end, targeting the wealthy residents in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and other nearby neighborhoods.

Shown from the second floor, you can see the wide selection for customers to choose from.

Their decision resulted in two critical moves: Building a destination environment and aggressively pursuing relationships with interior designers. The relationship building comes easy for the gregarious Sanicola, who became an active member of the nearest ASID chapter, in Pasadena.

The new building was a bit more challenging.

“We worked out of a 40 by 80-foot tent and a double-wide utility trailer pretty much from the end of 2007 until we moved into the new building in October,” Sanicola said. “We still maintained a fairly good level of business. It just wasn’t the best shopping experience, being on an asphalt parking lot in a tent with no air conditioning.”

At the same time, Sanicola helped start the Design Group, a cross-marketing group with a combined customer list of more than 100,000 that includes among others a construction company, paving company and indoor kitchen company. Some of the members display within Outdoor Elegance’s design center area.

“Just because we are in the outdoor business doesn’t mean that we can’t sell an indoor kitchen, and vice versa,” Sanicola said. “It is all about keeping people apprised of what you are doing and offering them opportunities.”

Incentives abound. For instance, when purchasing outdoor furniture from Outdoor Elegance, a customer will receive a gift card that can be used at any of the other Design Group entities; they in turn give gift cards for purchases at Outdoor Elegance.

“So we keep our customers within our group, and by the time they are done working their way through the cycle it might be a year or so, and they are ready to return and buy more furniture,” Sanicola said.

Making customers comfortable

Outdoor Elegance’s largest, and fastest growing, category is wrought iron. All of the company’s customers can shop all of the lines and do. A recent retail sale of a Kettal collection, for example, was made to customers who happened to see the outdoor furniture in Spain.

With lots of windows, there is always a bright and sunny atmosphere at Outdoor Elegance.

Casual furniture accounts for 65% of the company’s sales, outdoor kitchens 15%, fountains 10% with lighting and other accessories accounting for another 10%.

Because Outdoor Elegance offers a complete maintenance service for both residential and commercial customers, a significant aspect of its sales cycle is ensuring that customers don’t leave without a service contract as well as furniture covers, cleaning knowledge and product.

That said, Sanicola is a firm believer in selling customers less rather than more.

“In most cases, I would sell somebody maybe two-thirds of what they want and tell them that they can always come back and buy more,” he said.

That reassures customers that Outdoor Elegance will have what they need when they need it, unlike a big box store. In addition, it offers customers a safety net when it comes to special orders, which account for the majority of sales.

“Once they special order, they own it,” Sanicola said. “I’m not going to change my price or charge them more for delivery. So unless they absolutely want it now or it is part of the design plan, I think it is best to undersell rather than oversell. You gain a lot of trust when you do that.”

Because everything is measured and tracked, Sanicola can see a definite bump in sales associated with the Design Group. While he hasn’t forsaken traditional advertising, he believes technology is the way to go. The company’s Web site is a vital aspect of its marketing and is continually upgraded to improve the customer experience. In addition, e-mail is frequently used to touch the market.

“We work with a marketing firm that does e-mail blasts for us to designers, contractors and our retail customer mailing list, and these have proven to be very successful,” he said.

Even in Outdoor Elegance’s sophisticated market, education is a big part of the process.

“The selling process has changed dramatically in the last 18 months,” Sanicola said. “It is two to three times longer, and the customer expects a very knowledgeable salesperson who can deliver custom solutions for their particular need.”

Education is also done through the numerous events at the store. In addition to the designer evenings, Outdoor Elegance hosts parties for VIP customers and holds other events.

For 2010, Sanicola plans to do more of the same, focusing even harder on making sure his customers get what they want.

“It is all about making customers extremely comfortable with what we do,” he said.

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