Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, October 25, 2011
GWEN HUGHEY, A SALES ASSOCIATE AT Especially Wicker in Indianapolis, approached her bosses to announce that the stock market just dropped 500 points. Vicki Goode and Marilyn Krueger groaned.
With a middle-to high-end clientele, Especially Wicker has customers who tend to be influenced by stock market movements. Needless to say, the last few years have been up and down for the store.
"Last year was horrible," Goode said. "We didn't grow at all."
But sales didn't decrease, either. Nor did the numbers dip nearly as badly as they did in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a period Krueger recalled vividly. Sales fell off a cliff, she said, which created pressure to add value sets to their mid-to high-end product mix. Goode and Krueger held their ground, and sales rebounded because they did.
"We know who we are, and we're not going to compromise," Krueger said. "Whether you come in and spend $500 or $5,000, it's still your money. We don't feel comfortable selling something that may not last."
Sales have inched back up again because customers who come from as far away as Fort Wayne and West Lafayette know they'll get quality from Especially Wicker. They also know they'll see Goode and Krueger, who have a knack for building good relationships with everyone they work with.
Many of Especially Wicker’s high-end customers shop the 15,000-sq.-ft. store for ideas and inspiration, then place special orders based on their home and tastes.
A solid partnership
Goode and Krueger first met in a wicker furniture store in the mid 1980s. Krueger was the store manager, and Goode was a customer looking to redecorate her home. Not only did they become friends, working together on Goode's redecorating project showed them how well they complemented one another. Goode had a sixth sense for interior design, while Krueger was good at managing costs.
When the wicker store's owner expressed an interest in selling, Goode and Krueger saw their chance to go into business together. The owner had second thoughts, but the pair's idea already had momentum.
Krueger and Goode opened a 3,300-sq.-ft. space north of downtown Indianapolis in 1987. The store name hints at their original intent. Sunrooms are big in Indiana, and the pair figured they could make a good living selling wicker furniture to fill them. They had no intention of getting into the outdoor category.
"In the beginning, we didn't have much warehouse space, and all the [casual furniture] vendors back then wanted us to buy by the truckload," Goode said.
Eventually, Goode and Krueger were able to work with their reps, and as Especially Wicker became known for outdoor furniture it grew accordingly. In 1989, the store moved to a 6,450-sq.-ft. space. In 1996, Especially Wicker moved again, doubling its showroom space to 12,000 square feet and adding an off -site 6,000-sq.-ft. warehouse.
The store finally settled into its current 15,000-sq.-ft. spot in 2007. The space includes two floors with plenty of space to move among the furniture and a large atrium at the front that creates even more openness. It's hard to believe that the building, built in 1958, was previously a plumbing supply warehouse.
Throughout the growth of the business, Goode claims she and Krueger have had just one argument.
"We were in High Point," Goode said. "I wanted to go see specific showrooms and Marilyn just wanted to wander." They reached a compromise, and that was that.
It’s hard to believe that the airy, two-fl oor building Especially Wicker now occupies started out as a plumbing supply warehouse in 1958.
(Clockwise from top right) Linda Bash, Gwen Hughey, Marilyn Krueger and Vicki Goode pose with the store’s unoffi cial mascots, Mandy and Sadie.
Another factor that has helped Especially Wicker endure tough economic times is the fact that Goode and Krueger have cultivated designer work, which gives them year-round business. This work is often for high-end clients with second homes in warmer climes. This year, for instance, Goode and Krueger had a big project in Florida that involved a home and yacht.
"We don't solicit out-of-state business," Goode said. "But if our local clients ask us to do something for them elsewhere, we will."
These clients trust Goode and Krueger so completely that most of them don't even come into the store to pick and choose furniture and fabrics.
"They'll email us the dimensions and we'll draw something up," Goode said. "Some of these clients we've seen in person maybe twice. It's just a different kind of business."
Because Especially Wicker customers are so discerning, Krueger said more than 90% of their business is special order.
"Companies don't expect us to do containers," she said. "We don't buy 10 deep of anything. That's not our business, and I think a lot of reps now understand that."
To keep their customers happy, Goode and Krueger not only do plenty of the work themselves, they also have a staff of seven hand-picked employees to dote on them. Amazingly, none of their employees have come from help wanted ads.
For instance, they met their warehouse manager, Rick Hanss, when he was working at a local pizza parlor.
"He'd just finished his master's in journalism, got married and had a baby," Krueger said. "He told us he needed to find a real job."
They could see how hard Hanss worked just from watching him manage several things at once at the restaurant. They asked if he'd be interested in handling deliveries for the store.
"Now he runs the warehouse, has two boys and is the world's greatest dad," Goode said. "He also teaches at night at a local college."
"When you notice people's work ethic when they're doing other jobs, you know who will work and who won't," Krueger said.
Those who do develop a family-like bond with Goode, Krueger and the rest of the staff, a fact reflected by several poignant decorative touches in the store. At the landing between the first and second floors, for instance, is a row of framed childhood photos of Especially Wicker employees.
The small first-floor conference room where swatch books and catalogs are kept is named after Shirley Orr, the late, longtime employee who had a knack for keeping all those books and catalogs in order. An area upstairs is dedicated to another former employee, Jean Cohee, who implored Goode and Krueger to dedicate space to marked-down product. Now, that area is called Jean's Attic.
The underlying message is that Krueger and Goode care about their employees as much as they care about their customers. And they care about their customers a lot.
"It drives us crazy not to make our customers happy," Goode said. "I'm up worrying at night if we're having to deal with shipping delays."
What she shouldn't worry about is the stock market, because her customers value that kind of care no matter how many points it goes up or down.
Vignettes of dining and chat sets throughout the store are the brainchild of Goode, who handles the design side of the business while Krueger minds the numbers.
Although Krueger and Goode have had offers to add more locations, they have stayed with one so they can continue to work closely with their customers, who show their gratitude with their loyalty.