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Hearth & Home November 2016

What's A Specialty Retailer To Do?

By Mark Brock

Now that the Yellow Pages are gone, retailers need to focus on some things old, some things new, and all things digital.

Consider today’s shopper. She’s decided it’s time to purchase new patio furniture, so her first step is to search Google for “outdoor furniture” where she gathers information on styles, materials and where to buy. Next, it’s a visit to her friendly neighborhood specialty retailer, also identified by her online searches. During a visit to the store, she gathers even more information from a helpful salesperson, all the while using her smartphone to snap photos.

With a second visit online, she finds chairs and a table that seem ideal, available from an online outlet that’s promoting discount pricing. She visits the local outdoor retailer a second time to share the competitive pricing information she has gleaned online, and to ask the store to match the lower price.

One of the store’s salespeople reviews the online price quote and gently suggests that the online product and the patio set in the store are not an apples-to-apples comparison. The salesperson then guides the customer to a name-brand set at a slightly higher price point but substantially better quality and backed by the store’s free delivery, set-up services and extended warranties. The store closes the sale for a happy customer.

Welcome to 21st century specialty retail marketing in a digital world where vast amounts of information and a variety of products are available at your fingertips 24/7. While this example of an online shopper is at the extreme end of an empowered consumer, it illustrates the marketing challenge that retailers in the casual furniture, hearth and barbecue industries are facing today.

“You cannot do a marketing strategy today without a digital component because of how technology impacts the ways in which you reach out to and serve your customers,” said Ron Norelli, president of Norelli Strategy, a management strategy specialist. “Business plans have traditionally driven marketing strategy, and that’s still true today in many ways. But the major change that’s taken place is the way in which digital technology can now drive both your marketing and business plans, which is truly transformational.”

Marketing Strategy – Where to Begin

The unrelenting impact of digital technology on marketing is actually a two-edged sword for specialty retailers. On one hand, the Internet has empowered consumers with insider information and created a whole new world of competition. On the other hand, technology has created a suite of powerful tools that specialty retailers can use to support a competitive edge. The tough question is, How does a retailer craft a marketing strategy in this increasingly complex digital world that requires an entirely different skill set?

“Marketing strategy should always begin with the question of ‘Where do you want to go?’” Norelli said. “Every business wants to get larger, and in this age if you are not growing you will be left behind. But the question of where to go is more than simply becoming a larger organization. The question of where to go is based on an organization’s values and the type of organization that owners and managers envision.

“At the same time, retailers are faced with change that’s being forced upon them from outside of their own businesses, such as technology and government regulation. The one thing that you can count on is that change is irreversible; you cannot go back to the way that things used to be.”

Norelli advocates thoughtful consideration of an organization’s values and culture, along with the close integration of business planning and marketing strategy. He also emphasizes the importance of the broadest possible definition of marketing.

“Marketing is much more than ads and websites,” Norelli said. “Peter Drucker (the international pioneer in management strategy) defined marketing as a collection of activities the purpose of which is to get and keep customers. Within this collection of activities, if a company can find one or two things within the marketing mix where they can dominate within their target market, then it will be okay to be simply adequate in other areas. But you have to be able to stand out in one or two areas of marketing.”

Eric Weinstein, a principal with Specialty Store Services, a specialist in retailer products and services, also emphasizes the importance of focusing on your goals and standing out from the crowd.

“If your ultimate goal is to get bodies into your store, then make sure your marketing efforts work toward your end result,” he said. “It takes many different elements working in sync. Use your Facebook page to drive traffic to your website, where you can collect information for your mailing list, advertise weekly or monthly specials, and tell your story.

“It’s all about leveraging what makes you unique,” he continued. “Why do your customers choose to shop with you? Is it your elegant, sophisticated setting? Is it your quirky sense of humor? Or is it a novel approach to your category? Identify what sets you apart from your competition, and capitalize on your point of difference. Build your store’s personality into your brand.”

Specialty retailers across the U.S. are stepping up to the challenge of the digital age with marketing strategies that represent a blend of the tried and true, such as impeccable customer service and resulting positive word-of-mouth referrals, along with the latest in technology to secure and keep customers. Retailers are developing customized marketing plans for their specific geographic regions and target customers. The central focus for everyone is the Internet and all of its tentacles, encompassing search, social media and big data.

Standing Out On the Internet

The majority of specialty retailers today maintain Internet sites, with many of these sites now in their second, third or even later iterations. Attracting site visitors through search engines such as Google and Bing, and holding those visitors on the site, are the top priorities. Through the use of hero images, video and carousels (slide shows), retailers are working hard to lock visitors into their sites quickly.

Research has shown that sites should load within three seconds of access and that the first 10 seconds on a website determines if a visitor will dig deeper or bounce away to the next site. Lightning fast technology and compelling content translate to low bounce rates.

Also essential for holding site visitors is simple, easy-to-use navigation most effectively displayed along the top of the home page. Known broadly as UX (User Experience), this aspect of web design recognizes that the success of a website is not necessarily measured by creativity or technology, but how easily a human being can absorb and access content. Specialty retailers can conduct their own unscientific UX testing by simply asking customers to work their way through a site while being observed on how easy, or difficult, it is to find the needed information.

Another important consideration for website design is based on research documenting that more than 80 percent of Internet searches are conducted using a smartphone. A website designed to function only on laptop or desk-top computers will miss out on a huge group of customers, including the all-important Millennial generation.

“When the Internet first arrived many years ago, we tried to ignore it, but you can’t ignore it any longer because it’s the Big Dog now,” said Doug Wheat, president of Hauser’s Patio in San Diego. “People shop patio furniture online, and I have to admit that I’m as guilty as the next person in shopping for a variety of products online. We accept the fact of the Internet and its role in marketing, but we do wish that consumers would do more to support brick and mortar stores.”

Search engine optimization has become an essential element for the success of websites for retailers. Through the strategic placement of key words throughout a website’s content and links to other sites, retailers are improving the odds of coming up high in a consumer’s online research. Investments in pay-for-click services can also improve the chances of being found on the Internet.

“Search engine optimization is not easy, but it’s extremely important,” said Chad Scheinerman, CEO of Today’s Patio, which has seven locations in Arizona and one in California. “You can have the best store in America, but if you put it in the middle of nowhere you will never succeed because no one will ever find you. You have to think of your website in the same way. You can have the best website ever, but you have to make sure people find it when they search online.”

To help turn occasional website visitors into a base of customers, many specialty retailers also sponsor regular email communications to their customers and prospects. Opt-in subscriptions should be prominent and easy to use on a store’s website. Email newsletter and e-blasts can be excellent methods to keep a store’s brand in front of customers with special promotions. It’s equally important, however, to balance sales promotions with helpful and engaging content about outdoor lifestyles.

Perhaps the greatest untapped opportunity in Internet marketing for specialty retailers is social media. Many companies have dipped a toe into social media, often with a Facebook page, but far fewer have tapped its full potential to build brands and drive sales. Social media success requires the sharing of content that’s of interest and valuable to target audiences, which means not overly commercial with constant sales messages.

Think of social media as the two-way street of the Internet where you serve up compelling and entertaining content in exchange for loyal fans who become profitable customers. Success with social media requires relentless posting of creative content, which can be a challenge for time-starved merchants with limited budgets for professional photography and video production.

“A major trend for retailers today is the increased use of social media,” Weinstein said. “It’s essential to choose your social media platforms carefully because you have to match those platforms with the ways in which your customers like to interact with social media. It would be of no value to invest time in a great Twitter account if your customers don’t use Twitter. For specialty retailers, Facebook is probably one of the best options because it offers a platform for more in-depth interaction and discussion, and because its advertising platform enables you to create targeted campaigns.”

Big Data – Information for Better Decisions

One of most important trends related to technology is the value to be found within the reams of information made possible by the digital age. A website allows a retailer not only to review who has visited the site, but also to determine how long they stayed on the site and how deeply they delved into its content. For example, a high bounce rate indicates that it’s time to think of reworking the home page. Specialty retailers are finding that detailed information gleaned not only online but also with customer interactions in the store results in smarter and more effective marketing.

“We track every sale, and it’s all over the place in how we attract customers,” Wheat said. “We have an in-house lead tracking program, and our salespeople ask every customer how they heard about us. We are getting better in our ability to find and gather information about our customers so that we can make better-educated marketing decisions.”

Data gathering and information are also essential for Today’s Patio, Scheinerman said. “We do lots of research and always ask our customers, How did you find out about us? There is no better way to find out what’s working than to ask the customer standing in front of you.”

The latest in marketing and consumer behavior research is readily available from the Internet, and retailers will be well served to reserve time to read, study and learn about trends in best practices. Trusted trade leaders, including Hearth & Home magazine, regularly conduct market surveys that provide insights on a regional basis.

Unexpected Opportunities

While the Internet is the obvious priority for specialty retailers, there are often opportunities for marketing and sales success in unexpected places. For example, even though general interest newspapers have struggled to remain afloat all across the country, there remains a core of loyal newsprint readers, many of whom are Baby Boomers who grew up on print media and remain loyal. By varying the response phone number on each ad, retailers can measure which ads and which media outlets are working best. News outlets have also created news websites and daily news feeds that provide access to customers through banner ads to reach younger and older potential customers.

Doug Sanicola, president of Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, California, is proving the value of creativity and being open to unexpected opportunities through a radio program that’s targeting his upscale customer base.

“We had tried radio in the past but it was hit or miss for us,” Sanicola said. “Our latest campaign, however, has been a home run. We put together a program with KFI Radio in Los Angeles and the host of their food program, Neil Saavedra. Neil does live spots for us on his show, some running as long as two minutes. He’s also brought professional chefs into our store to do cooking demonstrations; Neil is even the voice for our on-hold phone message. The traffic he has driven into our store is amazing.”

The In-Store Experience

Driving customers into the stores is obviously the priority for marketing programs, but what happens after a customer arrives in the store? Savvy specialty retailers know that just getting a person into the store is not enough. Effective marketing strategies ensure that prospects are converted into customers, which makes merchandising and professional sales essential.

“Retail stores should focus on in-store marketing and point-of-sale signage to influence a customer’s behavior and to serve as a silent salesperson,” says Marcia Blake, Merchandising manager with Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. “Visual merchandising and displays are important promotional strategies to sell products and services, attract potential customers and create a desired business image. Marketing dollars spent on store design, merchandising presentation, visual displays and in-store promotions can provide a competitive advantage and lead to greater sales and profits.”

According to Blake, there are three essentials for successful merchandising:

  • Retail stores should be visually stimulating with vignettes that project a lifestyle image and encourage customers to purchase the products in those vignettes.
  • Point-of-purchase displays can be used to draw a customer’s attention, serving as sales and promotional devices and contributing to the store’s brand image and ambiance.
  • It is no longer enough to merely sell products and services. To be successful, specialty retailers should create a memorable retail experience for customers on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Successful merchandising creates an environment to motivate purchase intent, but it’s still up to sales professionals to connect with customers, gain their confidence, assess their needs and close the sale. Most specialty retailers avail themselves of product training offered by product manufacturers, which is essential to staying abreast of the newest products and the latest trends in styles, materials and construction. There are also courses available through community colleges and business development programs that some retailers have integrated with overall training programs.

“We’ve completed general training for all of our staff through a grant with the Texas Workforce Commission for Small Businesses,” said Brad Schweig, vice president of Operations for Sunnyland Furniture in Dallas. “Our entire staff completed a customer service course taught on-site at Sunnyland by the local community college, and our staff can enroll in any courses taught at the college through the grant. We’ve had several people take classes for computer training, among other things.”

Bill Foster, a sales training professional, recommends that in addition to training to enhance product knowledge among a salesforce, specialty retailers also should add training in a systematic approach to selling.

“Many organizations limit sales training to product information which can contribute to sales environments in which conversations with customers end up focusing on price,” Foster said. “Although product information is essential, you want your sales professionals to have the ability to overcome a focus on pricing by asking the right questions and using the answers to add value as they direct the potential customer to the right product.”

The goal of a sales process is to build upon the natural abilities of talented salespeople while increasing their confidence and ability to work with a great diversity of customers.

“A selling process consists of repeatable, logical and visible steps that a sales professional can work within,” says Foster, who developed a sales process while operating a successful awning business. “An effective sales process provides specific actions, yet is flexible enough to accommodate the natural abilities of sales professionals and the infinite variety of prospects a salesperson may encounter.”

According to Foster, research reinforces the importance of a selling process. Based on a study of more than 10,000 sales presentations, followed by interviews with the prospects and customers, more than 90 percent of the salespeople using some type of consistent selling process were successful in closing the sale.

“A well-defined sales process will set the individual salesperson apart from the competition by enabling them to gain the customer’s confidence and feel at ease,” he says. “A sales process sets an organization apart, and the benefits are huge in terms of a competitive advantage.”

Now for Something Old – Customer Service

The focus on digital technology can easily overshadow the bedrock of success for specialty retailers – impeccable customer service leading to word-of-mouth referrals. The opinions of customers, whether relayed across a picket fence in the backyard or through social media, continue to have a powerful effect on sales.

“We can spend our time, dollars and efforts in attracting and retaining customers, yet it takes just one upset customer, justified or not, to put a hole in everything we do,” said Schweig with Sunnyland Furniture in Dallas.

An example of a vignette that projects a lifestyle image. Note the Sunbrella kiosk on the left.

Sunnyland Furniture, like a great many specialty retailers, can trace its history through multiple generations of family-owned operations in a local market. The goal for these retailers is to assure that positive images earned through years of ethical operations are carried forward with new generations of shoppers and with transient populations that are typical of growth areas, such as Florida.

“Word-of-mouth is extremely important because a positive image comes directly from taking good care of your customers,” said Tom Stegman, managing vice president of Sales for Elegant Outdoor Living, which operates three stores on the west coast of Florida. “The populations in the markets we serve change drastically with the seasons, so word-of-mouth referrals are essential to us. Our marketing creates a strong brand image, and our focus on customer service supports that brand image through positive word-of-mouth referrals.”

Specialty Retailers Embracing Today's Marketing

Doug Wheat, President

Hauser’s Patio, San Diego, California

“We’ve been in business since 1963 and today operate as a specialty retailer focused on outdoor patio furnishings with 17 major manufacturers represented. Contract clients, including hotels, resorts and restaurants, are a significant part of our business.

“People come into our store because of Hauser’s reputation of 53 years of selling quality products. We emphasize customer service to the max, and if there is ever an issue, we do our best to solve it; customers appreciate that we stand behind our warranties.

“Our marketing program focuses on the Internet through our website, banner ads, search and email blasts. We post to Facebook every week and are considering an expansion of our Facebook program. More than 60 percent of our marketing budget is dedicated to marketing through the Internet. People are obsessed with traffic on their websites because it’s measureable, but how does that traffic translate to sales? It’s hard to tell.

“The days when the Yellow Pages were the biggest part of the advertising budget are gone, but newspaper advertising is still important to us. I know that newspapers are dinosaurs, but Baby Boomers read the newspaper and they are our customers too. It’s really all over the place in how we attract customers to the store, and we know because we track every sale.

“Branding is important as we go after the Millennial generation that is well aware of the leading digital brands, but has very little knowledge of furniture brands. So we’re pushing our Hauser’s brand to this segment.

“We’re trying all the time to get better at what we do; we’re not complacent. Just because we’ve been in business for 53 years doesn’t guarantee we’ll have another 53 years. We’re working hard to differentiate ourselves from the mass merchants and the Internet stores.”

Chad Scheinerman, CEO

Today’s Patio, California and Arizona

“Our company was founded in 1979, and we operate seven locations today throughout Arizona and in San Diego. We carry most of the major patio brands.

“We were like everyone else for many years, advertising in the newspaper, on TV and in the Yellow Pages. Although the newspaper is still strong for us, we’ve made a large shift in our advertising budget and gone into a combination of marketing through our website, search, newspaper, TV, social media and direct mail. We still do some of the better quality magazines.

“Our company does lots of research and we ask lots of questions. We ask the people who are shopping with us, How did you find out about us? There is no better way to find out what’s working than to ask the customer standing in front of you. Another big factor for us, and the cheapest and most reliable form of advertising, is word-of-mouth. Referrals are big for us and you get those by offering top-notch service from beginning to end.

“When it comes to our marketing budget, the one thing I wish I had was a crystal ball so we would know exactly where to spend every dollar. Unfortunately, marketing is a mixed bag; it’s really a combination of a lot of different things because there is no single advertising media that reaches all of our targets.

“Without question the Internet is a major factor in today’s environment, but we also use different media to hit different age groups and income levels. As a general rule, the Internet (including search), newspaper inserts and TV seem to work best to reach most people. For the future, the leaders will be different forms of Internet marketing, including Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media and our website.”

Doug Sanicola, President

Outdoor Elegance, La Verne, California

“We’re based near Los Angeles and serve all of southern California with outdoor patio furniture, gourmet outdoor kitchens, grills, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, statuary, fountains and patio accessories.

“The Internet has provided many new ways for us to market our company. Our website, along with Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn social media outlets, are all important elements of our marketing program. Our social media program is working well for us, particularly Facebook. We post almost every day to Facebook, which allows us to target certain demographics.

“We have a team of young men who work on our website presence daily. They know how to use key words to ensure that our site appears at the top of Google searches, which means that our search engine optimization is totally organic. Additionally, the bounce rate on our website is only two percent, so we know that people are spending time on our site.

“We are also on the radio as sponsors of a food show, and we use Hub spot marketing (an inbound marketing and sales platform) to get information out to our customers concerning sales, cooking classes and events. Newspapers are a thing of the past for us, but quality magazines that cater to the consumer still work well.

“Word-of-mouth will always be number one in marketing for us, along with special events. The Pasadena Showcase House of Design is a large show home that is dressed by many designers. We always take an outdoor space at the show and for one full month we gain exposure to 35,000 people going through the house. Our sales generated through this house are very good.

“Ultimately it boils down to this: If your customer service is good, then all of your marketing efforts will fall in line.”

Tom Stegman, Managing Vice President of Sales

Elegant Outdoor Living, Bonita Springs, Florida

“We’ve been in the casual furniture business as a retailer for more than 30 years, originally in Ohio. We moved to Florida in 2010 and have stores in Naples, Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.

“We continue to do a lot of radio, television and print, but the big changes have come in the form of digital with the Internet and social media. We support our website with a substantial commitment to search optimization, and we’re active in social media. Our goal is to assure that our stores can be accessed through all of the devices and in all of the ways that people interact with the Internet.

“The focus of our marketing is to build the Elegant Outdoor Living brand and the brands of the products we feature. We position ourselves as an upscale retailer and don’t believe in the ‘flavor of the month’ type of promotional pricing.

“Consumers today are much more savvy because of the Internet, which we believe is a good thing. We know consumers shop our stores online, they take pictures in our stores and they compare prices online.

“We’re successful in this environment because we have some of the best merchandised stores in Florida and because we have well-educated salespeople. Our salespeople know that customers are price-shopping us, and we must give consumers a reason to buy from us. You can’t compete on price because there will always be someone who is willing to sell for less.

“There is not any one thing in our marketing that stands out from all the rest. We have to be involved in all media to build our brand, support word-of-mouth referrals and get in front of customers. Our brand image and word-of-mouth referrals are extremely important to us.”

Brad Schweig, Vice President of Operations

Sunnyland Furniture, Dallas, Texas

“Sunnyland Furniture can trace its roots to 1946 and three generations of the Klausner and Schweig families. We operate from a 65,000-sq.-ft. showroom and distribution center, and are well known for an oversized Brown Jordan Tamiami chair we acquired in the early 1990s that has become a local tourist attraction as the unofficial ‘World’s Largest Patio Chair.’

“Traditional media is still important to us, but digital is growing. Actually, I think all of our marketing works together. A prospective customer might remember hearing or seeing an ad, and when our name comes up on Google, they click on us because our name is familiar to them. We find that most customers hear about us from an online search.

“It’s not easy to tell which elements in our marketing program actually bring customers into the store. We survey our new customers to see how they heard about us so that we can use that data to determine where we should spend our marketing dollars. But asking customers how they heard about us doesn’t always give us enough feedback to know for sure. Our marketing is in many different places that might have influenced them.

“I believe that television is the best medium for reaching out broadly to customers, but digital is where we need to grow for the future. Our Internet spend is increasing each year, and it’s our No. 1 source of new business. We tend to be at the top of page 1 on Google with most of the search terms we think are important to us, so we must be doing something right.

“We are also active on Facebook and just hired a ‘digital brand ambassador’ to help us with social media, digital marketing, e-commerce and other areas where we need to improve.”

12 Marketing Priorities for Specialty Retailers

With so many marketing options today, what should be the priorities for specialty retailers in the patio, barbecue and hearth segments? Below are 12 recommendations gleaned from successful specialty retailers and marketing experts:


Enjoying time outdoors with friends and family remains one of the dominant lifestyle trends in America, creating a leadership opportunity for specialty retailers in the patio, barbecue and hearth segments. To capitalize on this trend, retailers are encouraged to determine the role they can play within this trend in the markets they serve and how they can distinguish themselves from all forms of competition.


It's no longer enough to simply have a website. Retailers are challenged to have websites that load within three seconds and grab the visitor's attention in no less than 10 seconds. Hero images, slide shows, video and easy-to-use navigation are essential if a website is to work hard for a retailer.


If you build it, they may not come at all, which is why search optimization is essential. Websites should be laced with key words and linked to other sites to assure good results in organic searches. The purchase of pay-for-click services also should be considered. Search optimization requires continual attention due to the ever-changing algorithms used by Google and Bing.


As retailers create databases from website visitors and social media followers, the next logical step is an opt-in program of email blasts or electronic newsletters. Retailers will want to feature product specials and promotions, but fun and engaging content is even more important.


Social media is perhaps the great untapped resource of the Internet for specialty retailers, and for good reason. Social media is relentless, requiring frequent postings of creative, humorous and useful information that will attract and hold an audience. If a retailer can provide this type of content through a platform such as Facebook, there are opportunities to cultivate a new customer base.


Newspapers have struggled, but don't count them out. There remains a loyal base of readers still hooked on newsprint, and most news outlets feature online content with image-driven banner advertising opportunities.


Radio can be effective because of its ability to target specific customer groups based on programming formats. For example, underwriting on public radio can reach upscale audiences that appreciate classical music or all-news formats. Many specialty retailers find television a valuable medium for brand building. Local television news programming reaches an overly broad audience, but being on TV continues to convey that a business is successful and a leader.


If you could get in front of 30,000 potential customers who have a demonstrated interest in home improvement, would you be interested? Show homes and garden events offer this type of opportunity, but require a compelling presence during the show, the ability to qualify prospects quickly at your booth and provide effective follow up after the show.


It's not enough to just get people into the store; you have to “wow” them through merchandising vignettes that romanticize the outdoor lifestyle. Effective merchandising is one of the many ways retailers can stand out from Internet sites.


There is nothing quite like a naturally gifted salesperson, but there is also nothing quite like an effective selling system that emphasizes getting to know your customers' needs, offering solutions and guiding each prospect to a smooth and easy close.


It should go without saying that outstanding customer service is essential for specialty retailers. Treating customers with respect and responding effectively to every issue generates positive word-of-mouth, which has become even more important in the digital age where a negative or a positive outcome can be quickly broadcast around the world through social media.


In the digital age, information is king and more available than ever. Research on consumer trends, including surveys from Hearth & Home magazine, is readily available from many sources, and website analytics provide up-to-the-minute data on visitors. The most important question, How did you hear about us? should be an essential element in every customer interaction.

Mark Brock is a writer and communications consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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