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Growing from garden roots

When the television sitcom "Cheers" launched in September 1982, the show and its theme song struck a cord that would keep it on the air more than a decade. After all, who isn't drawn to a place where "people know your name" and, even better, "they're always glad you came."

Luckily, you don't have to find a mythical bar in Boston to experience that kind of welcome. Just visit Apenberry's outside of Orlando, Fla.

Owners Lisa and Eric Apen have spent the last 10 years building their outdoor furniture and garden business on a solid foundation of customer relationships. Whether at their 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom in Winter Park or their two-acre nursery eight miles away in College Park, customers are treated like such good friends that they've been known to drop in simply to visit the store pets.

 From the start, the Apens helped their customers think of their garden areas as outdoor living spaces, a concept that would help the couple as they integrated outdoor furniture into their product mix.  

Comparisons to "Cheers" are inevitable. In addition to the inviting atmosphere, there actually is a bar in the Winter Park store. In this case, though, it serves as the cash register counter rather than a place to nurse a beer.

"It came out of a bar near our original location, so people make jokes that coming in here is just like going to 'Cheers,'" Lisa said. "It's a familiar place, it feels like home."

That was the Apens' intent when they searched for a place to open their business in 1995. The first Apenberry's was a 2,000-sq.-ft. bungalow in Winter Park, a historic town with oak-lined streets and plenty of charm.

"People might think of Orlando as being fast moving and, with the tourism base, very transient; but it is quite the opposite, especially when you get into some of the little neighborhoods," Eric said. "Winter Park in particular has very much of a community feel to it, which is something that really excited us."

And it's paid off. "Our customers have really embraced us," Eric added.

 Clockwise, Pedro Mora, Cathy Cascio, Nancy Abey, Tania Rubesa and Temple Mosley help the Apens keep their business successful.  

Their move into outdoor furniture wasn't quite as warm. Initially, most outdoor furniture manufacturers and reps didn't take them seriously. It was only after they saw the Apens' sales numbers that the vendors realized their mistake.

"A lot of them couldn't figure out how this little garden shop was selling so much furniture, but it really was a consequence of the relationships we had with our customers," Eric said. "As their needs grew, we grew."

Key to their early success was their skill at positioning. From the start, the Apens helped their customers think of their garden areas as outdoor living spaces, a concept that wouldn't become the norm in the outdoor furniture industry until several years later. Outdoor furniture was simply a piece of the plan, which started with plantings, containers and then casual seating and accessories. Their approach also led to a focus on what were at the time nontraditional pieces such as deep-seating groups in unusual fabrics and frame finishes. Today, customer relationships still begin with a plan.

"We've found customers want one place to supply everything, so we show them the complete picture," Lisa said. "They see a plan with plants, pots, fountains, grills, outdoor furniture ... they see what their outside living space can be. Not everyone can do everything at once, but they will do it in stages."

Quite a complement

By 2000, Apenberry's success in outdoor furniture sales resulted in a need for more space. Like the bungalow, the current Winter Park showroom is warm and welcoming, housed in what used to be a Tiffany glass museum just a block away from the main shopping district. (Its sidewalk appeal won Casual Living's 2002 Merchandising Award for storefront in the single store category.)

Apenberry's Gardens opened three years later as a result of a relationship with a nursery that shared customers with Apenberry's. When the owners were ready to retire, they approached the Apens to see if they were interested in buying the business. Lisa and Eric quickly agreed, viewing it as an opportunity to meet their customers' needs.

"We found when we did installations at customers' homes, we were doing the plantings as well, so by purchasing the nursery, we were complementing the Winter Park store," Lisa said.

Day to day, Lisa manages the Winter Park store, while Eric has the nursery. While there is synergy between the businesses as well as crossover in customers, they've learned running an outdoor furniture store differs from a nursery.

"In the nursery the transactions are smaller and there are more of them, whereas with the outdoor furniture business, you are cultivating relationships over time," Eric said. "So there have been learning experiences on both sides. It's a good balance."

While the Winter Park store is the major outdoor furniture outlet, Apenberry's Gardens also has a 3,000-sq.-ft. showroom which displays furniture. Outdoor furniture makes up about half of Apenberry's overall revenues. Aluminum is the largest category, with wrought and cast accounting for 30% and sling about 10%. Woven products are about 30%; stone benches, tables and tabletops 20%; and teak 10%. Demand is growing fast for stone-top console tables, end tables, conversational tables and bars.

"Many of our customers have been buying their second or third set of outdoor furniture and they have lived through the travails of trying to maintain it," Eric said. "They want to buy quality, but more importantly, they know how difficult it is in Florida to keep a glass top table clean."

Vast improvements in outdoor fabric have been another boon. Apenberry's customers are comfortable purchasing deep seating and understand the quality of fabrics now available. Also, they are comfortable with color. They want custom options with color fringe or roping and different fabrics within the same pillow or cushion, Lisa said.

"It goes back to their desire for something unique," Eric said. "So much of what we sell is in the nontraditional areas — deep seating, end tables and accessories — rather than the typical dining set. That's always been our approach, because when somebody decides to decorate the inside of their home, they don't generally start with the dining room. They start in the living room where they spend their time."

The Apens are quick to credit their 22 employees for their success. Here, too, the emphasis is on relationships. "There is a real team effort between our salespeople and the reps, and I think that helps everyone," Lisa said.

   The Apens' approach to outdoor style has always been to go against tradition — carrying deep seating sets as opposed to five-piece dining collections.

Enjoying the journey

Apenberry's latest change has been the addition of a Smith & Hawkins concept shop at the College Park showroom. Its success prompted Lisa to show some of the furniture at the Winter Park store as well.

"They now have a partnership with Target, so we don't know if they will start diluting the brand, but from what we've seen here, it was a good decision for us," Lisa said.

Both Lisa and Eric are degreed industrial engineers. When they started the business, Eric continued to work at IBM for two years while Lisa got "the little store" up and running. While they love what they do now, they have been frustrated along the way as they've learned the outdoor furniture business.

"Having come from a technology industry where products have a half-life of six months, it was amazing to us how long it takes for things to change in the outdoor industry," Eric said.

In that regard, they see the rise in imports as a plus. "I am concerned customers can't discern the differences in quality because so much of the appearance of the imports is the same, but I see it as an opportunity for the industry to really progress in terms of cycle time between the concept and the consumer," Eric said.

Although warned about the danger of a husband and wife working together, their experience has been just the opposite. They cite the shared focus as one of the primary benefits of their venture. As with raising a child together, launching and running a retail business is fraught with challenges, unexpected delights and major milestones, all of which they greatly appreciate.

Going forward, they will continue to challenge convention. "We've never been afraid to do something a little differently," Eric said.

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