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Tis the Contra Season

November 25, 2008

We are finally getting some cold weather here in New Orleans. For several nights the temperature got down into the thirties and there were several days the temp never got higher than 60. Okay, I realize it is much colder almost everywhere else and most of you must think I am a “wus” to call a few nights in the 30’s cold, but let me make my point. It has gotten cold enough for our contra seasonal hearth sales to kick in.

For many years, we didn’t think we needed to carry something to sell in the “off “ season. After all, there are times during our so-called “winter” where it is warm enough to sit on our patios in short sleeve shirts. In fact, we are most comfortable outside in the fall, much of winter, and spring.  So, patio furniture sells 12 months a year down here.

However, about eight years ago at Casual Market some friends of mine with a store in Northern Louisiana told me all about their hearth category. They had been doing hearth product for years and it carried them through the winter when their patio stuff slowed down. After I got home, I talked with another retailer with a store in the middle of Louisiana. He was selling even more than the friends I spoke to at market. In fact, he sold so much, he was a distributor for a certain brand of fireboxes.  Being ever watchful for moneymaking ideas (and perhaps a little naïve, too), I decided this was something I should investigate. If they could sell hearth in our moderate weather, perhaps I could too.

To make a long story short, we installed working gas fireplaces, brought in some lines of gas logs, and found sources for hearth accessories. The first year, where my friends were selling logs by the truckload, we sold maybe two dozen sets. Thank goodness I only ordered about that many. Same for tool sets, screens, etc.; we didn’t sell much but we didn’t order much, either. Sales weren’t big, but I figured it was our first year. I was right, as the years have gone by and we got more established, sales have gotten better. In fact, I want to thank all of my friends who convinced me to order my first set of gas logs.

Anyway, what made me decide to write about this in my blog was how our business skewed last Saturday when it was especially cold (down to 38, brrrr!). We had a constant line of customers looking for hearth products. Even though we sold some furniture, most of our sales that day were for logs and other hearth products. Our day was better because of our contra seasonal category.

Starting a new category is not just installing a fireplace, unlocking your front door, and having a cash register. Every industry has a learning curve. I think hearth has a very steep one and, even after eight years, I still feel undereducated. Every industry has a different set of customers. Hearth customers are more price conscious and indecisive than upscale patio customers. Some industries require a huge investment in inventory. Fortunately, it was cheaper to get into hearth that it might have been to get into Christmas. Finally, some industries have so much competition already, you won’t want to get into them.

A lot of us already carry contra seasonal merchandise. In fact, what we southerners would consider contra seasonal are major categories for northerners. Colorado has ski shops that sell patio in summer. New England has stores that sell Christmas when it is cold. And, many northern stores major in hearth and minor in patio. Since the need for contra seasonal categories is less well defined here in the Sunbelt, it is easier to do the same old same old.

Maybe it is easier, but it is not always a good business plan. With the economy where it is, I am sure those of use who have supplemental categories for our “off” seasons are happy we diversified. Of course, it’s too late to buy into hearth for 2008/2009. But it is not to late to diversify for 2009. Nor do you have to diversify into something completely different than patio. For example, do you shop accessories when you go to market? If not, you really are missing a bet. Outdoor carpets have been hugely successful for us. Outdoor tabletop including plastic drinkware, placemats, napkins, and serving pieces sell like hot cakes and don’t require a huge investment. Outdoor lighting, fans and/or heaters, wall art, fountains can add hundreds if not thousands of dollars to a furniture sale. And, you know what, even if they don’t sell, they make your store look like a million dollars and will increase your furniture sales.

It’s during the tough times we have to make “out of the box” decisions. Whether it is hearth, Christmas, accessories, gift items, or outdoor kitchens, no idea should be left unexplored. Remember, just because you haven’t done it in the past doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it in the future.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce