Low Tech/High Tech
Three generations co-exist at San Antonio Home & Patio
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 9/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Every morning, Adam Kelley, the third generation of the family that opened Home & Patio in San Antonio, Texas, walks into a quaint little office at the back of the store that time forgot. He thumbs through files of paper receipts. A rotary phone sits on the desk next to him, like a prop from the mid-20th century.
"We don't like computers here," jokes Kelley.
But the antiquated surroundings are misleading. Lean and flexible, the business is a model of 21st century perseverance, capable of constantly adapting to a fickle local market and riding out just about anything a bad economy can throw at them.
The precedent was set back in 1967, when Kelley's late grandfather, William Roy Kelley, started the business with his wife, Maxine. William was a builder. Maxine led a garden club and tended such an impeccable garden in her own back yard that neighbor s always asked her for advice. They'd also asked where they could get furniture, fountains and other pieces she had.
"There was no such thing as a casual furniture store at that time," said Maxine. "But my husband said he saw the handwriting on the wall. He wanted to open his own store."
It wasn't easy. When the couple went to the Small Business Administration for a loan, they were promptly rejected.
"They told us to go to Sears to learn about outdoor furniture," Maxine said.
They found the money they needed to open the store anyway.
"He asked me if I'd give him two years," Maxine said. "I was here for 40."
The store was an instant hit because it was so new, meeting a demand that had been ignored for so long. The Kelleys further established their niche by sourcing furniture and accessories no one else in the area had.
"I remember uncovering the fountains I wanted in the snow in Chicago at the Housewares Show," said Maxine. "Mostly, we decided what furniture we were interested in and got in touch with the reps of those companies. We had to go all over the country for different markets."
Now, of course, all those markets have consolidated and the casual living world is m uch more competitive. The Kelleys' son, Roger, and his wife, Judy, eventually took over and opened a second store five years ago to address the San Antonio population boom on the outskirts of the city.
While Judy is still integral to the day-to-day business, Roger has stepped back to let their son, Adam, take more responsibility. The past few years have tested all of them, providing lessons on what they'll need to do to keep the business ahead of the curve - even as they continue to take calls on their rotary phone.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
Adam, who's 30 now, has been working at the store since middle school and got more directly involved within the last decade. In 2004, he started working sales. Two years later, he began doing more of the buying. He's seen the store evolve along with the community.
"Everything now is so fashion-driven, and we're trying to cater to that," he said. "And in our area it's become about instant gratification. We have a lot of competitors in this area - about six casual stores within a 50-mile radius. But we were the first, and we have a warehouse on site that allows us to get customers their furniture right away."
One thing hasn't changed, however. The business has always operated with minimal overhead, which has become a big asset as the market and economy have gotten tougher.
Between the two stores, Home & Patio has seven employees - including Roger - and three delivery vehicles. The average model year of those vehicles, said Adam, is 1991, and the staff maintains them to look as new as possible.
"Sometimes the same person who makes the sale is the one delivering the furniture," Adam said. "You can imagine our customers' surprise seeing the salesperson who was in a tie that day arriving in a T-shirt that night with the furniture. But that's how we keep things going."
Adam learned from his father and grandfather that the number of employees isn't as important as the quality of those people. Every one of Home & Patio's full-timers has been with the store for at least a decade, and their experience has been key to the store gaining new customers.
"I'm third generation and so are a lot of our customers now," said Adam. "They're more willing than their parents to go from spending $1,500 to buying a chat or dining set from us for $3,500. They're stepping up from what they got at the big boxes, and we've done a good job of explaining the differences in the furniture we have."
The core customers at Home & Patio are still baby boomers, but Adam said everyone has been more price conscious lately. He said pushing the American-made message has made a difference with some of them.
"If they're on the fence, they may pay an extra 10% to get that U.S.-made product," he said.
And if they do buy, whoever sold the furniture to them is likely the one in the delivery truck several hours later.
DIY WEB STRATEGY
Home & Patio does embrace one aspect of 21st century business. It has a website, and that website has a deceptively professional look to it.
"I do it myself," said Adam. "I put it together in about a month and do the best I can without much formal training. The Internet is a very tough thing. We're just lucky someone here was smart enough to register our domain."
Ever the good son, Adam is referring to his father. He also gives Judy plenty of credit.
"She is the key person in this whole business," he said. "She keeps everything going. We've been working closely together for the last 10 years solidly. It's hard to believe she came here to work full-time 12 years ago with no prior experience."
But the website and all other online endeavors is Adam's domain, and he uses it purely as a means to draw customers to the stores. He posts no pricing on the site, instead posting scores of photos of the product in an effort to show viewers the breadth of the inventory.
The website also includes a blog, where customers can post questions that usually get an answer within 24 hours. This year, Adam said he linked the blog to vendor profiles he created to cultivate brand awareness.
"A lot of people will come into the store just to check who makes a chair or table so they can go home to try to find the furniture on the Web," he said. "I recently caught my first customers scanning a QR tag on one of our chairs."
But Adam isn't worried because the in-store experience, including service from a member of the family that started the business, often converts browsers to buyers. So does the instant gratification of same-day delivery by the same person who sold them the furniture.
That level of service is as old-school as Home & Patio's old rotary phone. But it's also what has always given the store a clear path to a bright future.
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