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Cinde W. Ingram

Benson’s Patio, Spas, Games and Pools offers outdoor recreation, fun and comfort

Benson’s, an upscale casual furniture store in Middleton, Wis., sets itself apart from its competitors by offering Sundance spas, pool tables and game room products. The corporation behind Benson’s dove into the pool industry more than 50 years ago when Bill Benson opened a swimming pool business in 1953. At one time he had both retail and wholesale operations in the Madison area.

Hammock display, outdoor rug and other accessories add layers to Laneventure Weather Master display.

Hammock display, outdoor rug and other accessories add layers to Laneventure Weather Master display.

Customers can shop for indoor casual furniture inside The Twisted Twig section at Benson’s.

Current owner Ron Skoronski bought Benson’s with partner Kirk Sorensen in 1998, bringing experience he gained with Madison Lighting & Fireplace. He had operated a pool and fireplace business in Minnesota, building it into Fireside Hearth & Home, one of the nation’s largest fireplace distributors.

In 2000, Benson’s closed its second location in Madison, which had become difficult to find because of road traffic changes, and remodeled the remaining one in Middleton. Not only does the retailer do more business in one location than with two, it also solved a branding issue and created a stunning showroom.

Road construction presented problems again last year between June and August. “Sometimes we couldn’t get into our own store to go to work,” Linda Parolini said. “We could actually finish very good this year compared to last year now that the road is open.”

Parolini has worked for Skoronski for about 15 years, first at the Madison Lighting & Fireplace store before she joined Benson’s in 2001. She became general manager three years ago, about the same time the store won an Apollo Award in 2004.

The store offers outdoor furniture, spas and game room products in about 30,000 square feet; indoor furniture also is displayed in a 10,000-sq.-ft. area called Twisted Twig and another 5,000-sq.-ft. area is used for offices.

Woodard, Tropitone and Homecrest have ranked as the best-selling outdoor furniture lines at the store, but Laneventure, Lloyd/Flanders, Brown Jordan, Kingsley-Bate teak, Seaside Casual and lots of accessories also sell well. As for grills, Big Green Egg is offered.

“I think we’ve paid more attention to what we carry on the floor from the standpoint of trying to find unique, different things that you can’t find everywhere,” Parolini said. “Obviously, there’s the Internet and the mass merchants but we’re specialty so we’ve really tried to focus on making our floor unique. Having designers on staff certainly helped that level of picking up higher-end sales. We’ve also probably had less of the $1,500 sales and do more of the $13,000 sales so the traffic count certainly has changed.”

Parolini said customers sometimes visit specifically for one category, then realize others are offered. “It works out nicely,” she said. “They may know us for patio furniture and they come in looking for that and say, 'I didn’t know you had spas.’ Or people come in knowing they want a hot tub and say, 'Oh, we need patio furniture. Can you help with that?’ Or they want a pool table, which is something we got into that can help with the seasonality of the business.”

The answer is always positive. Consumers travel up to 300 to 400 miles to buy furniture for their second homes in northern lake areas.

“The big thing with us is: Treat them like they are coming into your home and build a relationship with them,” Parolini said. “Maybe it’s because we carry so many different things and people who don’t want to do it all at once are looking to build a relationship with somebody” who can guide them in their long-term home investments.

Benson’s staff includes 13 permanent full-time employees. Five to six college students are added during the summer.

Benson’s advertises in local magazines, such as Madison Magazine and Wisconsin Trails. It also uses outdoor billboards year-round, radio, newspapers and most recently television. A big tent sale each August helps to clear outdoor furniture inventory near the end of each season.

Although Benson’s posts beautiful lifestyle photos on its Web site, it’s viewed as a tool to educate customers and not a channel to sell through. “The Internet is not going away so we try to find ways to make sure the customers see the value of shopping with us,” she said.

“We always say we sell fun,” Parolini said. “We’re not selling necessities. It should be casual and comfortable, but it can be intimidating for people who come in. If you look at the price tags, they’re not small. So the last thing you want to do is make someone feel uncomfortable when they’re buying patio furniture and a hot tub to relax in.”

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