Lehrer Fireplace & Patio
Staff Staff -- Casual Living, April 2, 2013
East county line road in highlands Ranch, Colo., just south of Denver, has all the hallmarks of a thriving suburb. Woodsy housing developments. Every chain restaurant imaginable. Big box stores galore. Snarls of traffic.
Given all the national retail and restaurant chains lining both sides of the road, it's hard to tell where in the country you are. You could be anywhere, and that's exactly why Lesley Short likes the location. Locally owned and operated Lehrer Fireplace and Patio stands out in the crowd.
"Being in such a concentrated retail area is a good thing for us because we're a very reputable company," Short said. "We do Internet and radio advertising, but 65% of our sales comes from word of mouth. We also partner a lot with landscaping companies and contractors who refer us to their customers."
Lehrer has carefully cultivated that reputation over the years. Short's grandfather, Joe Lehrer, opened the fi rst store in 1954. It's still there. Back then, it was strictly hearth, and hearth still makes up about half of the overall business. Now, Short's uncles, Keith and Ken Lehrer, run things, and the product mix includes patio furniture and grills, which split the other half of total sales.
The Highlands Ranch store and a third store in the Denver suburb of Lakewood opened about 15 years ago. Each one serves a different kind of customer. While the original Denver store sells more compact grills, furniture and hearth goods for urban customers living in loft s and bungalows, Lakewood customers live nearer to the Rockies. Durability is a big selling point thanks to more extreme conditions.
"We had a customer there who had to get a new grill because a bear got to their old one," Short said.
Short, her husband, Matt ; younger sister, Andrea; and mother, Linda Moss, work at the Highlands Ranch store, where the clientele is mostly homeowners with big houses and big backyards. Like everywhere else in the country, the sluggish economy hurt residential real estate sales and construction and, by extension, demand for patio furniture.
Outdoor kitchens helped keep the Highlands Ranch store busy.
"Before two years ago, we were doing primarily big outdoor kitchen projects," Short said. "But as outdoor kitchens have become more popular on HGTV, we're starting to break into the lower end of the market where we can do smaller projects for local customers."
Flexibility has helped Lehrer reach those customers. The retailer offers pre-built grill islands through Bull Outdoor Products well as custom-built islands. Its projects can range from $30,000 full kitchen builds to a simple $800 counter a homeowner can wheel the grill up to.
"The big thing here is trying to make it so you can live outside," she said. "A big selling point we're seeing with real estate agents here is outdoor rooms, where you're increasing your living space by using your deck or patio."
It's no surprise, then, that outdoor kitchen projects oft en lead to furniture sales.
"With outdoor kitchens becoming more popular, we're doing more outdoor living rooms with the fi replace, couches and lounge chairs," Short said. "We even work with a company that makes daybeds."
Short said she and her staff have to be patient to get that business. Customers tend to buy just a few pieces of furniture with the kitchen installation.
"At the minimum it's barstools that go up to the counter so you can hang out and watch the grill," she said. "But the next summer, they'll come back in and buy the rest of the matching furniture. We help make those areas one cohesive space."
That's where Moss comes in. She eschewed the family business and set out on her own to launch a successful commercial interior design business, designing mostly hotel spaces. Now, she uses her expertise to add to the shopping experience at the Highlands Ranch store.
"She's an expert at color and putting different patterns together," Short said. "To me that's hard, but to her it makes sense. She can say, ‘Here are all the colors and patterns we offer, but here are a few ideas that would look great.' We don't charge anything for that service."
Moss helps close a lot of deals. Short said a majority of her customers come into the store knowing that they'd like to improve their outdoor spaces. But they don't know what's available or how to achieve it.
"A big part of our business is customer service and helping answer questions to help those customers figure out what they want," Short said.
A few years ago, Short noticed that what many customers wanted was to save money. With the economy in a rut and the big box stores advertising outdoor furniture heavily, more customers began getting their dining and chat sets at the big boxes and home improvement super stores.
Lehrer immediately stressed customer education, telling every customer who came into the store why its higher priced grills, furniture and umbrellas were worth the extra money. With the dry and sunny climate of Colorado, it wasn't an easy case to make.
"We have 300 days of sunshine in Colorado," Short said. "Our winters have been mild. This January, we got only one or two days of snow. Even when there was snow on the ground in the morning, by the afternoon it was in the 60s."
All that sun, however, is the problem.
"We're so close to the sun at this altitude, it bleaches everything," Short said. "It bleaches houses. Even trees will bleach out. A lot of the cheaper furniture is not powder coated and the paint will fade. I've seen less expensive fabrics fade in a matter of a summer."
Furniture from quality vendors such as OW Lee and cushions and umbrellas covered in Sunbrella fabrics, Short told customers, can stand up to the sun. They won't have to buy new patio furniture every year.
The message not only got across, it spread to other potential customers via word of- mouth. Short said sales this year have bounced back along with the economy, further boosting Lehrer's well-deserved reputation as a top resource for high-quality, long lasting furniture, grills and outdoor kitchens in Denver.
When you're an independent retailer surrounded by national chain stores, that means a lot.
The Highlands Ranch store south of downtown Denver is one of three Lehrer locations in the area. Each serves a different type of customer. The Highlands Ranch clientele consists mostly of suburbanite homeowners with plenty of backyard space.
The Big Green Egg is the most popular grill brand at Lehrer. Fire restrictions that have become a summer rite of passage in Colorado have compelled many customers to have both gas and charcoal grills, so they can use the former during the restrictions.
Installations of outdoor kitchens like this used to make up a tiny percentage of the business at Lehrer Fireplace & Patio. But within the last fi ve years, that business has increased up to about 25% of overall sales.