Doing a Lot with a Little
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2018 Captured By Kate. www.capturedbykate.com.
Sometimes, all it takes to stand out is a well-placed pop of color.
Vehicles by the tens of thousands stream past Backyard Retreats every day. The shop in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, sits sandwiched between a boat dealership and the entrance to a lushly landscaped, upscale apartment community. It’s within view of busy U.S. 17, the thoroughfare connecting Mount Pleasant and Charleston, South Carolina. The confluence of the Cooper and Wando Rivers separates the cities, which are linked by the magnificent Arthur Ravenel Bridge.
Development along U.S. 17 is continuous and upscale. Backyard Retreats might easily be overlooked, perhaps even hard to spot, if it weren’t for that pop of color.
Standing sentinel in front of the shop is a row of brightly colored Adirondack chairs. The resin chairs work around the clock, rain or shine, catching the eyes of motorists and acting as a beacon for casual furniture shoppers.
FRONT TO BACK: Sharon Campbell and Darla Miller.
“We’re kind of known for that row of Adirondack chairs out front,” says Sharon Campbell, who launched Backyard Retreats in 1996. “But we’re a lot more than that once you come into our store.”
Inside, Backyard Retreats is a compact bouquet of color. No sea of brown here, no sir. You’ll have to look hard to find neutral (boring) cushions. Accent pillows abound, some with pure color, others with design motifs that reflect the elegant, understated lifestyle associated with this area of coastal South Carolina known as the Lowcountry.
The presentation is vibrant and each pairing and grouping of frames, cushion fabrics, and accent colors seems right, tasteful, and well chosen. The result is a visual symphony, in tune, not a color riot.
“I’m not afraid of color,” Campbell says. “I love color.”
Campbell operates the shop along with her daughter, Darla Miller, and about a half-dozen other employees, most of whom are part-time.
Mother and daughter are a solid team. “She is my right hand,” Campbell says of Miller. “She does a lot of things and has grown into a really great salesperson. Customers love her.”
In its 22 years, Backyard Retreats has evolved from a novice hot tub shop to become a boutique specialty furniture store. The shop’s development reflects the changes in the outdoor lifestyle products industry as well as the savvy and sophistication of its owner.
The shop that once limited itself to spas now has none. In their place are many of the casual industry’s leading brands. Telescope Casual Furniture, the first line Campbell secured, remains a mainstay. Others include Brown Jordan, Lloyd Flanders, Tropitone, Ebel, Homecrest, Ratana, Jensen Leisure, Lane Venture, Woodard, Seaside Casual, Berlin Gardens, and others. Shade product lines include TUUCI, Galtech, and Solair.
Backyard Retreats offers all this in a compact 2,400 sq. ft. store. Mark Bottemiller, National Sales manager for Ebel, describes the shop as “almost shockingly small,” but with an ambiance that approximates that of a designer showroom (where space is at a premium).
“I tell customers we’re small, but mighty,” Campbell says. “We have a variety of manufacturers, because the same thing is not for everyone. We do a lot of custom work.”
In fact, the great majority of Backyard Retreats’ volume is in special orders. Campbell and Miller estimate that 85% or more of the shop’s business results from custom orders.
The store’s high special-order volume means that few products are sold off the floor. With the exception of those colorful, polymer Adirondack chairs, the store warehouses few products.
“Most of our customers like to pick and choose and work with their own fabrics,” Campbell says.
Two decades of building a reputation in the greater Charleston area have made Backyard Retreats a resource for homeowners who want their Outdoor Rooms to be personal, beautiful, and comfortable.
Campbell says customers often walk in and say, ‘Can you help me? I have all these porches. I want to do the backyard. I don’t know where to start.’
Sometimes the project is “a clean slate,” perhaps new construction or a major remodel that has no existing casual furniture. “Sometimes they have their own pieces that they want to incorporate,” Campbell says.
In either case, the mother-daughter team considers every possible element necessary to make an outdoor living space a complete environment. “We do accessories, rugs, pillows, lamps,” Campbell says. “When I walk away, I want it to be ready for them to use and enjoy.”
Art and furnishings play well together throughout the store.
The Lowcountry Lifestyle
South Carolina’s Lowcountry refers to the coastal areas, generally excluding the northernmost beaches such as well-known Myrtle. Lush vegetation, marshes, tidal estuaries, live oaks, and Spanish moss characterize the landscape. It’s a region known for shrimp and grits, broad porches and rocking chairs. Wicker – the real McCoy as well as resin wicker furniture – always looks at home in the Lowcountry.
The Charleston area has boomed in recent years. Retirees and second-home owners have moved in to enjoy the mild winters and subtropical climate.
New industries also have brought jobs and job seekers, fueling the housing market. New manufacturing operations in the Charleston area produce Boeing aircraft, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, and Volvo cars.
The boom has been great for her business, Campbell says. “A lot of people are moving in, and they will always need outdoor furniture.”
The influx of newcomers has broadened the parameters of the Lowcountry lifestyle, Campbell says. A wider range of architectural styles is apparent in new home construction, creating opportunities for more transitional and even contemporary outdoor furnishings in a market where tastes rarely have varied from the safe and traditional.
Thoroughfares approaching Charleston and along U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant are lined with new multi-family housing projects and others under construction. Those living in these condominiums and apartments need properly-scaled furniture for their compact balconies and patios. Big Box stores don’t offer suitable, better-quality casual furniture for discerning customers. Backyard Retreats does.
“We’ve got different looks because we’ve now got different clientele in this area,” Campbell says. She points out a chair from Homecrest’s Elements Air collection. “This is a very popular piece that’s done well for us,” she says. “It’s also done very well for us in commercial applications.”
The Elements chair features an American flag, Made in USA sticker. Campbell sources U.S.-made products whenever she can, she says, and a product’s being American-made is important to some customers.
Backyard Retreats doesn’t floor a set of the Elements Air Collection. Rarely does it display multiple pieces from collections by any manufacturer. Nor are there vignettes to suggest how a completed outdoor living space might be carried out. There’s simply not room.
Tim Wood, the Telescope Casual Furniture sales representative who serves that area, says the store is remarkable for its “tremendous variety. She effectively merchandises without having a huge showroom,” he says.
The ubiquitous Sunbrella kiosk.
Another retailer might consider such a small showroom a liability, but Campbell and Miller turn that notion on its head and use the space available to their advantage. Backyard Retreats is a prime example of how furnishings from different manufacturers can be mixed and matched to create complementary and totally unique looks.
“Customers love it, because they’re not getting the same-old, same-old that they see everywhere else,” Campbell says. “It creates a different look. We love to mix dining sets with wicker and things like that.”
Miller says the store’s presentation inspires shoppers who want their homes to have an eclectic but polished look. “A lot of people want their home to look like they didn’t buy all the furniture at the same time,” she explains.
Backyard Retreats is a resource for homeowners who want to avoid the matchy-matchy look.
“They want their homes to look designed,” Campbell says, “but they have no idea how to do that. We try to put not only different manufacturers, but different textures and colors together, so that it all looks good.”
Campbell and Miller put together color palettes and examples of fabric and frame textures in the shop’s design center.
Backyard Retreats uses every opportunity to restate its color message. Use color. Trust color. Enjoy color.
“I love color,” Campbell says again, “and I don’t want people to be afraid of it. If I use a lot of color in here, then it makes them feel more comfortable using it.
“We try to keep our color fresh,” she says. “We want people to walk in and say ‘Wow!’”
Campbell smartly uses color to make her store appear more spacious. Just beyond the entrance area, the low ceiling disappears and the store opens up to its full, two-story height. Shoppers have an unobstructed view upwards, revealing a high, steeply pitched roofline. The walls above eye-level and the ceiling have been painted a light, sky-blue dotted with puffy clouds.
Miller points out a Homecrest table from the Timber collection, which features a textured top cast from reclaimed wood. The table is a bit narrower than usual yet has room for six. Backyard Retreats shows this item specifically for shoppers living in condos or apartments, where a few inches can make a difference.
The goal is to always find a solution that works for the customer.
“Design is my passion,” Campbell says. “There’s a need for outdoor furniture in this area. There are beautiful homes, and our Lowcountry weather is just great. We use our outdoors down here.”
The showroom is a well-managed 2,000 sq. ft.
More than two decades ago, Campbell lived in Tennessee and worked in a home design center. It was there, designing kitchens and baths, and choosing colors and surfaces and textures, that she refined her natural instincts for color and style. She had friends who owned a hot tub store and, when her family had the opportunity to move to Charleston, she decided to open her own spa store.
Backyard Retreats had been open for only a year or so before Campbell realized that those big, mostly brown hot tubs weren’t satisfying her creative side.
“This is just not enough for me,” she said to herself. “I want furniture in here.”
A cold call by a Telescope sales representative set Campbell on a new path that she continues to find stimulating, rewarding, and satisfying. Backyard Retreats hasn’t displayed a hot tub since around 2008.
Learning the casual furniture business was not without challenges. The learning curve took several seasons and experimenting with different manufacturers, Campbell says.
“The issues are knowing what to buy, how much to buy, and when to buy,” she explains. The experience gained making mistakes and revising strategies helped Campbell find her place in the market.
“That’s what prompted me to become so different and unique,” she says. She didn’t want cookie-cutter presentations backed up by a warehouse full of repetitious SKUs.
Campbell quickly decided that, in her shop, quality would be paramount.
“The biggest challenge was learning what would last and give customers the best longevity,” she says. “One bad product can mess your name up.”
Miller recalls the time when Backyard Retreats brought on a new cast-aluminum furniture line. The coastal salt air environment soon led to problems. “It rusted before we got it out of the box,” Campbell recalls. But aluminum doesn’t rust.
While the furniture frames were cast aluminum, the feet were rust-prone steel. Then the frames started to break under moderate, typical home use. That experience reinforced Campbell’s desire to only deal with companies whose quality standards match her own.
“That’s how we weeded out different manufacturers,” Campbell says. “I always tell people, I sell what I would put in my own home.”
Landing the lines she wanted took time. “If the territory was taken, I had to wait my turn,” Campbell says. “At this point in time, I have the great companies.”
One challenge of having a niche business with top-quality brands is educating customers. Backyard Retreats employees are trained to explain the differences between their products and those found at mass merchants and warehouse stores. Sometimes they have to explain why Backyard Retreats doesn’t make its own furniture, as a competing retailer does.
“We leave that up to the professionals,” Campbell says. “We have great manufacturers that stand behind what they make. I couldn’t make furniture if I tried.”
When Campbell and Miller go to Casual Market Chicago these days, Campbell says they never go to buy. She first considers what’s missing from her store. Maybe she determines, by listening to customers, that she’s missing an occasional table or accessory of a certain size. Maybe a customer has expressed interest in a piece of furniture to fit a specific spot in her Outdoor Room. Campbell goes to market to fill those voids and to consider new introductions that will complement the Lowcountry lifestyle.
Orders are placed only after returning to Mount Pleasant.
Customer service at Backyard Retreats includes truly custom cushions. The shop has a local cushion fabricator who can make replacement cushions for long-discontinued products, using top-quality foams and special-ordered fabrics. Campbell makes home visits to get the measurements. Sometimes the original cushions are available to use as templates for the replacements.
“She does beautiful work,” Campbell says of the cushion maker. “And it’s an additional service that sets us apart.”
Backyard Retreats has cultivated relationships with architects and landscape designers who use the shop as a resource. “Pool builders and architects like for us to do the work,” Campbell says, “because they know it’s going to come out looking good.”
The fastest way to devalue a $70,000 pool is to surround it with inexpensive furniture, she observes.
Tourism is a big part of the Charleston area’s economy, which regularly brings out-of-towners and vacation homeowners to Backyard Retreats. The shop’s product mix and presentation generates sales to people who thought they were just window-shopping.
“They say, ‘My goodness! We’ve never seen this,’” Campbell relates. “Can you ship it to me?”
The small store with the eye-catching Adirondack chairs out front likely will stay that way. Campbell owns the property, but local ordinances don’t allow for expansion on the site. So the plan going forward is as it has been – to make the most of what they’ve got.
“If you have the right attitude and the right sales people and the right products,” Campbell says, “you don’t have to have a huge showroom. You know, you can do a lot with a little.”
Store Name: Backyard Retreats, Inc.
Address: 554 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina
Owner: Sharon N. Campbell
Key Executives: Darla M. Miller
Year Established: 1996
Web Site: www.backyardretreatssc.com
Phone: (843) 856-0049
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees: 9
Gross Annual Sales:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space: 2,400 sq. ft.