Ballast in the Big Easy
After years of relative calm, a destination for outdoor furniture in New Orleans makes waves
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 1/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Bruce Aronson, managing partner of the Pool & Patio Center in Metairie, La., is being tested again. Seven years ago, his store was pummeled by the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Now, he's dealing with the worst economic downturn he's seen in his 40 years at the store.
What makes the latter so tough is the relative immunity he and the business have had to previous slumps. The region's reliance on tourism and oil has made the local economy historically durable, while The Pool & Patio Center's target customers have kept shopping no matter what.
"It was always our philosophy that we were OK because we were selling high-end furniture, and the people who were buying our furniture would always have money," Aronson said.
He laughs at the notion now, as he watches the jittery stock market and flood of bad economic news play on his customers' collective psyche.
"Unemployment is not bad in New Orleans," he said. "But if you read the paper and watch the news, you keep hearing that the job market is bad and wonder if your job will be safe."
Outdoor furniture was originally just a side business when Aronson's father, Norman, opened The Pool & Patio Center in downtown New Orleans in 1952. Norman's bread and butter was building swimming pools.
"He'd have to get up at four or five in the morning to get to the job site," recalled Aronson. "One day, after he watched pool walls that had just been plastered get ruined by a sudden rain shower, he realized it was easier to sell patio furniture."
The younger Aronson worked part-time at the store in the 1950s, but he said he never intended to become a full-timer.
"I had always wanted to work for IBM," said Aronson. "I wanted to be a systems engineer, but they said I had better potential as a salesperson."
IBM put Aronson through an eight-month sales training process that, at the time, was regarded as the best in the country.
"It's about dissecting what a sales call is all about and understanding what customers' wants and dislikes are," said Aronson.
He used what he learned at IBM for more than three years. In the meantime, Norman started to mull over the future of his store. Aronson went back to help in 1972 and has been there ever since. Together, they made several critical decisions that fortified the business for years.
First, they relocated to Metairie and, in 1982, settled into their own building in the New Orleans suburb. The 15,000-sq.-ft ., two-story facility is set on a main thoroughfare leading to and from the city.
With a loyal customer base still in New Orleans and a new and growing demographic of customers in Metairie, Aronson felt the store had enough potential business to start placing larger orders and taking the early-buy discounts.
"Our special-order business is about 50% of what we do overall," said Aronson. "I know I can't sell everything we order in October or November. But I want people to come into the store and be able to get immediate gratification."
Anything that isn't displayed on the floor is put in one of Aronson's two 6,000-sq.-ft . warehouses, one of which is right behind the store.
The Pool & Patio Center drew Metairie's married homeowners with minimum household incomes of $70,000. Their tastes were and continue to be traditional. Aronson said his best-selling furniture is typically wrought iron because it matches the look and feel of the grand homes of the French Quarter.
Aronson formally took over the day-to-day management of the business in 2000. He remembered that eight-month process as one of the most difficult times of his retailing career.
"My father was as gracious about it as he could be," Aronson said. "It was more about me coping with the idea that I was taking on the responsibility of the store and the people who worked there."
That was especially true in 2005, when The Pool & Patio Center was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
"There's no question the storm was a life changer," said Aronson. "As I was driving to Baton Rouge before it hit, the only thing going through my mind was, ‘What will become of my life?' My store was my income. My land would be the plan B, but who was going to want land that was underwater?"
Luckily, the store didn't stay flooded for long. Aronson and a few employees who stayed in the area cleaned up the store, and he bought back some of his inventory from his insurance company to have something to sell in the short term. The business got a boost from customers spending insurance money to replace patio furniture that had blown away in the storm. Things appeared to be back to normal.
New conditions, new ideas
The sense of normalcy didn't last long, however. Business started to slump in 2008, and Aronson figured it was because the local population still hadn't returned to normal.
"But it was obvious Katrina was over with and the problem was not that people weren't here to buy," he added. "People were frightened about what was going on with the economy."
Business has see-sawed ever since. In 2009, Aronson had to lay off several employees.
"The most horrible thing to have to do is tell someone you can't help support th em and their families anymore," he said. Aronson began watching his expenses more closely so he could run a leaner, more efficient operation. And he began to work harder, keeping longer hours in the store. Finally, by August 2010, the worst appeared to be over. Sales kept increasing through May of 2011.
"Then when the talks started about the debt ceiling and the downgrading of American debt, it was like a faucet had been turned off ," he said.
Aronson was ready. He added fireplace and hearth to keep the cash flow going in the relatively idle months of December and January. He also took the bold step of adding value priced furniture sets to capture a wider audience.
"That furniture is still more expensive than anything at the big-box stores," he said.
Finally, after a hiatus from the grill category thanks to the encroachment of mass retailers, Aronson jumped back in with what he calls "prosumer" grills. Each feature-laden unit costs anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000, a price range that definitively sets him apart from the big boxes.
Aronson said strong overall retail sales over the holidays were a good sign for everyone. But he's not betting he won't be tested again in 2012. He's ready to do what it takes to keep The Pool & Patio Center growing in its 60th year and beyond.
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