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Outdoor furniture flourishes at Waterloo Gardens

Earlier this summer, Carol Christensen walked by a man enjoying a Brown Jordan double chaise on the floor of Waterloo Gardens. Hearing his wife was with a salesperson completing the purchase of that chaise, Christensen commented, "Oh, you lucky dog."

"That's just it," he told her.

Come to find out, the man had an Irish setter that insisted on joining him whenever he lounged on his single chase. "He told me, 'I'm buying the double chaise so that she can have her half and I can have mine,'" Christensen said with a laugh.

While his motivation for buying might be unusual, it isn't at all unusual Christensen heard about it. The gregarious patio director of Waterloo Gardens' two Philadelphia locations goes out of her way to interact with customers and make sure the showrooms are comfortable, fun places to be.

Outdoor furniture — and Christensen — have been a mainstay at Waterloo Gardens since the early 1980s. The plant-oriented retailer had carried a smattering of outdoor furniture as an add-on category, but under Christensen's direction, outdoor furniture has become the company's largest department.

Christensen credits good timing and the early support of the industry for jump starting her success. Long-term relationships with vendors and giving customers want they want have kept that success going.

   From left, Bobby LeBoutillier, president; Carol Christensen, patio director; Georgann Aton, Exton patio sales manager; and Bob Kressler, Devon patio sales manager

A reason to buy

"My background wasn't in furniture sales. I learned from the people at the factories, the reps and the customers," Christensen said. "The nice thing was we were there at the beginning of what I call 'the salad days' when everybody was growing exponentially. It was just so exciting."

Christensen set the tone early on when she pioneered the idea of providing customers with furniture care sheets. Not only did it help educate consumers on such new concepts as "powder coating" and "acrylic fabric," thereby explaining the price points, it also made it clear that Waterloo Gardens had the knowledge and the desire to help consumers take care of their investment.

If there was any doubt their customers viewed the outdoor furniture as something worth investing in, it was dispelled last year when after much thought, Christensen and her team decided to cut off the lower 20% of their mix and put it on the top.

"Some of the price points we thought were just a little daring," Christensen said. "As it turned out, people will pay for something special and unique."

Waterloo Gardens has a preferred customer mailing list of about 85,000 people. The typical customer is a gardener who spends money on landscaping and has at least one, probably multiple, patios or outdoor rooms. Because they are long-time customers, they've purchased outdoor furniture in the past, but are willing to buy again, and sometimes again, if given a reason to do so.

Christensen provides that justification by ensuring Waterloo Gardens' selection is out of the ordinary.

"Even when customers come in for something in the mid-price-point range, they really want something different, they don't want cookie cutter," she said. Lately, something different translates into various alternative tabletops, deep seating — lots and lots of deep seating — and large umbrellas. Sling remains the largest outdoor furniture category, followed by cast aluminum, teak, extruded aluminum strap and outdoor wicker. Waterloo Gardens' original casual furniture category, wrought iron, is now its smallest.

In addition to its well-established customer base, Waterloo Gardens draws on the next generation — young adults who are predisposed to buy quality because their parents did. Christensen views their buying patterns as good news for the industry.

"Many of them come in and admit to having a mortgage as big as Texas and no furniture in their living or dining rooms, but they are here investing in patio furniture and a grill," she said. "They are providing themselves with an outdoor room so they can have comfortable leisure time from the get-go."

 Waterloo Gardens markets to young adults who are predisposed to buy quality because their parents did. Sushi tables and colorful displays are one way to bring Gen X and Y in the doors.  

A respect for time

In addition to casual furniture, Waterloo Gardens' product categories are live and artificial plants, gifts, garden supplies and Christmas. While some outdoor furniture stays on the floor through the fall, the showrooms at the two locations are turned over to Christmas by the first weekend in November when the season is launched with an open house.

The post-Christmas transformation is quick with the showrooms ready for sales by the end of January. Savvy customers come in during set-up to take advantage of the preseason sale that runs all of January, while those who really plan ahead ask in the fall to be included in the lead book so the store will contact them during those early months of the year.

"We really encourage our customers to shop early either to buy stock or place special orders," Christensen said. "Historically our customers are very comfortable with and do a lot of special orders, so we do a lot of business in February and March."

Because Waterloo Gardens has a small warehouse, Christensen does a big buy twice a year. That and the concentration on early sales provides flexibility in managing her mix.

Cross merchandising adds another boost. As Christensen points out, being a garden center meant Waterloo Gardens began using plants, statuary, fountains and accessories in its outdoor furniture displays years before it became the custom.

Overall, the emphasis in Waterloo Gardens is on the "wow" factor. While the pervasive popularity of earth tones can be a challenge, the showrooms are known for being punched up with color. This year's color was pink for umbrellas, throw cushions and even replacement cushions, which actually sold well.

In line with the general trend in the industry, stale product doesn't last long on the floor at Waterloo Gardens.

"I think everybody is trying to get lean and mean and make sure they are doing everything they can for profitability," Christensen said. "So we all have a tendency to be a little less sentimental about product with a waning popularity. Real estate on the floor becomes really critical."

Another critical aspect is respecting customers' time. Local demographics have changed significantly in recent years. Whereas the traditional Waterloo Garden customer was a woman who didn't work outside of the home and who had the time and the inclination to draw out her purchasing decisions, that woman is now part of a two-income household. She simply doesn't have much time to shop, and it becomes imperative the shopping experience be geared for the new reality, something Waterloo Gardens is prepared for.

One of its keys to efficient sales is its well-trained staff. About 30 of Waterloo Gardens 350 employees sell outdoor furniture. Their product knowledge and service skills are refreshed through extensive training done in January. Training, in fact, is a priority across the company, with a particular emphasis on management training.

   Cross merchandising adds a boost to Waterloo Gardens. As a garden center, it's easy to use plants, statuary, fountains and accessories in its outdoor furniture displays.

Passing it on

Back when Christensen was first learning the outdoor furniture business, she was invited by Winston to visit the plant and sit in on one of its planning sessions. Known for always having an opinion on everything, she was grateful for this and similar opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Her attitude has become a philosophy, and over time, she has been an informal mentor to many a newcomer, retailer and vendor alike. She sees it as a win-win.

"I'm always looking for new ideas and so certainly always willing to share our successes," she said.

While much has changed since the early days, Christensen's excitement hasn't diminished. "I'm passionate about this business," she said. "There is nothing more fulfilling than providing somebody with comfortable leisure time."

   Outdoor furniture has been a part of Waterloo Gardens' offering since the early 1980s. The category began as an add-on and grew to become the company's largest department.

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