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Dodds & Eder sticks to its high-end market

Creating outdoor elegance through long-term relationships

Joe McLaughlin's first experience at the Chicago Market wasn't his best. It was the late 1980s, and McLaughlin, president and owner of Dodds & Eder, in Oyster Bay, N.Y., was ready to launch his vision of "outdoor elegance" by offering high-end outdoor furniture to complement the estate-style landscapes created by his company. Unfortunately, the industry wasn't interested.

 
 Dodds & Eder not only does good business with high-end outdoor furniture, it also has garnered top honors for its landscaping division from the Long Island Nurserymen's Association.

"I went to Chicago with what was a huge sum of money for me at the time, $50,000," he said. "Nobody would talk to me, so I ended up buying from a local furniture outfit."

McLaughlin eventually garnered some attention when he started advertising in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, something he continues to do today. Tropitone was his first major outdoor furniture supplier. Others soon followed as sales reps visited the 12,000-sq.-ft. showroom, realized McLaughlin's commitment and recognized his market. Dodds & Eder has been serving the wealthy north shore of Long Island's Gold Coast in one way or another for more than 100 years.

The company was established in 1897 as Mollineaux Feed & Supply Co. Initially, it provided the estates in the area with such necessities as hay, grain and poultry products. By the time McLaughlin joined the company as the new 20-year-old business partner of then 68-year-old Al Eder in 1973, the need for a feed supply store had diminished.

"With the encouragement of our customers, we moved first into plants and more of a garden orientation and from there into landscaping," McLaughlin said. "We added the furniture business when we moved to our present location in 1987. So we kind of grew up under the wing of our customers' patronage."

That patronage continues today, although the customer base has changed somewhat. In addition to drawing from a much larger geographical base, Dodds & Eder's local area has changed over the years. Many of the estates that had been in families for generation have been broken up and the retailer is now surrounded by incorporated villages with lots no smaller than two acres. But homes still range from large to mansion size, with plenty of room for outdoor living.

Service first

 
 General manager Dottie Simons said they pick and choose product for the store, including a variety of accessories and live plants to fill the store and often choose items at market for a specific customer.

Dodds & Eder has maintained its niche by focusing on service and relationships.

"We get some very high-end, powerful people in here who are used to getting what they want, and we know how to keep them happy," McLaughlin said. "We have a great staff."

Dottie Simons, general manager of Dodds & Eder, added, "Many of our customers have multiple residences, perhaps a place in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a place in Florida. We get them whatever they need, wherever they need it."

The relationship often begins with a site visit to help customers plan their outdoor living spaces. Meticulous recordkeeping helps ensure that the sales people can track customer purchases, enabling them to follow up with suggestions about additional pieces as well as provide timely service on something purchased years before. Simons and McLaughlin will even purchase specific items at market when they see something that would fit with a particular customer's site. More often than not, the customer will agree and take the piece.

Because they cater to a custom consumer, McLaughlin and Simons are very selective when it comes to product. Sales reps who push the advantages of buying containerloads find their pitch is falling on deaf ears.

"They don't understand that they can't sell us like that," Simons said. "We pick and choose, and our showroom speaks to that."

That said, Simons is very appreciative of Dodds & Eder's vendors.

 
 Dottie Simons, left, and Joe McLaughlin with sales associates Joann Perkins and Carrie Leopold, seated.

"We can sell one customer $30,000 worth of furniture, so we have long-term relationships with our higher end manufacturers for good reason," she said. "They have given us quality products that we can sell to our customers."

For the most part, their customers want a traditional, classic design, such as the benches from Century McLaughlin brought in for the 2005 season. Because of this, Dodds & Eder foregoes many of the more trendy lines even if offered by its top vendors. It also avoids catering to a middle market, sticking instead to its high-end niche.

"It is a limited growth area in some ways, but we are comfortable being who we are and not trying to be everything to everybody," McLaughlin said.

That's not to say there isn't growth on the high end. Dodds & Eder does a tremendous business in referrals both by customers and other businesses. For example, the sales people work closely with a local builder who specializes in mansions. Simons is working to expand these types of referrals in particular since the company's landscaping division won top honors from the Long Island Nurserymen's Association in the last year.

"The builder and home designer really have the ear of the customer, and if we can be referred by them, it is a real plus," McLaughlin said.

Blending inside & out

Dodds & Eder's recent landscaping awards reflect renewed attention to that side of the business, which accounts for about 45% of revenues. In addition to bringing in a new design team, boosting landscaping contracts by 40% last year, the company refurbished its landscaping offices and gave the exterior of the entire site a facelift. Now rather than just rows of nursery stock, the frontage reflects the timeless estate style the company is known for.

"We're very excited about the changes that we've made," McLaughlin said. "The showroom always looked good, but the outside of the store didn't speak to the quality of the inside. They weren't in sync."

That's all changed thanks to new fencing, rockwork, gazebos and more.

The emphasis on making a statement continues on into the showroom, where vignettes are dressed from garlands under the umbrellas to silk trees, pillows on deep seating, and faux-food on the tables.

In addition to outside furniture, which is about 30% of sales, Dodds & Eder offers holiday gifts and accessories. Christmas is its counter-seasonal focus, with the entire site turned into a winter wonderland.

With his focus on the high end, McLaughlin has perhaps been less affected by the issue of imports than other specialty dealers. An industry issue he does relate too, however, is the premarkets, something he considers a "thorn in his side" due to the timing.

"Frankly, we won't make any decisions until we see everything, and because we are still in our season in July it is annoying to take time out to fly two or three people out to Vegas or Chicago," he said. "But we do it."

Thorns aside, Dodds & Eder will continue to evolve as needed to meet its wealthy customer base.

"We are very focused on the markets we want," McLaughlin said.

   The high-end retailer located in a luxury market caters to clients who appreciate traditional, classic design.

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