Extension Patio: As times change, customers seek casual
Larry Thomas -- Casual Living, November 1, 2008
According to Barry Troll, good business is about making friends, and he's made plenty in his 40-plus years at Extension Patio in Trenton, N.J. Those customers he has won over with honesty and devotion have kept the retailer's business steady.
Extension Patio is a destination store at its location on Princeton Avenue, where it's been in one form or another since 1948, when Troll's father opened a toy store there. The toy store occupied about half the space back then. A vacuum cleaner store had the front half until 1952, when the elder Troll bought the whole building.
"The toy business was absolutely wonderful," Troll recalled. "At that time, if you wanted toys you could only get them at the department stores and only at Christmas. We were the only full-time toy store around."
Eventually, Troll's father added a few sidelines — beach umbrellas, sandboxes, beach chairs, etc. — that evolved into a patio furniture department. When a department store opened nearby in 1963 and ran the Trolls out of the toy business, their store became all casual furniture, the first of its kind in New Jersey, Troll said.
As a result, Extension Patio has lots of long-term ties in the industry. Troll's daughter, Jennifer, who is now his business partner, said the store has carried Telescope Casual furniture since 1958. It has also been a Meadowcraft customer since 1960. When Winston and Hanamint launched their first lines, Extension Patio was an early customer. Many reps he works with today have been calling on him for several decades.
"I stick with manufacturers that take care of me and my customers," Troll said.
Variety is the name of the game at Extension. More than 120 umbrellas are always propped against the back wall. In the summer, 200 chaise cushions line the 50-ft. front display window. An assortment of wicker, cast iron and aluminum furniture are scattered across the 6,000-sq.-ft. sales floor, which customers are left free to browse before either Barry or Jennifer checks on them.
Few Extension customers are from Trenton. The store draws from the Princeton area south, and Troll said 40% of his business comes from Pennsylvania. Although he said sales are about even this year with 2007, winning people over in the store has been tougher in 2008.
"The low end has been disappointing because the mass merchants are getting a lot of that business," Troll said. "Our customers aren't coming in looking for the inexpensive chair anymore. They're looking for quality. But I still like having a mix."
Extension Patio's robust commercial business has softened the blow of the tougher retail market. In 1965, Troll had the foresight to start cold calling local public pools, housing developments and country clubs. Now, he not only provides furniture to those places, he also has a contract with the state of New Jersey and another with Mercer County.
"[Mercer County] has three golf courses in the city, and we furnished all three this year with Hanamint furniture," he said. "Each course got 200 pieces of furniture."
What keeps commercial and residential customers happy is the service they get, whether or not they buy. One customer brought in a torn sling from a vendor the store no longer carries. Troll not only got a new sling, he refastened it to the frame. The customer immediately brought in another chair for a repair.
"Replacing slings is very good for my customers and for me," said Troll. "I make a friend, and he or she tells 20 people."
Troll has also been repairing umbrellas for the last four decades, a skill so rare now that retailers in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York send him their umbrella repair jobs.
"I don't know what people are going to do when he retires," Jennifer said. "Because when he does, that's it for umbrella repairs."
While the overall atmosphere at Extension Patio feels frozen in time, the store has changed over the years. Most recently, Jennifer brought splashes of vibrant color to the merchandise mix, a move her father was suspect of at first.
"I'm an old-fashioned, very beige and brown kind of guy," he said. "But adding color has worked."
He said he also noticed a big shift in umbrella sales this summer. Sales used to favor 7-ft. models, but he nearly sold out of 11-ft. umbrellas this time. He said he'll shift his buying accordingly.
In general, Extension Patio has remained consistent through the years, which is exactly how Troll's customers like it. They know they'll always find quality merchandise with a few new things mixed in. They know they can bring just about any repair job in to Troll. And because of that, business has been just as steady.
"We're not the fanciest or the biggest store around, but we're pretty good," Troll said. "We have a great reputation and I love it. I'm proud of what we've done here."