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Mass Departure

Vendors suggest how outdoor specialty stores can recapture customers they may have lost to big box stores during  the recession

Chris Gigley, Carole Sloan -- Casual Living, April 2, 2013

Some retailers offer design centersSome retailers offer design centers within their stores to help consumers envision updates to their outdoor area as they select new outdoor furniture, review fabric swatch books and upgrade grill products.
For the first time in years, Economic analysts are using a different "R" word to describe the U.S. economy. Rebound, not recession.
     In January, Bloomberg News reported an increase in consumer confidence. Target Corp. was among the retail chains reporting better January sales than anticipated, signaling rebounds on the job market and in real estate.
     Steve Lowsky, president of Pride Family Brands, said the conditions are perfect for outdoor living retailers as the spring season unfolds.
     "People want to forget where we've come from and look forward," he said. "There's no better way to do so than thinking of all the things you can do outside, from landscaping to grills to furniture. You can create a little paradise in your own home."
     A holdover from the recession, however, is the increased appeal of stores such as Target for outdoor furniture. Consumers were cost conscious, but there are ways to snap them out of it.
     Lowsky suggests tailoring your sales approach to the type of customer you're dealing with. For instance, you may be working with customers who have already been put through the ringer with the big box stores.
     "They've spent $500 and got a box at the big box, then had to come home and get their tools and put it all together," Lowsky said. "That furniture lasted one, two or, if they were lucky, even three seasons. They may have gone back and purchased it again. But at some point in the cycle, they decided they couldn't keep doing it every three years."
     The sales pitch to these customers should be all about lifestyle and design. Merchandising is crucial to put them in this frame of mind. Marcia Blake, merchandising manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, said she has noticed more outdoor retailers emphasizing merchandising as a means to set themselves apart from the big box stores.
     "They're really doing a great job accessorizing and adding a lot of color with the fabrics," she said. "It's not like you just walk in and see the furniture sitting there. You see the whole package all put together that looks like an outdoor room or sitting area. They're definitely romancing it."
Pride is among the vendorsPride is among the vendors with websites that allow consumers to layout and create their own outdoor rooms.

     From there, Blake and Lowsky suggest putting creativity in the customers' hands, which can be as simple as asking these customers what their vision is for their patio area. Vendors, including Pride, have websites that allow users to design their own outdoor spaces, and the layouts can be printed and taken home by the customer.
     "A lot of our retailers have iPads or computer stations already set up," Lowsky said. "How to really close the sale is by getting customers to click their way through to create the room online." Blake said other retailers have created design centers within their stores, where they can take customers to review swatch books, catalogs and other design materials. Regardless, creating an in store environment that spurs creative thought is paramount, and it doesn't matter how small the store may be.
     "It's really a matter of organization," said Lane Venture President Gary McCray. "Smaller stores can be well organized and flow with the right mix of merchandise."
     If there is a sin in merchandising, it is, ironically, allowing the furniture to do what it is designed to do. Sit out for a long, long time. It may be built to endure years of rain, wind and sun, but it can't hide when shipments of new furniture are put next to it.
     "Do whatever you can to sell it and get it off the floor," Mc- Cray said. "Customers can tell what's been there for a while. It'll look relatively worn. Even the staff will know it, and it tends to bring down the rest of the store."
     While dated furniture will chase away these design-oriented customers, high price tags will repel the other type of customers - those who are still on the fence about getting their outdoor furniture from the big boxes. They can't get sticker shock as soon as they walk in the door.
     McCray said he recently spoke to one dealer who has successfully captured these customers by having a few moderately priced dining and chat sets on the floor.
Village Green won CasualVillage Green won Casual Living’s 2012 Best Overall Merchandising Award in the multi-store category for its full vignettes, which help consumers consider how furniture and other products could fi t together on their covered porch or outdoor room.

     "You can walk them over and say, ‘Sit in this,' and if it's all they can afford great," Mc- Cray said. "But if they're qualified to trade up, you can have them see what they're giving up with lower-cost goods. It all comes back to sorting the store properly. You want to have a representation of starter price points near the front just to start the conversation."
     Then, Blake said, sales associates need to be able to handle any questions customers throw at them.
     "You won't get detailed information or customer service in the big box stores," she said. "The prudent store owners really train their associates to be able to guide customers in the right direction."
     While explaining the technical aspects of the furniture is important, McCray said there is such a thing as sharing too much of that information.
     "You want your sales associates to know the specs to the degree that they instill confidence in the customer, but you don't want them to reel off spec after spec," McCray said. "Customers want to know several key things. How long will it last and how easy is it to clean. And if they do have issues, how do they deal with them."
     He says explaining warranties is another important part of salesmanship now that big boxes are offering comparable promises.
     "Only when you read the fine print do you see their warranties are not as comprehensive as the warranties the high-end manufacturers offer," McCray said. "That's where the salesperson needs to be well-versed and confident with the customer."
     Finally, a dealer in this new era of economic recovery needs to offer something customers got used to from shopping at the big box stores: Immediate gratification.
     "A good retailer will have what they think, and the manufacturer thinks, are very sellable colors to stock for that immediate gratification customer who needs it for this weekend," Lowsky said.
     If you do a good job the first time, he added, immediate gratification customers evolve into the kind you really want.
     "The planners who know they want to design their furniture and don't mind waiting four weeks for delivery," Lowsky said. "These are the people who have no problem waiting 30 days to get things customized so they get exactly what they want."
     Once they do, there's no going back to the big box stores - for outdoor furniture, at least.

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