• Cinde Ingram

Casual Living Conference Takeaway

Follow the Leader’s

“This is a lifestyle, not a need,” Wendy Araujo, manager of Leader’s Casual Furniture’s Orlando store, told a group of Casual Living Conference attendees during a Feb. 18 retail tour.

The 4,200-sq.-ft. format is one of the smallest in the 18-store chain, but Leader’s Managing Director Tim Newton wouldn’t say its size is less effective than its largest 15,600-sq.-ft. location. An abundance of accessories fills the walls, floors and table tops in the same colors and styles of vignettes shown in all Leader’s stores, he said. One difference in the well-performing smaller store is actually Araujo, he said.

Marcia Blake, Sunbrella/Glen Raven merchandise manager, with Leader’s Casual Furniture Orlando showroom manager Wendy Araujo and Joanie Schlunt, Sunbrella/Glen Raven merchandise associate. Tim Newton
Tim Newton, Tim Newton, Leader’s Casual Furniture managing director, answers questions near the end of the retail tour of Leader’s Orlando location.

When attendees asked for her strategy, Araujo said, “I come in here with a positive attitude. We keep it fun and personal. We find out what’s going on with them first, then we can talk about colors and choices.”

Because Leader’s has its own brands, it can show them on its website with no problem. Still, it closes more than 90% of sales in-store, compared with about 6% online, Newton said.

Keynote Takeaways

“The smaller you are, the bigger you must look,” marketing mastermind John Moore said. Conversely, as corporations grow huge, they have to get small again by recalling and retelling the story of what made them special. For example, Starbucks made the expensive decision to close one day to retrain employees in brewing coffee in the manner Starbucks’ customers expect, he said.

John MooreJohn Moore kicked off the conference with a presentation about effective marketing, gleaned from his experience with building Starbucks’ and Whole Foods Market’s iconic brands.

Successful companies “obsess more about customers than competitors,” Moore said. “Any business can connect emotionally with customers.”

Three great brand stories are ones that tell how the company or product:

1 Improves the life of customers

2 Makes something better

3 Rights a wrong

A company that delivers on all three can become beloved by customers. That’s true in a small shop, where a sale is a relationship; but it can also be true for big businesses that treat customers as more than a transaction. When a Whole Foods Market was devastated by flooding in Austin, Texas, customers volunteered to help the staff clean up the mess. The reopening was celebrated with a party for the community that had helped restore Whole “Floods” Market.

Moore detailed ways companies can become both a market leader and beloved through marketing strategies that take care of customers. The outdoor furnishings industry could market the story that it improves the lives of customers because it makes people feel better about their backyard, Moore said.

Designed To Win

Nationally recognizedNationally recognized designers Sofia Joelsson and Libby Langdon pause after their Designed to Win presentation.

“Outdoor living is all about entertaining,” designer Libby Langdon said. “The customer is not just one person, but all of their family and friends.”

Langdon, an author and makeover TV personality, said she feels fortunate to be able to hear consumers say what they want, but she knows they need help getting there. For example, a client who said she wanted only furniture changed her mind when she saw how the set looked at her home without accessories. Design boards with fabric swatches and simple tape layouts on the floor to mark off a 400-sq.-ft. space, for example, can help homeowners visualize and label the look they want. “Think of outdoor spaces as extra square footage to their homes,” Langdon said. “When you can show a complete picture, you will have a customer for life.”

Accessories such as outdoor rugs finish off a space while lighting helps to create ambience, designer Sofia Joelsson said. Faux succulent plants and green wall coverings are becoming more important as well as weighted covers and fire tables/fire pits, which are more a part of the décor, Joelsson said. High-end rooftop projects present extra challenges for weight and durability.

“I do a lot of rooftop areas and condos where the furniture needs to be heavy enough to set outside without blowing away but light enough to carry inside,” Joellson said. She urged retailers and manufacturers to provide designers with the information they need to take care of client requests.

Winning Retail Strategies

Robb & StuckyRobb & Stucky President Steve Lush and HOM Furniture Merchandise Manager Kyle Johansen shared their perspectives in the outdoor furniture segment.

“Outdoor is just a category within our stores,” said Steve Lush, president of Robb & Stucky, the 100-yearold retailer whose name has been linked with style and quality. The outdoor department is merchandised year-round as a lifestyle rather than by brand in Naples, Fort Myers and Sarasota, Fla., stores that average 60,000 square feet. Accessories are the fastest growing segment within five different lifestyle displays showing 30 outdoor settings and 200 residential furniture settings. Affluent retirees and second-home owners are the retailer’s primary customer. Special orders account for 55% of sales while stock sales average 45%. Turnkey design solutions are offered for many of those customers, Lush said, and exclusivity is important for them.

Kyle Johansson, executive director of merchandising for HOM Furniture, agreed the improvements of function and style are fueling the growth of outdoor furnishings sales. “Weather drives the business,” said Johansson, who noted 85% of outdoor sales occur between April and August for the 15-store HOM chain, the group’s two high-end Gabbert’s stores and two Dock 86 stores.

HOM carries more than 12 brand names and has 70 sets on display. Offering outdoor products to Midwestern states including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin “keeps our operations flow going in slow months,” Johansson said. “Our sales staff is used to selling furniture.”

Although HOM’s outdoor sales are primarily focused on dining with aluminum sling leading the way, deep seating functions have brought about more sales of woven and aluminum fire table products. “We need new and innovative products to get customers excited,” Johansson said. “We do have outdoor kitchens and Big Green Egg, which are unique for our customers and allow great repeat visits. We also sell a full assortment of accessories, which is a big growing category with a lot of opportunity.”

What’s Cooking?

Ryan BloomRyan Bloom, founder of Urban Bonfire in Quebec, shares his passionate approach to selling the outdoor grilling category.

“We as retailers need to match the level of passion and enthusiasm of the consumer,” said Ryan Bloom, founder and owner of Urban Bonfire, based in Montreal. His store seeks to revitalize the basic, nearly universal human experience of barbecuing food as a common denominator cuisine and celebration.

“As a Canadian who lived in the United States during the recession, I think there is a much greater appreciation of value today,” Bloom said. As a retailer, Bloom decided not to compete on price or stock products sold by big box stores. Instead, his store offers cooking events and education along with accessories, sauces, rubs and premium meat consumables. The store’s focus is on a lifestyle appeal and experiential approach, including urbanization and marketing to couples and women to create the value of memories and fun experiences that keep consumers coming back. “We need to own the customer experience, and to include women in the decision to buy and use” smokers and grills, he said. According to the math that is adding up to a larger location opening soon for Bloom: Content + Community = Loyalty.

Web Winners

John ReisenJohn Reisen of Amazon; Ron Hilton of Overstock; Ryan Fitzpatrick of Wayfair and Tim Newton of Leader’s Casual detailed their companies’ successful online strategies.

Four retailers with proven records of selling outdoor online – John Reisen of Amazon, Ron Hilton of Overstock, Ryan Fitzpatrick of Wayfair and Tim Newton of Leader’s Casual Furniture – shared their insights with conference attendees.

“In terms of outdoor, we look at it as an extension of the living room,” said Fitzpatrick, who oversees the day-to-day management of Wayfair’s furniture and home décor business. “It is not a category a customer has to buy. They buy it because they want it.”

Consumers are spending more time at home, Hilton said. “They are willing to expand their living areas,” he said of outdoor spaces. “I think it’s becoming more relevant to a broader audience.”

The growth of online shopping is driven by consumer lifestyles, Reisen said. “People are more stretched for time than ever,” he said, noting Amazon attracted 109 million unique U.S. visitors in December 2014.

“We sell an outdoor lifestyle,” Newton said of Leader’s presence online and in 18 stores. “We can make a life better by selling a durable outdoor lifestyle of their dreams.”

Effective Marketing

Kent Panther of Wray Ward detailed marketing strategies and measurement tools available at different investment levels. Panther outlined paid media and shared/social media options. Some of those weren’t available five years ago. He urged attendees to identify their target customers and to measure what matters, including time, money and action.

Kent Panther, Wray Ward vice president and director of strategic planning, identifies the most valuable performance metrics retailers need to track and stay focused on business. Kent Panther,

“Sixty-six percent of marketers are overwhelmed by the amount of data available for analysis,” Panther said. Before diving into analytical metrics, consider which ones are most closely tied to meeting goals. Business goals are measured through sales, transactions and profits while marketing strategies help to understand how the primary customer is getting inspired, doing research and purchasing product.

Industry Roundtables

ICFA ExecutiveICFA Executive Director Jackie Hirschhaut summarizes the three roundtable discussions, which were moderated by ICFA members.

Conference attendees divided into three groups to discuss key industry issues, moderated by members of the International Casual Furnishings Association. The topics were:

+ Strategies for driving in-store traffic

+ Connecting with high-end designers

+ Online sales for brick-and-mortar stores

Jackie Hirschhaut, ICFA executive director, summarized key points from the three sessions during an overview on the morning of Feb. 20. She also noted ICFA will be hosting more roundtable discussions on Sept. 15, and urged attendees to arrive early for the Sept. 16-19 Casual Market in Chicago.

What’s Trending?

The conference wrapped up with a look at the year ahead in trends with Danny Jelley, senior vice president of product design and development, Veranda Classics by Foremost; Laurie Jenkins, designer and founder of Laurie Bell and Amy Rochester, design/style manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the manufacturer of Sunbrella performance fabrics.

Color and trend experts Sunbrella/Glen Raven Custom Fabrics’ Design/Style Manager Amy Rochester, Veranda Classics’ Senior VP of Design and Development Danny Jelley and Laurie Bell Founder and Owner Laurie Jenkins Color and trend

Color and versatility of design were key trends the presenters pointed to for the coming year. Rochester succinctly touched on the points made by all presenters when she said casual industry designers and manufacturers are really trying to “fuse the classic with something modern to create something new and fun.”

All-star Award Winners

Casual Living’s Retailer of the Year Award went to the Casual Classics Furniture Group, which includes 58 member owners and represents nearly 200 stores throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. The award is intended to honor an individual or company that has taken its company or the industry to new levels of excellence in areas of leadership, product assortment and merchandising, advertising and messaging, customer service, employee relations and community involvement.

Telescope Casual CEO Kathy Juckett laughs as she shares family business anecdotes and accepts the Supplier of the Year Award. Telescope Casual
Casual Living Editor Casual Living Editor in Chief Cinde Ingram with Buzz Homsy, co-founder and director of Casual Classics Furniture Group, honored as Retailer of the Year.

Casual Classics is the only design/build/buying group dedicated to the outdoor furnishings category. It created a partnership between independent outdoor furniture specialty retailers that allowed open communication between members and gave greater strength to small retailers. The concept’s success is due largely to the vision and passion for the outdoor industry shared by its founders Buzz Homsy, Buzz Ghiz and the late Jim Bowen. Homsy was on hand to accept the award.

Casual Living’s Supplier of the Year Award was presented to Kathy Juckett , CEO of Telescope Casual Furniture, which is marking its 112th year of innovative designs, outstanding customer service, employee relations and community involvement. Juckett shared her personal views, describing her grandfather as a “mad inventor” who counted Henry Ford among his friends when the company started as a cot producer in a New York City loft in 1883. With its founding Van-derminden family now in its sixth generation, the company’s Granville, N.Y. factory complex is undergoing a transformation to become a premier mass customization facility.

Economic Winners

“Right now, we are on the cusp of a major boom in our industry,” said Jerry Epperson, founder and managing director of Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., a leading investment banking firm. He discussed outdoor furniture that’s made then sold versus custom ordered products. “We need to make sure the American public understands the difference,” he said. “What you’re offering today is dramatically better. Are you telling anybody that?”

Surya Outdoor VP Jim Levine with Jerry Epperson, a founder and managing director of investment banking firm Mann, Armistead & Epperson. Surya Outdoor
Epperson autographs copies Epperson autographs copies of his new book for Clauda Mejia, Kannoa sales and marketing manager, and Anacara owner Sal Carrara.

With the Millennial generation reaching the point of moving out of parents’ homes, the group has much potential as consumers of home furnishings because of savings from staying home later than earlier generations as well as easy access to Baby Boomer/parents’ cash. Today’s technologies are driving people to stay home, which has the auto and restaurant industries worried but should boost home furnishings sales. The hospitality, pool and deck industries are growing. The economy and housing sectors are improved. Margins are good in the casual furniture industry. There is more interest in home-related capital investment than there has been since the 1990s. “We’re in this wonderful position, if we’re smart enough to take advantage of it,” Epperson said.

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