Fun is serious business
By Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, 5/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
No matter that the weather outside was often frightful this spring. Inside the three Ohio Patio & Hearth Shoppes and the Elegant Outdoors showroom in Indianapolis, the season started with a bang thanks in large part to the new Tommy Bahama galleries in each location. The tropical-style outdoor furniture fully accessorized with lighting, throws, candles, billboard pillows and the other accoutrements of the lifestyle brand delighted customers and gave the salespeople plenty to talk about.
"This is our first year with Tommy Bahama and it is already doing really well. People just love it," said Debbie Stegman, co-owner of the four stores with her husband Tom.
Nathan, left, recently joined parents Tom and Debbie Stegman, to help with the business.
The Stegmans first store opened in 1987 in Centerville, Ohio.
Showrooms at Patio & Hearth Shoppes are deliberately on the small side, allowing the Stegmans to convey a more intimate settting.
It's hard not to catch Stegman's enthusiasm for the brand — or, for that matter, any of the other lines she carries. Her high-energy and easy laughter set the tone for the family business and define her approach to successful retailing.
"Our customers are buying outdoor products because they want to have fun with them, not because they need them," she said. "If you have a salesperson on the floor with a frown on his face and a customer comes in with a frown on her face, no one will win. The customer will leave without getting what she wants, and we won't get the sale. So we make our stores fun and colorful places to be."
A success by any name
The Stegmans started their business in 1987, when they opened their first Patio & Hearth Shoppe in Centerville, outside of Dayton, Ohio. Tom had been working in a furniture store that carried a small amount of outdoor product and realized there was a niche that needed to be filled. As it turned out, it was a much bigger niche than they first realized.
"We didn't really start the business thinking we would open more than one store, but it took off so fast we realized pretty quickly that we needed to do more stores in different markets," Stegman said.
The second location opened in 1989 in Cincinnati, and the third a few years later in Columbus.
The Indianapolis location opened in 2004, a year into Brown Jordan International's Elegant Outdoors program. Given that their business had no name recognition in the new market, the Stegmans decided to leverage BJI's concept and not only devote most of the new showroom to the program, but also adopt the Elegant Outdoors name. The BJI program has since lost steam, but the Stegmans are flourishing in Indianapolis. Plans are in the works for more Elegant Outdoors showrooms there as well as more Patio & Hearth Shoppes in the Ohio markets.
The four locations offer a similar mix, although there are some individual nuances. Cincinnati is windy, for example, so cast aluminum has an edge, while the Columbus store caters to a younger demographic than the others. In general, all of the markets are fairly conservative, and trends take a little longer to grab hold. But they do eventually arrive. For example, some color is popping up among the traditional browns and beiges.
"People are finally wanting color," Stegman said. "We're seeing a lot of people wanting blues and greens, the pastels more than the brights."
Deep seating is another trend beginning to come into its own, giving outdoor wicker a bit of a lead as fastest growing category for the Stegmans.
"It took awhile, but we just did a Home and Garden show and noticed that people were really interested in the deep seating and conversation pieces, and in the comfort of cushions," she said. "It used to be that people didn't want anything to do with cushions. It started to change a little bit the year before last, more last year and now we expect it to be really big."
A stickler for good merchandising (you'll never find an underdressed table in her showrooms), Stegman takes pride in creating the "wow factor" on her floors. The showrooms are deliberately small, the larger just 10,000 square feet, to ensure an inviting and intimate setting to put customers at ease.
Stegman also limits the number of vendors.
"I don't buy from everyone," she said. "I need to be important to my manufacturers and they to me. If you carry two sets from every vendor, you aren't important to any of them."
That said, she didn't cut back anywhere when adding Tommy Bahama.
"I thought I had to, but I don't see where I did. I think my warehouse people will tell you that," she laughed.
The Stegmans have a central warehouse, located between Dayton and Cincinnati, as well as smaller warehouses in Columbus and Indianapolis. Special orders are shipped to the originating location, but others go to the central warehouse where trucks from the various locations meet weekly or biweekly to transfer inventory.
The company has a total of 30 employees. Although people are brought in part time in the summer to work in the warehouses, all of the salespeople are full time employees.
"Someone coming in just for the season is a clerk, and we really need more than clerks," Stegman said.
In fact, she believes the biggest challenge specialty dealers face is educating their salespeople so they are knowledgeable enough about outdoor furniture that they can meet the expectations of today's sophisticated consumers.
"Education is so important so that they know everything they need to know without getting too involved," she said. "The consumer really doesn't want to hear about the welds. They want to see the furniture, sit in it, have it look good and know if it's under warranty."
A couple of long-time Patio & Hearth Shoppe employees recently left the company, resulting in a big transition. However Stegman is confident the new staff make-up can more than handle the job ahead.
Part of that job entails hearth and Christmas, which Stegman is into in a big way.
"I swore I'd never do it, but here I am," she said. "I do it exactly like I do the patio — I don't do any low end, it's all mid- to high-end projects with a lot of really unique items. It's fun and people really like it."
At first just dabbling in the category with a handful of pre-lit trees, she's now bringing in a couple of container loads. Economics sparked the change in attitude. As builders turned to prefabricated fireplaces, the Stegmans found their hearth business slipping. Christmas offered another counter-seasonal revenue channel.
Foregoing the low end isn't an option as much as cold reality when it comes to doing business in at least one of the Stegman's markets.
Dayton is near the top of the list of cities that have lost the most jobs in recent years. Despite that, the Patio & Hearth Shoppe there is doing well.
"What I had left over at the end of the season last year was the lower priced goods," she said. "That customer isn't buying because they don't have work, but our higher end business is fine. I hate to say that, but it is what's happening. I even noticed it in my Christmas this year."
It's a lesson for specialty dealers in healthier economies who still are focused on price. In particular, Stegman is concerned about how imports have hurt domestic manufacturers.
"I think some retailers are so caught up in price and imports that they aren't paying attention to what they do best," she said. "You have to change with the times. And for their part, the manufacturers need to listen to the retailers. It isn't all about price. I think for awhile the industry lost track and thought that it was."
With 20 years of experience behind them, the Stegmans have earned their wisdom. One of their sons, Nathan, has recently come into the business allowing them to take a little more time off, but don't expect them to slow down any time soon. As they push ahead with the plans for new stores, they continue to focus on what they do best.
"We know what our competitors are doing but we don't dwell on it," Stegman said. "If you have a great environment, you're a step ahead."
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