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'Shoppertainment' keeps Sunnyland Furniture edgy

Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, May 13, 2005

When David Schweig says he doesn't know what his showroom will look like a year from now, he isn't being coy. The Dallas retailer has kept Sunnyland Furniture on the cutting edge of the outdoor industry precisely because he is willing to try new ideas. His only criterion is that it be fresh and entertaining for customers.

"I want our customers to have fun shopping at Sunnyland Furniture," he said.

To that end, Sunnyland offers three distinct experiences. Walking into Sunnyland, customers enter a 22,000-sq.-ft. "big box" showroom that makes it easy for them to make their selections and leave. Those wanting help visualizing the furniture in their own backyards can browse the adjoining 10,000-sq.-ft. lifestyle room complete with a putting green and manufacturer-specific lifestyle vignettes. And finally, there is the 2,000-sq.-ft. enclosed courtyard where customers can be romanced by a Tuscan villa or whisked off to a Polynesian island.

It is a totally different marketing concept from selling sets.

"People can buy patio furniture at other places in Dallas, but we sell fun, comfort, relaxation — the lifestyle," he said.

Sunnyland's evolution to lifestyle marketing started in 1977, when Schweig's father-in-law offered to sell the store to him and his wife, Debbie. At the time, Sunnyland Furniture was the outlet store for his in-laws' local furniture chain, and while they carried outdoor furniture, it wasn't an extensive part of the mix.

Schweig had been working for a high-end jewelry chain. "The clientele was the same, those with discretionary income," Schweig said. "I just changed products."

The Schweigs' first major milestone came in 1990 when Debbie's father purchased a small shopping center a few miles north of the store. The Schweigs moved into the new location and took advantage of the larger space to enhance their showroom by displaying outdoor furniture in vignettes, something few others in the industry were doing then.

The next transformation began in the late 1990s. Developers eyeing an old apartment building behind the family's shopping center offered to buy them out. The developers planned on tearing down both buildings and putting up a new shopping center.

Not interested, Schweig made a counter offer. They would tear down 5,000 square feet of their shopping center to provide better access to the new shopping center. In exchange, they asked the developers to remodel the entire shopping center to match the new structure. In addition, they wanted space for another 10,000 square feet of retail for Sunnyland Furniture, a 30,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and expanded parking. The developers agreed.

"All in all, it was about a million dollar enhancement and renovation for us in exchange for 5,000 square feet of tear down," Schweig said.

Successful synergy

The Schweigs were just as smart when it came to adding value to the new retail space. Working with vendors, they created several lifestyle vignettes ranging from a front porch to backyards of a cabin in the woods and a second home on a golf course. A professional-quality three-hole putting green enhances the feeling of outdoor fun while providing entertainment for children and adults alike.

To set off the lifestyle vignettes, they partnered with deck and flooring companies. Signage includes contact information, and brochures about the partner companies and their products are available in the store. No money is exchanged, but the relationship benefits all involved.

"Usually people who are putting in decking and flooring are also in the market for outdoor furniture, so there is good synergy," Schweig said. "We're all looking for the same customer base."

That synergy led to Sunnyland's latest evolution. When word spread about the successful partnerships, a landscaping company approached Schweig about redoing the enclosed, climate-controlled courtyard that was added on with the lifestyle room. Schweig was displaying teak and other wood products in the area. The landscape company envisioned something far more elaborate. Schweig agreed to the plans and then stayed out of their way as they created two villas, one Tuscan and one Polynesian.

"They spared no expense," Schweig said. "The Italian villa, for instance, includes authentic tile, solid stone columns, a raised stamped floor. They transformed it into a mecca."

While the cost of revamping the 2,000 square feet was more than $150,000, Schweig's costs were minimal.

"As a single store, I don't have deep pockets for these types of things," Schweig said. "It would not be possible without these relationships."

Addition of the lifestyle room and renovation of the courtyard dramatically changed the Sunnyland brand. Not only does the dealer now carry more high-end product, the additional space allows display of complete collections resulting in bigger tickets overall. Sales in the $10,000–$20,000 range are not out of the ordinary.

"We're now competing with the high-end furniture stores here in Dallas in terms of price points," Schweig said. "People are buying because we're giving them what they are looking for in terms of lifestyle."

There is still plenty of selection in the mid-range, too. For instance, in the courtyard, Schweig displays Meadowcraft along with the Brown Jordan and Laneventure collections. Because Sunnyland now has room for all of the mid-range collections to be displayed as they might be used in a customer's backyard, these tickets tend to be larger as well.

The new and the fine-tuned

All of the more than 300 sets on display at Sunnyland are well accessorized thanks to the talents of Teresa Scott, Sunnyland's designer and accessories buyer. Schweig is candid in describing changes since Scott took over three years ago. "When I was doing the buying, my idea of accessories was placemats and glasses," he said.

Although he had his doubts about some of her buys — would people really pay $75 to $200 for a decorative pillow, for instance — he's learned to trust her instincts and let her do what she does best, as shown by their customers' purchases.

As an owner/operator, Schweig started out doing everything himself. But as the responsibilities of the business increased, he realized he had to delegate. In addition to bringing in Scott, he hired Ron Joiner as general manager and promoted veteran salesman David "Nick" Nickell as sales manager and furniture buyer.

"By delegating responsibility, I've had the chance to see others take pride in and feel ownership for what they're doing," Schweig said. "It's rewarding for everybody and they're doing a remarkable job."

When the lifestyle room first opened in 2003, Schweig cautioned his staff not to think of it as an expansion but to regard it as a second location. The distinction was crucial, he believed, to emphasize the need for continued growth. Although business hadn't declined for several years, sales needed to rise dramatically to justify the expense of additional space.

He hasn't been disappointed. The business has grown significantly. In addition to his staff's sales skills, Schweig credits the growth to his focus on "shoppertainment." Customers know that they will have a good time as well as find quality products, good service and great ideas.

To keep the store fresh, Schweig is always looking for new ideas. "Whenever Debbie and I travel, whether to go to a conference or on vacation, I always carry a camera," he said. "I look for what makes a place fun. You can learn from looking at what draws people in."

Schweig also keeps fine-tuning existing displays. One area in the lifestyle room is devoted to nighttime entertainment. The walls and ceiling are dark and the displays lit only with the lighting products for sale. Video displays were added to take it one step further by showing consumers scenarios of outdoor entertaining. Four 16×20-ft. vignettes show off complete seating and dining areas in this unique environment.

Schweig keeps mulling over possible changes in the front showroom as well.

"I try to think of it from the consumers' perspective," he said. "Are they overwhelmed when they walk in? Is it too much? It's a fine line determining how far you can go."

Schweig describes the transformation of Sunnyland Furniture as being a matter of timing and opportunity. Each specialty dealer needs to decide whether a move to "shoppertainment" is worth the expense. That said, Schweig is delighted with his store's evolution.

"Life is good," he said.

Standing from left, Marilyn Peterson and Michael Brown, sales; David "Nick" Nickell, sales manager and buyer; Toni Stein, vendor relations manager; and Mike Hayes and Nat Booker, sales. Seated from left, Kelley Reeder, front office manager; David Schweig, president; Teresa Scott, sales and accessory buyer; and Ron Joiner, general manager.

Teresa Scott, Sunnyland's designer and accessory buyer, has left quite a mark on the Sunnyland store since she started three years ago. High-end decorative pillows, wall art, vases and more now join placemats and serveware as complements to the casual furniture.

Sunnyland's 35,000-sq.-ft. showroom is separated into three different showrooms — one, a lifestyle room complete with putting green, features manufacturer-specific vignettes; the second is a big box showroom aimed at customers who want to make a selection and leave; and a third enclosed courtyard with themed displays, such as an Italian villa and Polynesian retreat.

Owner David Schweig is set on selling a lifestyle of fun, comfort and relaxation, often re-merchandising his ever-changing showroom.

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