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Casual furnishings stepped up at Watson's

Touted as a toy store for adults, Watson's in Indianapolis is one of 12 stores nationwide that focuses on nothing but fun and unique items for the home. From tanning beds and pool tables to home theater equipment and above-ground pools, the store has evolved over the past 41 years from its beginnings as a vending machine distributor.

 Touted as a toy store for adults, Watson

 Devoting more space to casual furniture was one of the defining factors in Watson's recent move.

 Touted as a toy store for adults, Watson

"We sell everything that nobody really needs," joked Leslie Kartholl, buyer and department manager at Watson's.

Founded in 1965 as J&J Distributing Company, a vending machine distributor near downtown Cincinnati, the company quickly grew to include sales of swimming pools and pool tables by 1969. As years passed and product lines were added, the company changed its name to reflect its founder, William Watson.

The 12 stores, located in Indianapolis; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn; Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Olathe, Kan.; Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis, Minn.; St. Louis, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark., and San Antonio, Texas, are divided into Watson's East and Watson's West. Though all operate independently, the stores do share a buying group.

This is the third season Watson's of Indianapolis has been in its current location on Pendleton Pike; they moved just across the street into a 200,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and showroom space. Casual furniture was one of the defining factors in that move.

"Patio was seasonal because of space," Kartholl said. "Patio has made a crazy jump. It's gone from being an afterthought to a major thought. We're taking it a lot more seriously than we did five years ago."

In fact, casual furniture is in the top three categories in terms of sales at Watson's, with potential to be the largest, she said. "We expect it to be the top category in the next two years," Kartholl added.

The average casual purchase at Watson's is around $2,000. The store experienced a 22% increase from last year. "We had a good summer season," she said. "No real surprises, but cast aluminum furniture has definitely become a big seller. People like the Old World look of it, and you can get a lot of furniture for your money."

Watson's vendors include Hanamint, Cast Craft, Suncoast, Carter Grandle, Tropitone, Homecrest, Laneventure, Erwin & Sons, Acacia and Agio.

Wicker collections are fairly new to Watson's, and the most popular materials at the store continue to be cast aluminum and sling. Cushions are a success, as well, and customers actually come in and ask for Sunbrella.

"Next year I am going to have fewer collections represented on the floor, but with deeper inventory," Kartholl said. "We are going to be showing several indoor wicker collections over the winter season."

Suburbs surrounding Indianapolis are growing at a fast pace, many built with sunrooms or "four seasons" rooms. East of Indianapolis, and heading into the town of Carmel, homes are selling between $1 and $3 million.

"People are spending a lot of time and thought on the outside," she said.

Competition between mass merchants and other patio stores in the area is evident. Billboards advertising area casual furniture retailers are not an uncommon sight along the roads, but Watson's has found a niche market with its vast selection of product, and sets to differentiate itself from competitors in a number of ways. One cool feature of Watson's showroom is "mood rooms," smaller, private rooms equipped with lighting, spas from Cal Spas, Artesian or Viking, and a variety of decor. Customers interested in purchasing a spa can actually come into the store, bathing suit on, and treat themselves to a first-hand trial run of the spa.

The company focuses heavily on TV advertising, with some print and radio. New promotions are highlighted monthly, and tent sales help clear out merchandise in the warehouse.

Among the challenges Watson's faces daily is keeping the floor set — "the patio department needs everyday maintenance," she said, while special orders require a heavy commitment.

"We like to think of shopping at Watson's as an enjoyable event that people look forward to and remember," Kartholl said. "We have designed our store around that aim. Our New Orleans feel, the fountain in our center aisle, the spa mood rooms, our home theater center, our vignettes of pool tables, bars, game tables, wine cabinets ... all of these have been designed for the benefit of our customers and their shopping experience."

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