A change of Seasons in Saratoga brings upscale opportunities
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, August 4, 2006
Seasons in Saratoga's new location is an old firehouse featuring 14-ft. ceilings, exposed brick and oak flooring.
When Seasons in Saratoga moved in 2000 from the suburbs to downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y., owners Chris Armer and Teri DeSorbo changed more than their store's location. They changed their product lines, price points and customer base as well.
It was a bold move that's paid off many times over.
"It was challenging, but we were prepared for it and we had a very warm welcome from our new customers," said Armer, who manages daily operations. "They loved the store and the merchandise."
The new product mix included casual furniture from Brown Jordan, Lloyd/Flanders, Laneventure and Summer Classics, while the new customer base brought wealthy residents with second homes complete with large three-season porches and multiple decks.
To showcase their new upscale business, the siblings purchased an old firehouse on the city's main street that was built in 1883. Fourteen-foot ceilings, exposed brick and oak flooring provided a warm backdrop for vignettes dressed with indoor and outdoor accessories.
The result was a 4,000-sq.-ft. showroom with a casual yet luxurious ambience inviting customers in to relax and enjoy themselves — and which also earned Casual Living's Best Overall Merchandising Award for a single store in 2004.
Downtown is up
Chris Armer co-owns the casual store along with his sister Teri DeSorbo.
"We got into casual furniture by accident," Armer said. "I was at the New York Gift Show and picked up a truckload of imported wicker, and it sold."
Armer and DeSorbo established Seasons in Saratoga in 1997 as a gift and accessories business. Armer had 20 years of retail experience working with their uncle who owned four crafts stores, and when that business was sold, Armer decided he wanted to stay in retail.
Armer and DeSorbo had already added upholstered furniture before trying the imported wicker. Realizing the potential of the outdoor market, they continued to increase the category while keeping the upholstered furniture, accessories, gifts and Christmas categories.
Today, Seasons in Saratoga continues to offer all four categories but casual furniture represents more than 60% of the business.
Given the small space, Armer and DeSorbo, who consults on buying, advertising and merchandising, are particular in what goes on the floor. They don't offer grills, for example, and don't intend to.
"I find that if I try to do too much, I can't do it well, and there are still a lot of ways we can go in casual furniture," Armer said.
For example, the store carries very little in wood.
Armer and DeSorbo concentrated on wicker deep seating when they opened the downtown location, but have since expanded by adding cast and extruded dining and seating. Dining is now the fastest-growing product type thanks to alternative tabletops from Ancient Mosaics. Although they dropped the imported wicker for the move, wicker remains their largest material category.
As other specialty dealers have learned, Armer and DeSorbo discovered once they'd moved to the higher-end products, they couldn't compete at the lower end but the opportunities at the high end were wide open. However, the transition required new selling skills.
"There was definitely a learning curve for all of us, first to be suddenly selling a set of furniture for $3,000 or $4,000, and now $8,000 to $10,000 and up," he said. "It took a bit of education on my part and then education of my employees."
If he had it to do over again, Armer said he would seek help from his reps and suppliers sooner. "They were very helpful in teaching us how to sell high-end product," he said.
Casual furniture accounts for 60% of sales at Seasons in Saratoga, and wicker is the largest material category.
Although very appreciative of his suppliers, Armer has a few issues with outdoor furniture manufacturers overall. He believes lack of enforcement of Internet policies is the single biggest challenge facing specialty dealers today.
"Some of them have policies in place but claim that they are difficult to enforce," Armer said. "I don't see it — if you are breaking the policy, you don't get shipped. That seems pretty simple to me.
"I'm constantly online trying to police it myself and reminding my reps, because in the long run, it will definitely harm the independents like us," he said. "Those of us who maintain a storefront and inventory cannot compete with the online margins. Retail in every aspect is getting more challenging, and any sales that you lose to the Internet hurt. I think the suppliers will eventually find their dealer base eroded if they continue to allow online sales."
Two huge firehouse doors open to the store's showroom, a great way to exhibit outdoor furniture.
The casual atmosphere, with its emphasis on fun, helps retain both employees and customers.
There have been a few bumps in the road since moving downtown — like a broken water main in 2002 that flooded the store, resulting in Seasons in Saratoga closing its doors for four and a half months — but the business rebounded stronger than before. This year's rainy weather was no different.
"It's been raining for months, and in spite of it, we're having a very good season. I can't imagine how good it would have been if it were sunny," Armer said.
To take advantage of the sunny days they do have, Armer opens the two huge firehouse doors, opening the entire showroom to the outdoors.
Although Saratoga Springs' northern location means the outdoor season is fairly short, the area's horse racing activities help extend Armer's sales opportunities.
"Many people own homes in the area that they use only during the racing season," Armer said. "So instead of winding down in July, we get another push from the people who come in for the races and who want new outdoor furniture."
Upholstered furniture sales span the gap between the outdoor season and Christmas. As with outdoor furniture, both counterseasonal categories became more upscale with the move as well.
"People buy a lot of gifts and accessories and even furniture," Armer said. "If you were to pull out the specific Christmas sales, it might not be worth doing, but what it encompasses is what makes it worthwhile."
Seasons in Saratoga hosts a big Christmas event with wine and live music customers talk about throughout the year. Enhancing the event is the Saratoga Springs Victorian Street Walk, which typically draws 10,000–15,000 people.
Rather than concentrate on small holiday items, Seasons in Saratoga's Christmas category specializes in decorating services. This fits with the specialty store's overall focus on customer service, which its sophisticated customer base expects.
"We'll help our customers choose furniture colors, fabrics, layout, accessories," Armer said. "We don't do landscape design, but once they have that in place, we work very closely with them to find out how they want to use the space so we can give them the right products for the best use."
That level of service carries through to product delivery, which is done by Armer and his son, Jeff, or Armer and his brother-in-law, Chris DeSorbo.
"Delivery is the last point of contact with the customer, so I hesitate to have just anybody drop the order off and leave," he said. They use it as an opportunity to build relationships. Most of Seasons in Saratoga's five employees worked at the first location, where despite pegboard displays, the emphasis was always on good merchandising.
"We have a designer on staff and all of the employees are very talented as far as having an eye for making great displays," Armer said. "I've been very lucky with the people I've hired. They just have a love for what they do."
Tiny Girl, Big Dream