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Hearth & Home March 2014

The Summer Classics Pelham store is in an older Quonset hut, blessed with high ceilings and now divided into more than a dozen rooms. Note the cottage-like wooden walls in this room. Keep your eye on accessories as you browse the following pages.

Store Design: A Master Class

By Richard Wright

To find perfection in patio store design, head for Alabama in August, visit the Summer Classics store in Pelham, then return home and use what you’ve learned.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of a retail store’s appearance to the overall success of the endeavor. Impressions and opinions are being formed and stored in the minds of consumers from the moment they first set eyes on the building’s exterior to the minute they exit.

Exterior color and signage, the interest generated by products, colors, lighting and textures are all immediately mentally recorded upon entry and throughout the shopping experience. Are the floors of stone, wood, tile, brick, cement or any of the many other options? Each application triggers a different impression – is it bland, basic, luxurious, warm, cold, boring, etc.?

The same is true of walls and ceilings, and certainly of the products on display.

In the case of patio furniture, does the store design trigger a sense of high style and beauty? Does it stimulate emotions of desire in the customer’s mind? Does it make them covet what is being presented? Does it hold their interest as they walk through the store? We could go on.

Not many specialty stores would get an “A” rating in store design.

It takes thought, (design) talent and, yes, a bit of money – although there are usually ways around spending a fortune.

Once a year we’re given the opportunity to see how it’s done at the highest level.

In Pelham, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, during the first week of August, Summer Classics annually puts on its Garden Party; it’s an opportunity for dealers to view the company’s new collections, attend a few seminars, learn about the company’s marketing plans for the coming year and, in the evening at a country club, be wined and dined in an elegant manner.

The Pelham location houses some company offices and approximately 18,000 sq. ft. of showroom space that is a striking example of how to display patio furniture. In charge of design are Dykes Culp, director of Retail Merchandising & Retail Buyer, and Jim Calhoun, vice president of Retail. Looking over their shoulders, of course, is company owner/president, Bew White.

We asked Culp and Calhoun to explain their procedure for creating such compelling displays.

Dykes Culp.
Jim Calhoun.

Hearth & Home: When and how do you get started on the annual redesign of Summer Classics’ Pelham showroom?

Dykes Culp: “Our photo shoot season is in late May and early June; those photos will be used in our main catalog and in advertising throughout the year. Following that, we sit down with Bew (White) and some of the design team and try to get a feel for what he’s thinking. This year (2013) the main theme was Oyster – off-white and gray.”

Jim Calhoun: “Think of the inside of an oyster shell minus the luminescence, that milky gray to green color; it’s a complex finish, not one-step. It has depth. It has character. It has an ageless quality. I think it’s what Bew wanted; he wanted an outdoor modern elegance.

“So we spun off that. We played with fabrics. We basically got in his head and started building what the showroom was going to look like. We lay out the spaces to be very color compatible, so that everything in one part of the store will have familiarity – good adjacency of color, texture and style.

“This past year we mixed the textures and the materials. Don’t have all the teaks together. Don’t have all the resin together. Mix them all up as if they were acquired at different times, and with less matching.”

Am I correct that the white, the Oyster color that Bew was talking about and pushing this year, is a trend that he sees coming for the outdoors?  

Calhoun: “I think that’s part of it; it’s also the direction he wants to take even if it were not a trend. We’ve all known that color has been very popular indoors for 10 years. It’s that light mix of neutral white and it’s spilling over to the outside. It’s just so darn easy to live with and easy to decorate around because it’s a neutral that you can then adjust for the client’s needs.”

It’s very lovely, very soft, very soothing. Are you saying that’s what ties all the rooms of your showroom together? Is the theme this year the white, the Oyster color?

Oyster colored ceilings and walls take this year’s theme through the building. Note the wooden floor with throw carpets, antique-style fans and table lamps everywhere.

Culp: “That’s probably 75 percent of the showroom. The impact when you first come into the showroom, and the first 75 percent that you see, is the whole flow, the consistency throughout the showroom within frames and fabrics.”

Calhoun: “The theme was definitely by color, not by style and not by media. It was zoned by color so that all the black walnut, ancient earth, all the darks also got mixed together in the same zone, but not by anything other than color.”

Once you’ve made that decision, what comes next? Placing the different collections in various rooms?

Culp: “Yes. We work with a large floor plan and begin penciling in areas, frames, mixing the components, the cast, the aluminum, the resin and the teak together. We lay it all out and then run it past Bew to get his approval and we make sure we’ve got every collection displayed throughout the showroom – the new and the old collections together.  

Now the flooring has changed to brick, and rug-covered brick. That works well with the teak Croquet collection.

“We start there and the next step is putting the fabrics on groups. We’re showing, throughout the showroom, every fabric that we offer. But when you walk in the front door, the impact is from the color oyster. We actually took that oyster color and matched it with a Sherwin Williams color and started painting walls. Not only did we show it in the frames and the fabrics, but the walls throughout the showroom were painted a really nice off-white with just a bit of gray.”

Calhoun: “This is about the time in the work process when Dykes is getting a feel for it. He runs to Atlanta and places accessory orders for things that he can get that he knows are going to fit. He buys broad because what he thought might work perfectly here really works better over there. And he buys things that have bulk and weight. We don’t want a bazillion little things; we want nice, big, showy things.”

So you know by now which showrooms to hit at the AmericasMart in Atlanta?

Culp: “Yes. I had one day to do it. I went into showrooms that could actually ship to me within three weeks.”

Do you source any other market for accessory items? Do you go to High Point, say?

Culp: “No, because the timelines are wrong. The catalog gets shot in May and June and then we start getting product to set up for the August Garden Party. The only available market window is Atlanta. Plus, it’s the biggest show when you’re looking for accessories.”

So, when you go to Chicago, there’s nothing at the Mart that’s worthwhile?

Culp: “I have never found any accessories there. You can find product if you’re looking for furniture, but the accessory shows there are weak.”

When selecting accessories, do you already have room themes in mind?

Culp: “Yes. We kept it that cool, white, nautical look. We actually owned a lot of the accessories anyway, so we just recycled and repurposed them in different rooms. We start fresh and we begin by moving things around. When you start mixing light colors and light textures together, such as with accessories, and matching colors in different parts of the showroom in the different vignettes and the seating areas, it makes the area pop when you start putting light colors together.”

A few minutes ago you said you try to show all your fabrics.  Isn’t that basically impossible? You must have 180 fabrics.

Culp: “We had 130 or so in the collection this past season, but not all of them are new. So no, by the time you put all the collections and accent chairs, and all the cushions and pillows out, you can get most of them on the floor. You can certainly get all the new fabrics on the floor.”

How many different rooms and vignettes do you have in Pelham?

Culp: “There are 12 rooms and 36 vignettes in the 18,000 sq. ft. of show space we have.”

It seems so much bigger than that.

Culp: “Because it’s carved up into all those beautiful little areas; it looks much bigger than it is.”

You always display your furniture in indoor settings, whether it’s here in Pelham, or in Chicago or High Point. Yet you’re selling outdoor furniture. Why is that?

Culp: “We have a crossover customer who uses our furniture for indoor living spaces, for screened porches that open off a family room. A lot of our furniture is used in beach houses and lake houses. It’s kid-friendly and multifunctional, so we just merchandise our vignettes that way.”

Calhoun: “I’d like to go back to something very early on. I’ve known Bew White for 30-something years now, and I can tell you it’s about design. He wants the furniture to look beautiful and, if that can’t be accomplished in an outdoor setting, or by making the indoors look like the outdoors, then you do the next best thing and make it look like a place in which you want to live – by design.

“Bew’s passion for visual excitement is way off the charts. We hire people who want it to be beautiful, and we create those very lush settings that do have an indoor quality. But our customers want that opulence outdoors.”

What else can you tell me about how you go about creating these gorgeous spaces and vignettes?

The elegant Provance collection rests on stone flooring; cushions provide a nice, subtle pop of color, and another delicate chandelier blends beautifully.

Culp: “Well, the first part of the process is plotting it onto a large floor plan; then we develop an Excel spreadsheet to make sure all of our i’s are dotted and all of our t’s are crossed. We make sure we have all the frames, and that’s not an easy matter. We may be pulling the new frames from a sample warehouse or from a photo shoot or even from another of our retail stores. It’s a huge process pulling what we don’t have into the building. Plus we’re conducting business on a day-to-day basis right here in Pelham.

“Then I start placing orders for the frames, textiles, cushions and throw pillows within the vignettes. The biggest chunk of the work is placing those orders. Then we go off to market to research available accessories that complement those vignettes and that can pull excitement in. We look for larger pieces, larger mirrors, artwork, paintings, outdoor rugs and a few outdoor lamps.  

“Once those orders are placed then the process starts with what we call the demolition. It’s not really demolition, but we start cleaning floors, painting walls and ceilings and selling off current frames within the collections on the floor.”

What are the biggest errors that other patio specialty stores make, assuming you’ve had a chance to visit a number of them?

Culp: “You’ve heard it before; it’s a sea of patio furniture. They don’t try to make their vignettes exciting or the groups on their floor exciting. Most furniture stores have dining tables, dining sets all in one area and deep-seating in another area. We try to make sure that no two deep-seating groups are side-by-side; they are separated with a dining group or a display of chaise lounges. We try to mix the products up on the whole showroom floor.”

Calhoun: “Let me try to answer that in a more global way. I’ve seen it in every category that I’ve ever worked with in the industry. People will always sacrifice vision and visual excitement to product. They really don’t have a vision of how their store should look. I think a lot of patio shops are mom and pop operations, and they don’t hire local talent that could give them that visual vision.”

I think you hit the nail on the head. Plus, it’s a lot of work, isn’t it?

Calhoun: “I’m going to be honest. For me, it’s always a lot of play. Yes, it is both mental and physical labor, but what better exercise can you get for all your creative juices? Dykes is just like me. He loves the creative process. He’s great at planning it, scheduling, executing it. People like to say that creativity is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration, but I don’t think that ratio is right. It’s probably 40/60, but Dykes has that gift; Bew recognized it and hired him for that reason.”

Inspired by Downton Abbey, Culp and Calhoun staged a photo shoot that became the image on their Garden Party invitation. In front are Bew and Wendy White.

What have I not asked that I should have?

Calhoun: “I don’t think you’re missing anything that you need to cover.  But it is about the ‘Wow’ factor. I can’t tell you the number of people, Bew included, who walk in that front door and go ‘Oh, Wow, I had no idea it would be like this inside.’ We hear it in other stores, too. If only the other patio stores out there would decide to ‘Wow’ their customers visually, they would find they have ‘Wow’ sales as well.”

Culp: “At times inspiration comes from an unexpected place; that was true this past year with how we decided on using the white colors.

“I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey, and Jim watches it as well. There was an episode last season when they had a Garden Party on the show, and everything was white wicker and everyone wore light colors and cream. That was an inspiration. When we had our planning meeting, Bew didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned that TV show, but his wife, Wendy, is a big fan.   

“So we staged one of our photo shoots for our classic wicker collection at a castle here in Birmingham. It was built in the ’20s in the same style as Downton Abbey. That was the premise from which we came up with the idea of using the white colors and the grays and the Oyster.

“We pulled some of the clothes from a vintage clothing store and arranged the staff. I was actually one of the servants in the photograph. We used that photo for the Garden Party invitation.”

How did you manage to get Bew to put that look on his face?

Culp: “I told him to act very British.”

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