Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 3/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
On a bright February morning in danvers, mass., Cindy Palaro can't help commenting on all the sunlight pouring through the expansive windows of her outdoor living store, Sunline Patio & Fireside. It's not supposed to be that way.
"If you were here last year, all you'd see is snow piled up out there," she said, pointing toward the window at the outdoor statuary and furniture displayed in front of the store. "Usually we cover everything up to protect it from the weather, but this year, why bother?"
Neither she nor store manager Norb Lyons have time to do that anyway. A steady stream of customers kept them busy as soon as January. Business got so brisk, Palaro had the entire 6,000-sq.-ft . store set up for the season before February.
Palaro sees the weather as a metaphor. After several dreary years of business - the worst stretch she's ever been through since she joined her father's business in the late '70s - the sun is finally peaking through the clouds again. Business is bouncing back, and she said the unseasonably warm winter in Boston certainly helped.
"We always have snowstorms in December, and the weather just kind of stays cold at least until the end of February," Palaro said. "I'm going to say we're already ahead of where we were last year by at least 20%. People were emailing us in January t o ask whether we had things in stock. That's never happened."
If the last few years taught her anything, however, it was to avoid sitting back and letting business come to the store. Despite the warm winter, Palaro offered discount incentives to get customers to buy then instead of in March, when they usually make their purchasing decisions.
"They could go ahead and buy their furniture and not worry about it until we delivered it to them in March," she said. "I think a lot of our customers liked that."
Palaro's father, Gene, opened for business back in 1963 when he sold swimming pools and statuary almost exclusively. Sunline still has a wide variety of statues displayed outside, and the category remains a strong one.
The elder Palaro also debuted with a few furniture lines, including Telescope Casual. But the furniture business didn't blossom until his daughter came aboard.
"Before then, there were only a few outdoor furniture manufacturers," Palaro said. "That business started to grow in the early '80s when the casual show started in Chicago."
With customers already aware of Sunline as a destination for Telescope furniture, P alaro added more high-quality lines such as Patio Renaissance, Kingsley-Bate, Gloster and Cast Classics. Her choices have resonated with a discerning and steady customer base ever since.
"We're on the North Shore area, and the economy has been pretty good here," she said. "The unemployment rate is relatively low, and our customers are affluent enough to spend money even when the economy isn't great."
Palaro also dabbles in commercial sales.
"Every year that business is different," she said. "We tend to deal with smaller restaurants and country clubs rather than big hotels. Because we've been in this location for so long, those clients just normally come here automatically."
And in the winter, she has the hearth business to keep sales warm until spring.
"The hearth business stays pretty steady, although it takes a lot longer than outdoor furniture to build up," Palaro said. "You have to be committed to it because it's so different from furniture. It takes a long time to learn the product and how it has to be installed. You can't know it in a few training sessions."
Diversification and a high- end furniture selection has helped Sunline fend off competition from the usual suspects - big-box stores and websites.
"I think our customers want something that will last awhile, and they like that we give them more choices," Palaro said. "They don't have to buy a chair the way it's displayed here. We give them the options to fit their outdoor living space."
Books filled with fabric swatches and frame finishes are placed on tables throughout the store to underscore that point. And no customer goes more than a few seconds without being approached by Palaro, Lyons or another one of her employees, who number between six and 10 depending on the season.
Palaro said the store's customer service is one area of the business that has improved in the aftermath of the economic slump.
"We've had to really work on our service to make sure we're answering calls and keeping everything on schedule," she said. "If a customer places a special order with us, we keep checking on it to make sure it arrives when we said it would."
With her business on the upswing, Palaro acknowledges that the economic downturn has changed her and the store for the better.
"I've learned how to adjust," she said. "You just have to work harder. I'm not back in the back, I'm on the floor every day. I'm more aware of where every dollar is being spent. I did more forecasting in the off -s eason."
Palaro also has her sights set on improving infrastructure. She's planning to start construction of a warehouse in the large empty lot behind the store, where she now stores inventory in shipping containers.
She also plans to foster her vendor relationships, which she said became stronger during the downturn.
"I think we communicate a lot more now, and they're doing more to support us," Palaro said. "They're carrying more inventory so we don't have to carry as much. Their shipping seems to be faster. We've been able to work through everything with them."
Things like that make Palaro glad she works in the outdoor living industry.
"You have to like the business, and I feel lucky to be part of it," she said. "It's never dull. The customers who come in are usually in a good place financially. Outdoor furniture is not something they need. It's something they want. They're adding it to make themselves feel better, and we get good support from the factories to make it happen."
With the sun shining on Sunline Patio again, both literally and figuratively, Palaro can't wait to see what the rest of 2012 will bring.
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