Rebranding brings delightful results for Stauffers of Kissel Hill
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, 7/2/2011 4:21:56 AM
Rebranding, aggressive marketing and early buys have come together at Stauffers of Kissel Hill to deliver record increases in outdoor furniture sales this spring.
The central Pennsylvania group of garden centers and supermarkets carries outdoor furniture at two of its eight locations, Mechanicsburg and Rohrerstown.
"It's been one of the shining stars," said Jere Stauffer, COO of the garden center line of business and director of training for the family company.
Fueling that glow is an early start date aggressively advertised on the Internet, in newspapers and magazines, and via social media.
"We're ready to sell outdoor furniture on February 1," said Joanne Clime, buyer and manager of Stauffers' outdoor furniture department, The Patio Shop.
"Some retailers, especially in the Northeast, see it as a waste of time or money to start their season so early," Clime said, "but we see customers who have projects in mind and money to spend."
And spend they do. Over the last three years, the largest growths in the outdoor furniture category have occurred in February through April.
Critical to this success are the manufacturers' early-buy programs such as Telescope Casual's early-season discounts, which the company has leveraged the last two years.
"It allows us to pass those discounts on to our customers," Clime said. "They know that the price will go up when we reorder so they are motivated to buy."
Clime also points to the full collections on display as drivers of Stauffers early-season success, particularly with Winston's new cast groups and Telescope's Windward Collection.
The early-season success may be one reason Stauffers is seeing a slight increase this year in stock sales although its special-order business is still substantial.
As always in this somewhat conservative area, consumers continue to prefer the more neutral earth tones and traditional styles, but they seem more willing these days to mix and match brands, according to Stauffer. Given that it is a garden center, splashes of color come from pots of flowers as well as accessories.
"We've sold a lot of red umbrellas this year," Clime said.
Key throughout, she adds, is the customer's ability to have all of their outdoor living needs taken care of in one stop.
Stepping up to opportunity
Outdoor furniture is a relatively new success story at Stauffers of Kissel Hill. For years, the 79-year-old company's patio product mix consisted of entry-level outdoor furniture imports and oft entimes close-out grill lines. "
We wrestled with that - we'd look at our sales at the end of the year and ask ourselves why we were putting in all of this effort," Stauffer said.
When the Stauffer family launched a major rebranding effort in the mid-2000s to reposition Stauffers of Kissel Hill as a lifestyle destination company, carrying such a lowend mix became even more problematic.
The answer, Stauffer decided, was to get out of outdoor furniture and grills completely and then re-enter the category at a mid-level price point aft er completion of a major renovation of the Rohrerstown location.
It was a good plan, but opportunity intervened before it could be implemented.
In late 2006, Dennis Burd approached the Stauffer family about acquiring Country Market Nursery. It was too good of an opportunity to turn down. Not only would it expand Stauffers of Kissel Hill's nursery and garden center market, Country Market was already established as a destination site for quality patio furniture.
"That ‘springboarded' the whole casual furniture patio shop for us," Stauffer said. "Whereas I would have had to figure out the business, work my way into vendor relationships, territories, salespeople and all of it, the casual furniture market developed by Country Market at the Mechanicsburg location was in its heyday a couple million dollars, and it came to us as part of the acquisition."
The sale was finalized in February 2008. To limit confusion while building the new brand, for the fi rst two years all furniture advertising featured the names of both companies.
"That really helped the transition," said Clime, who was manager of Country Market's outdoor furniture department before joining Stauffers of Kissel Hill.
Also critical was the company's willingness to build on, rather than change, what was a proven strategy.
"Our customers know that we won't disappoint them," Clime said. "There is a consistency with our product mix and the manufacturers that we use. We're going to be here in five years if that foot comes off the glider."
Bland no more
The timing of the acquisition was an important boost to the rebranding effort.
"It helped us to think more upscale about our stores and our product mix, and to realize that there is a customer in the marketplace who has the money to spend on good quality products," Stauffer said.
The company committed to rebranding after seeking and receiving both peer and professional feedback on its operations. The critiques zeroed in on the inconsistent message Stauffers was giving consumers as well as the need to freshen its image. As the consultant said of one location, "It's like the bland leading the bland."
"I knew exactly what he was talking about," Stauffer said. "We look at the before and after pictures, and it is embarrassing. I like to describe where we'd gotten to as where a bunch of middle-aged white guys could think about getting to."
The company ended up with a 25-step process encapsulated in the new brand promise: To delight shoppers.
Some changes were obvious - such as, no more handwritten signage - while others were more sophisticated. For example, bright yellow shirts work for staff uniforms in the nursery and greenhouse areas, but in the more upscale departments the yellow is a bit more subdued.
Central to the new look was finding the balance of trendy colors and styles that appeal to a younger shopper while still honoring the substance and traditions that appeal to the Baby Boomers.
Although most of the steps have now been implemented, given that the investment in the rebranding, Rohrerstown renovation and acquisition all occurred about the time the economy fell, the company had to make some adjustments along the way. In doing so, management sought input from the employees.
"They came back with some pretty good suggestions, and in some cases held our feet to the fi re about some things we'd maybe backed off from," Stauffer said. For example, employees told them not to treat a mediocre performer the same way as a good performer. "We're a merit-based-increased company and they told us that we weren't quite as merit-based as we should be, which was interesting feedback."
Beating the odds
Stauffer is part of the third generation to run the family business. His grandfather opened a roadside produce and fruit stand in 1932 that evolved over time into the garden center/ supermarket balance of today.
Statistically, it is the third generation of a family business that runs the biggest risk of failure. The hard work involved in rebranding went a long way toward changing those odds, but the family isn't stopping there. It is also working with a strategic planner on a succession plan to set the course for the next generation's success.
Part of that planning involves Stauffers of Kissel Hill's future growth. At this point, it's unclear whether that growth will entail other acquisitions to gain a foothold in new markets or expansion of existing locations. But it is a matter of "how," not "if."
"I don't want to retire from this company with no growth beyond where we are now," Stauffer said. "I would really like to see it expand."
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