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Laurie Rudd

Exterior design adds to specialists' services

Potential to increase customers and revenues

The popularity of creating outdoor rooms and living spaces presents today's casual retailers with a unique opportunity for tremendous potential to increase customers and revenues.
Just as interior designers have created access to innovation in furnishings for the indoors, providing exterior design services allows casual retailers, their sales personnel and in-store designers to do the same for outdoor furnishings. With this extension of customer service, casual retailers can distinguish themselves and add yet another special feature to specialty retailing.
Exterior Design adds to specialist services

"Fifty years ago outdoor furnishings included a picnic table and a bench," said Devora Lilian, interior decorator for At Home Design Center, Greenwich, Conn. "Today, we are able to offer items that customers may not initially come in to buy, but only because they are not aware of what is available."
From incorporating performance fabrics and durable finishes to space planning for patio areas, the casual furniture retailer can capitalize on the consumer's desire to not only learn more about all that is new for outdoor living, but blend it into their own patios or backyards. Just as the size and services of casual retailers varies, so can the form and function of outdoor design services they provide.
"The exterior design service is probably not a determining factor in our customer's decision to purchase with us, but it is one more way that Robb & Stucky can demonstrate the value of purchasing through our stores," said Michael Hayes, general manager, Robb & Stucky Casual Living Outdoor. "Our sales staff in the patio stores will gladly go to the customer's home to offer suggestions on furniture selection and placement, finish and fabric choices."
To explore this potential growth area, Casual Living asked key retailers from across the nation for tips on establishing and succeeding in a specialty within casual specialty - exterior design services.

Tip 1: Give advice freely
From an initial consult to providing a complete exterior design plan, casual retailers find attaching no cost to some part of the process creates heightened interest.
"With our design consultation, the initial visit is free," said Karla Biddle, Biddle Outdoor Center, Sedona and Prescott, Ariz. "There is normally a charge for an exterior design plan; however, folks will bring in site plans to the landscape designer and he will work them up a plan that incorporates furnishings as well at no charge."
As with Biddle, design services may grow out of other areas within the retail operation. At The Patio Shop in Chattanooga, Tenn., the free design services are more commonly associated with their interiors business, but exteriors also become a consideration. "Typically, there is not a fee," said Mike Hartley, buyer, The Patio Shop. "Our salespeople will visit a home and measure and draw out a layout for the customer. Once they realize there are outdoor spaces as well, they will recommend products from The Patio Shop."

Tip 2: Optimize opportunity
Whatever the level of complementary services, one fact remains: Providing exterior design expertise creates an opportunity.
"Offering the design services does turn into add-on sales," Biddle said. "We offer a turnkey operation with spas, custom-built pools and outdoor kitchens. Some customers come into the store for furniture and realize they need their entire back yard redone and it results in additional sales for us."
The search for quality dining furniture, in many cases, provides a starting point for retailers to introduce their services and make exterior planning suggestions. "I went to a home recently and spoke with the homeowner about a table and chairs, however the space was very large," Lilian said. "I was able to present ideas for dressing it and the customer purchased the plan."
Today's economic climate has had an effect on the delivery of exterior design service, but not in a way one might imagine.
"Obviously, most everyone is being more careful about how and where they spend their money," Hayes said. "We are seeing people who might not normally request a home consultation doing so now, so they can be sure they are purchasing the best item for their lifestyle and budget."
At the Home Design Center in Greenwich, Conn., Lilian also is finding wealthier customers purchasing cautiously. "These customers need more assistance than most customers; but at the same time are spending less on overall projects," Lilian said. "Customers are taking advantage of our services so they do not have to pay for a decorator to do the work." Overall, during the challenges of the past 18 months, casual retailers found the demand for design services remained consistent or grew.

Tip 3: Be the expert
Retailers that have gotten ahead of this outdoor design trend are fortunate enough to have designers. For others, the newness of the outdoor room concept makes it possible to experience significant success without considerable cost by creating in-store experts and utilizing resources available within the industry.
"We receive our trend information from Casual Living and other trade publications, and a color forecasting subscription we have," Hartley said. "Our salespeople are not professionally trained in design. Their knowledge comes from years of working within our store and in-house sales training we provide."
Even those with trained personnel are tapping industry resources for continuing expertise. "The landscape designer has a landscape architecture degree and our patio furniture designer has practical experience," Biddle said. "She incorporates this experience into her work for outdoors. We also receive assistance at the trade shows from manufacturers and through the trade journals."
At Home Design Center's design team is looked to not only as product experts, but also for insight into what other customers are finding exciting. While all staff training is done by Lilian, a portion of the training is gaining expertise by listening to customers and becoming aware of requests.
"Women are doing the majority of the buying and the high-end consumer wants the latest and what others do not have," Lilian said. "They want to impress friends and relatives and don't care about price as long as it is different."
Robb & Stucky offers ongoing training seminars for the interiors and outdoors regarding furniture placement, products and design trends. "Product knowledge of outdoor product is essential," Hayes said.
Expertise also may come in the form of technology, which retailers make available only to their consumers. For Robb & Stucky customers, a Computer Aided Drafting design technology, known as CAD, is made available for state-of-the-art visualization and space planning.
"It is one of the sophisticated capabilities of the Robb & Stucky design team," Hayes said. "This technology enables the creations of a ‘virtual' floor plan of the client's spaces, including outdoor spaces, ensuring that all selections will work in unison with the existing space."
With this capability, Robb & Stucky can give a client living in New York, a view of the project in Florida as it moves through the design process.
Tip 4: Create partnerships
There are casual retailers that can provide the entire outdoor living landscape. For others, creating partnerships with contractors, landscapers and other designers may be a secret to not only satisfying the customer; but also creating opportunities for additional sales.
"As a turnkey operation, our landscape designer does work furniture into his plans," Greg Biddle said. "When we can work with contractors early as they are working on a new home, we can make suggestions to the homeowner for the entire outdoor space."
Robb & Stucky is prepared to work in combination with a client's contractor or interior designer. "The patio staff is available to work in conjunction with a client's interior designer regardless if they are from our own interior stores or from another design firm," Hayes said. "We also have a full-service construction division that offers the client an opportunity to have a seamless process from initial design through completion and installation."

Tip 5: Market the services
Whether it is speaking about the availability, cost or level of expertise, marketing exterior design services and the availability of outdoor living ideas is essential. This may be as simple as making sure salespeople constantly share their knowledge of the latest in outdoor living.
"We market all of our services through the many channels of advertising and marketing that we currently pursue," Hayes said. "The best source is the personal interaction between our staff and the client, as the designer or salespeople get a chance to tell our story and demonstrate to the client why we are the best place to spend their dollar."
Facing challenges daily from other sales channels, including mass merchants or online entities, specialty retailers constantly need to make consumers in their markets aware of what makes them special. One way is the wealth of information and expertise they can provide for those designing their patios, decks or backyards.
"On the Web site the design services are mentioned more in reference to the furniture side, but the patio side can offer as well," Karla Biddle said. "When a customer is in the store, it is up to the salesperson to offer to do a home visit and assist them in pulling the space together. Many customers are surprised that the services are offered at no charge, even after we publicize on TV, in advertising and the Web site. "
With the addition of exterior design services, everyone wins. Consumers receive information and assistance with the latest outdoor trends while the retailer creates an opportunity not only for immediate additional sales, but the goodwill generated has the potential to manifest into additional referral business as well.

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