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High performance always in season at Seasonal Concepts

Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, June 15, 2006

April 15 typically isn't the high point of most people's year, but Seasonal Concepts is doing its best to change that. Every year around that date, the specialty dealer offers a five-day Tax Sale during which it pays the sales tax on all outdoor furniture purchases.

 Seasonal Concepts

Wall space is used to show off not only wall art, but other accessories to pull together a deep seating group.

(Below)Meandering aisles direct customers through the store and invite them to explore more options.
 Seasonal Concepts

"It has become the biggest promotion of the year. People love it," said Todd Swiler, vice president of retail sales and operations, Plymouth, Minn.

This year's Tax Sale boosted a spectacular season start. Good weather, plenty of inventory and eager shoppers came together in double-digit sales increases for several weekends running.

While the weather can't be controlled, Seasonal Concepts' strength in managing the other variables has kept the company growing for more than 40 years.

The company got its start in 1962 offering plastic flowers imported from China. Outdoor furniture was added to the mix a few years later. Today, Seasonal Concepts specializes in casual and outdoor product — with furniture, accessories and high-end grills accounting for about 80% of sales — and Christmas. It dropped faux flowers in the late 1990s.

"Looking back, the biggest milestones for the company have been the changes in product mix," Swiler said. "For example, in 1995 with our first foray into buying furniture from China, we had a huge increase in sales. This year has been another milestone. We've gone back to more domestic product on the floor and we are seeing great results."

Those milestones reflect the specialty dealer's focus on its customers' experience, one of three factors Swiler cites as giving a competitive edge. Rounding out that focus are its highly knowledgeable, experienced associates and its size.

Big and growing

Headquartered in Plymouth, a suburb of Minneapolis, Seasonal Concepts has 15 locations in six states. Although there are no new store openings in the immediate future, that will change.

"Our plans are to double the business in the next five years," Swiler said.

Currently, most of its showrooms are in the Midwest, the exceptions being two in Atlanta, but that also will probably change.

 Seasonal Concepts

 Fabric curtain in jewel hues creates a backdrop to separate vignettes while bright striped pillows and a throw add more color to the red cushioned sofa and chaise lounger with dramatic dark frames.

In the meantime, its existing multiple locations give the retailer clout with vendors and flexibility in meeting its customers' expectations. For example, a Twin Cities customer purchased outdoor furniture one Monday this spring, needing it in time for a Saturday event. Though out-of-stock in Minnesota, Seasonal Concepts had the group in a Kansas warehouse.

"We bore some extra cost getting it up here, but it arrived Friday morning and the customer had it Friday afternoon," Swiler said.

Seasonal Concepts' largest store at 25,000 square feet is in Overland Park, Kan., while its highest-volume location is in Bloomington, another Minneapolis suburb. The Bloomington store has been in the same location for nearly 40 years and is close to a major freeway, easily accessed from the Twin Cities. It is also near several big-box stores, which draw people to the area.

Just as important in its continued success is store manager Tom Parsons' knowledge, Swiler said. With 30 years of experience selling outdoor furniture for Seasonal Concepts, Parsons knows all there is to know about the business.

"This is common in our company," Swiler said. "You can go to any of our locations and find at least one person who has been there more than 10 years. We have very little turnover so we have knowledgeable people who are highly invested in what they do. They love the outdoor furniture business."

Given the value provided by the associates, as employees are called, the management team goes out of its way to nurture the culture.

"We are very picky when it comes to hiring new people," Swiler said. "We don't want to bring in people who are interested in only working with us a year and then leaving. So we are very attentive to our associates' needs. That doesn't have to do with money, it is more about communication and honesty."

Value guarantee

 Seasonal Concepts

 Outdoor wicker and replacement cushions continue to perform well although Seasonal Concepts shifts its emphasis back to domestic product this season.

Unlike some specialty dealers, Seasonal Concepts has a low price guarantee. Should a customer find the outdoor furniture set she wants to purchase from Seasonal Concepts at a lower price at another dealer location or even online, the company will match the price.

"Our goal is to win the customer for good," Swiler said. "I don't care that the customer gets the lower price, I care that she sees us as her best option when making another purchase and that she can tell her neighbor, 'not only did I get the best price, they delivered it and are in town if I have a problem.'"

The company spends about 6% of its annual budget on advertising, including direct mailings to its customer list two or three times a year announcing special offers and sales. Its Web site also is becoming an important communication tool. While customers cannot purchase online, they can call or e-mail requests, which are forwarded to the store closest to their location. A sales associate then contacts them.

Because it is important for Seasonal Concepts to be able to move product around its locations, there isn't much differentiation in the mix from showroom to showroom. On the floors, outdoor furniture is well accessorized and displayed in vignettes. Cast aluminum and outdoor wicker have been the biggest growth areas the past few years, but a resurgence of sling is this season's biggest story.

"I don't know if we are doing a better job in selecting it or if customers are just ready to come back to it because they like the contemporary look," Swiler said. Either way, sling is helping increase average sale prices above $1,000 and maintain margins in the mid-40%s.

"We see a lot of our product as being Middle America, but even Middle America is spending $1,000 a shot unless they are going to Target," Swiler said.

Continuity in relationships

Seasonal Concepts has shifted its emphasis back to domestic product this season and views its long-time relationships with domestic manufacturers as a key to its success.

"I've known Rory Rehmert [of Meadowcraft] since day one," said Swiler, who has worked for Seasonal Concepts since college. "In fact, a lot of people on the manufacturing side started out with Seasonal Concepts. It helps to have those kinds of relationships."

Continuity also helps in importing.

"We are doing a little less, but we still import a lot of cast and outdoor wicker," Swiler said. "We are particular about what we bring in. If it doesn't match what we saw in the showroom, we go back to the vendor. Some problems can't be avoided, but you need to make sure you are dealing with a reputable vendor."

Whatever the source, Seasonal Concepts' goal is to match its product to its customers' needs and expectations.

"We aren't trying to sell to everybody," Swiler said. "We consistently look for product for a more discerning customer. ... We want to provide them with the best possible product at the fairest possible price."

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