Biddle Outdoor Center’s diverse mix draws customers back for more
By Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, 4/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Most small town business owners need to be creative to keep their operations profitable, but some are just better at it than others.
Consider Karla and Greg Biddle. In the mid-1970s Greg dug all of the graves in Sedona to round out their landscaping and flower shop business.
These days, fresh flowers and grave digging are no longer part of the mix, but the Biddles remain as creative as ever in giving their customers plenty of reasons to keep coming back to their Biddle Outdoor Centers in Sedona and Prescott, Ariz.
Both locations offer a complete range of products and services for turning backyards into a little piece of paradise — from outdoor furniture and custom kitchens to pools, landscape design, spas and awnings. In the off-season, there is always something new to see in home décor, holiday and hearth products.
That diversification is the key to the Biddles’ success in what are relatively small markets. There are about 50,000 people in Sedona and its outlying areas, and fewer than 150,000 in the Prescott Tri-City Area.
|Karla and Greg Biddle|
“Our diversification was really out of necessity,” Greg said. “A specialty store would really have a hard time here.”
The upside of living in a small community, however, is the hometown loyalty residents feel.
“People who live in small towns really do like to support their hometown merchants,” Greg said. “Of course, they’ll go to Costco and to Phoenix to shop, but I think for a big purchase they are more comfortable going to someone in the area who will provide service afterwards.”
Biddle Outdoor Center started in 1969 as an off-shoot of Greg’s parents’ nursery, which continues today on the same 4-acre site that houses the Biddle Outdoor Center in Sedona. While operated as separate companies, their complementary services increase traffic and revenue for both.
The couple opened a second location in Prescott in 1998, renting a small 4,000-sq.-ft. showroom. Within a few years, they purchased and remodeled a strip mall giving them a 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom and four long-term tenants.
That decision, combined with their range of product and services, helped Biddle Outdoor Center weather the last several months when even the affluent demographics of their markets weren’t enough to stave off the effects of a bad economy.
“This is the first time in 40 years that we have seen Sedona affected,” Karla said.
With more demand now for landscaping and pool construction, conditions are beginning to improve, which will inevitably lead to more sales.
The Biddles added outdoor furniture for the first time in 1977, when they brought in offerings made by Meadowcraft and Alu-Mont lines.
“Wrought iron is still very much our most popular category, and the fact that the manufacturers are doing such a great job with the new designs really helps us sell it,” Karla said.
Meadowcraft continues to be a top supplier along with O.W. Lee, and Karla is generous with her praise of both manufacturers.
“Terri Rogers and her staff bend over backward to do whatever they can for us in any situation,” Karla said. “Meadowcraft has been wonderful, too. In fact, all of our suppliers have been wonderful, and I think the reason why is that we stay on top of the communication. I believe it is my responsibility to stay in communication with my suppliers, not their (responsibility) to stay in communication with me.”
With its well-heeled customer base, Biddle Outdoor Center does a tremendous amount of custom orders, which is fortunate because Sedona doesn’t allow new warehouses within the city limits. Because of its years in business the company owns the only warehouse in Sedona.
With no industry, Sedona draws retirees, professionals and celebrities. Prescott also draws older, higher-income residents with its national reputation as one of the country’s top retirement communities.
As a result, customer service at Biddle Outdoor Center must be exemplary. For the Biddles and their staff, going out of their way is the norm.
“We had one lady, who is very well-known, who calls and asks to come in after everyone else is gone,” Karla said. “She will come in with her entourage and spend a couple of hours buying. We love customers like that.”
To encourage cross-departmental buying, Biddle Outdoor Center gives large gift certifications for outdoor furniture to customers who purchase landscaping services and pool construction. Gift certifications are the item of choice for local charities, because the Biddles know that once they can get someone into the store, they will come back.
Outdoor furniture stays on the floor year-round. To draw more traffic in November and December, the company does a limited Christmas business foregoing ornaments but offering home decor, wreaths and decorated trees.
The Biddles employ 21 people, most who have been with them for 20 years and some who have left and returned. Generous salaries and a good work environment add up to minimal turnover and sick days.
“People just don’t call in sick,” Karla said. “I believe in giving a lot of vacation, so they can relax. Then they work hard when they are here.”
The Biddles are as proactive about their staff as they are about the other facets of their business. For instance, Greg’s administrative assistant, Lois Ayers, has retired more than once, but they keep talking her into coming back because she adds so much value to running the construction side of the business.
They also pursued Mike Blomstran, the company’s landscape designer, after realizing he fit a niche they wanted to fill. “He is a tremendous asset to our business,” Karla said. “Not only does he co-manage our Prescott store with our patio buyer, he does all of the landscape and pool design.”
Because the business is so diversified, one of the Biddles’ biggest challenges is making sure the staff is knowledgeable about multiple areas. All are cross-trained so they can fill in as needed.
The Biddles also remain open in communicating with their staff, keeping them advised of the good times and the bad.
“We try to keep the work situation very family oriented,” Karla said. “We do a lot of things together and everybody knows what is going on, good and bad, and that seems to help a lot.”
What it takes
When customers walk into a Biddle Outdoor Center, they only have to look around to realize the company can fulfill all of their backyard needs. From the stone counters and various styles of flooring to the displays of outdoor furniture and accessories, the showrooms show the breadth of possibilities presented by the Biddles.
But Biddle Outdoor Center customers shouldn’t be surprised if their choices keep expanding.
“We do whatever we need to do,” Karla said. “And Greg is very creative. If he sees something new that he would like to add to our mix, he will bring it in and we will have something new to sell.”
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