Anne Othen describes owning her retail store, Patio Casual (Oldsmar, Florida), as a true labor of love. The shop began in 2014, in a 10x20-foot booth at the Oldsmar Flea Market where Anne and her husband, Thomas, started selling wooden Adirondack chairs. She says, “Then we evolved, somewhat organically, into a patio store.”
They reinvested their earnings and soon brought in furniture lines (including deep seating) in wicker, aluminum, and cast metal. Anne and Thomas both had spent long careers in retail positions, and Anne had also worked in specialty retailing, including owning waterbed and futon stores. Opening a patio store was a perfect fit for their experience. In 2015, Patio Casual moved into a 13,000–square-foot building, but stayed within the Oldsmar Flea Market—a 20-acre shopping magnet with a fun, carnival atmosphere.
It offers everything from food and music to fresh produce and electronics. Oldsmar is near Tampa, and the market draws customers from three eavily populated counties along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The Oldsmar Flea Market has limited hours: It is open most Fridays through Sundays, closing at 5 p.m. With its own parking lot and store entrance, however, Patio Casual is able to operate as a freestanding retail business. The store is open to customers six days a week; however, it must follow Oldsmar Flea Market hours on the weekends. Anne comments, “It works out very well because the hours give our employees a good work/life balance, and the customers are very understanding.” In addition, the store benefits from excellent visibility from a major highway. She adds, “Being within the Oldsmar Flea Market gives us a fantastic draw—especially on the weekend, which can be a madhouse.”
With more than 1,200 vendors, the market generates a lot of activity, including thousands of visitors. Anne comments, “Patio Casual has become a destination in itself and now drives its own traffic, so we have tried to minimize some of the walk-through traffic from the market.” On some weekends, there were so many people simply browsing in Patio Casual that, Anne notes, “Employees could not move through the store to help interested buyers.”
The location helps Anne adhere to a lean advertising budget. The store uses its website (www.patiocasual.com), consistent Facebook posts, Google AdWords, and Craigslist ads. Anne says, “Our location and lower advertising costs give us the opportunity to reduce the store’s overhead and then pass on the savings to our customers. We are sensitive to the fact that patio furniture can be somewhat pricey.”
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CUSTOMER
Anne’s goal for Patio Casual is to keep its focus on the customer experience. She says, “We have grown, and people seem greatly responsive to the products we carry.” When people walk through the showroom doors, she wants them not only to feel happy, but to have positive experiences throughout the entire buying process. “Customer satisfaction is what drives us here, every day,” she says. This customer-centered philosophy not only works for sales growth, but has also helped spread the word about Patio Casual. Over and over, the delivery truck goes back to the same neighborhoods. Anne says, “Customers are telling their friends and neighbors about us. The store has become a secret find for people who love to share it with their friends.”
While Patio Casual carries the top casual lines in the industry, it also strives to keep a keen focus on accessories. “We want to be different and want people to come in and see items they don’t ordinarily see in a patio store,” Anne explains. This includes merchandising with colorful rugs, whimsical-quote throw pillows, hammocks, and unique Haitian and Peruvian decor accessories such as those from K&M Imports Inc. (Oviedo, Florida). The line has bright, vibrant products that fit the area’s coastal design theme. Furniture made from recycled plastic is popular with customers because it meets the demands of Florida’s weather, which can include the damaging effects of rain, salt, and wind. Frames that offer durability, comfort, and style are important to the store’s clients, as are bright, tropical colors in cushions and pillows.
In addition, employees continually learn about the needs of Patio Casual’s particular market. One example is seating height for an older population. Anne says, “Counter-height seating is much easier for them to use because it is easier to sit down in (and stand up from) a higher seat. It is important for us always to listen to the customer’s needs.”
Anne regularly shops at competing stores to help her differentiate Patio Casual from the crowd. She says, “We will always be up against some of the bigger patio stores in Florida, so we try to stay away from the products they carry.” This sets Patio Casual apart and gives customer more options. It makes Anne happy when she sees commercials or hears radio advertising from other patio stores. “It only helps the industry by bringing awareness to the category, and it continues to challenge us to be different,” she says.
The customer experience extends to the services that Patio Casual provides. These include design consultation at no charge. Anne says, “We are always encouraging people to bring in photos of the exteriors and interiors of their homes. We are very hands-on here.” Employees strive to help customers make the best buying decisions based on a home’s color, style, and available space, along with the vision buyers have for their own outdoor rooms. For a moderate fee, fullservice delivery is available within 100 miles of the store.
Patio Casual is run as a lean operation. Anne and her husband both work full time in the business. A fulltime administrator, a full-time delivery person, and a part-time decorator (who works only on the weekends) make up the remainder of the staff. “Our employees are great. When you have furniture people who are passionate about what they do, it doesn’t feel like work,” Anne says.
Patio Casual did not sustain any damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Anne says, “I have lived in Florida for over 40 years, and I have never felt the level of anxiety I did during Irma.” The store has a large outdoor display, and to prepare for the storm, employees brought every piece of furniture inside the store. Anne comments, “We were very lucky and lost no power—and had no damage at the store and at home.” Anne is passionate about the casual industry. She is equally excited about the customers she serves. “It is all about them,” she says. “When customers walk into our store, they feel our vibe: both that we are here to help them and how much we love it.”