Passion for the Business
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2014 Mike Roemer Photography. www.roemerphoto.com
Michael Kapp probably would laugh if someone called him an intellectual, but there’s no doubt the man is always rethinking every aspect of his business.
For instance: Simply having a broad selection of fire pits and fire tables on the Taylor Creek showroom floor wasn’t good enough. He started the 2014 season with about 35 units on display, a few more than last year. Most are set up as the centerpiece for a seating group, taking the place of honor once reserved for a cocktail table.
The North American market is in love with fire, and especially Wisconsin, where chilly days come early and stay late. Green Bay’s thermometers in mid-May had not seen 70 degrees for more than 200 days.
The Home Depot store directly across the street sells fire pits and tables. So do online retailers, plus many other merchants in Kapp’s trading area, which stretches from the region around Green Bay north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
As he likes to say, “I don’t think I have any one competitor out there. I have a thousand competitors.” Translation: He’s always challenging himself to give customers a reason to shop with Taylor Creek; they can spend their money anywhere, for any thing.
So what could he do with fire features to entice customers even more? What would give Taylor Creek an extra edge?
Many of his shoppers are long-time, repeat customers who look first to Taylor Creek when they want to freshen their outdoor living spaces. The fire pits and fire tables manufactured by his regular suppliers were certainly competitively designed. Yet he felt the lineup still fell short in the WOW department.
|Here’s a beautiful display of Gensun’s new series of islands.|
Kapp didn’t wait for another Casual Market to perhaps offer a solution; he took the challenge himself. He found the answer within walking distance.
Just down the street from Taylor Creek is The Granite Company, a supplier of custom stone, including slabs of polished granite for countertops and tabletops. Almost every town of any size has one or more similar businesses.
Kapp reviewed the extensive number of remnants on hand at The Granite Company – literally hundreds of slabs left over from kitchen and bath jobs – and liked his options.
He struck a deal to have selected pieces cut to fit atop bases from his usual fire table suppliers. He only went for the most stunning slabs, pieces of stone whose color and sparkle would make the table stand out even when the flames are off.
Now Kapp has an array of really special items on the floor: one-of-a-kind fire tables, customized in Green Bay. “We’ve sold quite a few,” he says in his matter-of-fact way. “They have a different flare.”
Ready for Business
Long-time residents of Green Bay may remember the early 1980s, when Taylor Creek’s sprawling 33,000 sq. ft. showroom housed a supermarket. Another 20,000 sq. ft. is warehouse. The business, which was purchased by Kapp’s parents in 1983, offers a variety of home furnishings products in addition to patio furniture, barbecue grills and outdoor entertainment islands.
There’s other merchandise, too, such as jewelry and scarves. Products for the Outdoor Room take up about 10,000 sq. ft. of the showroom in season. The store shifts to Christmas products to balance out the year.
Kapp’s father died in 1987, and he and his mother kept the business going. His sister joined the company in the early 1990s, and it has thrived as a family enterprise ever since.
One of Taylor Creek’s trademarks is the store’s appearance. No matter the season or whether customer traffic is hectic or slack, the store sparkles. It’s a lesson Kapp says he learned from his mother.
|Taylor Creek offers an impressive array of outdoor accessories, such as fountains, planters and birdhouses.|
“The store has to be ready for business,” he says. “Everything is neat and organized. A lot of people don’t notice how shiny the floors are, don’t notice how clean the bathrooms are – until they are not.”
Consumers, he says, make subconscious decisions based on store appearance. “You walk in and you feel it,” Kapp says. “Why aren’t they taking care of their store? If they can’t keep the floors clean, what else can’t they keep up? As a retailer, I’m constantly noticing what’s wrong or amiss.”
Kapp’s attention to detail extends from keeping the showroom spic ’n span to creating a retail atmosphere that makes customers feel at ease.
“My theme has always been, ‘Alleviate buyer anxiety,’” he says. That means having staff take on the role of problem-solvers rather than sellers. They ask questions, lots of questions, before suggesting possible solutions for customers.
The reason for this approach, Kapp says, is that a customer gets a notion in mind about what to buy before they go shopping. It may have been five or 10 years since their last patio purchase, and they may have no knowledge of the products and materials currently available. They also may not have sufficiently analyzed their needs. In short, they could be shopping for the wrong thing.
Job One at Taylor Creek is to make sure customers have correctly defined their needs.
“Tell me what your lifestyle is,” Kapp says to customers. “How do you want to use the space? What time of day will you use it most? Where’s the sun at that hour? What’s the view like? Would you rather not see your neighbor’s backyard?” And so on.
Kapp tells about customers of 30 years’ standing who recently had redone their pool and added a pergola. The couple described to Kapp how they planned to put their current dining table under the pergola. Further conversation, however, revealed that what they really wanted to do was relax and watch their grandkids in the pool. Kapp suggested that some comfortable chairs and tables for holding drinks and snacks might be more appropriate for the pergola.
In reality, poolside dinners no longer were a big part of the couple’s lifestyle. Asking the right questions led to a sale that truly pleased them.
“They are using the space 10 times more than they did before,” Kapp says. “That’s where I get a lot of happy customers. We’re willing to take time to ask, ‘How will you use it?’”
Kapp also used his analytical approach to rethink islands for the Outdoor Room.
Everyone knows that the place where food is prepared and served is always the gathering spot in any home. Indoors, it’s the kitchen. Outdoors? Well, not every patio or deck is outfitted for that; that’s why the island market has such potential.
Yet people don’t hover in the kitchen around the range and oven, especially when the appliances are in use. Guests arrange themselves next to countertops where drinks are kept and nibbles are within reach. A kitchen island or bar, where guests may converse as a group, is even better.
Kapp wondered, shouldn’t an island for the Outdoor Room lend itself to the same function? To his way of thinking, an island dominated by a grill limits entertaining functionality. A hot grill pushes people away even more.
“We get focused on it being a grill island,” he says. “Why? Why don’t we focus on it as an entertaining island? Keep the grill, but move it away. If everybody is at the entertainment island, it becomes like a kitchen counter. Put the grill off to the side and create a much cooler entertaining area.”
Kapp says the idea came as he was setting up an island in the showroom. Taylor Creek sells products by Weber and Big Green Egg, plus islands by Housewarmings Outdoors and Gensun. “There are so many ways to configure them,” he says, “but I hadn’t thought of it until I put one on my floor.”
|The Big Green Egg is given a large display in the store.|
Taylor Creek’s merchandising approach is bold. The current prominence of fire pits and fire tables is matched by a strong emphasis on big shade. The number of giant umbrellas might lead one to think the showroom is in South Florida rather than Wisconsin.
“You can’t show just two and think you’re going to sell a bunch,” Kapp explains. The showroom features about 20 AKZ umbrellas, the big cantilever models by Treasure Garden.
Solair awnings also get strong play. Taylor Creek opted to install a freestanding Solair display wall. It allows awnings to extend from either side into the showroom in a manner that’s realistic as well as eye-catching.
“I sold seven or eight” last season, Kapp says. “At $3,000 a pop, it’s really nice.”
The average casual ticket at Taylor Creek is probably under $2,000. With fire tables and motion chairs, he says, “You can get to six grand pretty quick.”
Every season brings two or three sales in the $15,000 to $20,000 range; last season one ticket tallied $45,000. “It took six different manufacturers to pull it off,” Kapp says.
He excels at mixing and matching products from different vendors to create a look, both in the showroom and for his customers.
“Anybody can go out and grab different components, but that doesn’t mean it looks good and is sellable,” says Warren Juliano, vice president of Sales for Lloyd Flanders. Kapp, he says, has the knack. “It’s a skill set, a talent level.”
This season Taylor Creek has Lloyd Flanders’ Elements line grouped with resin wicker and stainless steel. The store shows a contemporary granite-topped fire table and Homecrest’s Airo seating under an AKG umbrella.
Blending materials and finishes from different manufacturers is easier than ever, Kapp says, because so many colors and finishes “are so close between the companies. They are making generic colors, and so many of the generic colors look good.”
Kapp’s talent for setting the floor, for finding complementary products from a variety of suppliers and avoiding a “matchy-matchy” look, gives Taylor Creek a look all its own.
Michael Biscan, Kapp’s Treasure Garden sales representative, calls Taylor Creek “a little jewel.” The store’s appearance is only part of the reason; the intentional atmosphere that honors customers is equally important.
“He treats his customers with more respect” than the average merchant does, Biscan says. Kapp doesn’t fear the Big Box retailer across the way.
“He sees them as people advertising the category,” Biscan explains.
|Michael Kapp has an eye for setting the floor, and an eye for color.|
Thriving in an Amazon World
As in many casual furniture stores, crescent sectionals and motion club chairs dominate the showroom this season. “Everybody wants motion. Everybody wants to swivel,” Kapp says. “The crescent sectionals have been awesome. Comfort is No. 1. The club chair business has taken over.”
He marvels that the price of a single club chair would have purchased a table and four chairs not so many years ago. “Patio has changed,” he says. “We have raised that average ticket, big-time.”
Customers don’t find furniture priced by sets at Taylor Creek. Kapp doesn’t marry a fire table to the deep seating around it and offer a package price.
“We sell it to you however you want,” he says. “Maybe it makes sense to buy two chairs; maybe it makes sense to buy four.”
Like many specialty retailers, Taylor Creek’s staff spends a lot of time educating customers. That includes explaining the benefits of buying from a local merchant and discussing quality, choice, service and value. Minimizing sticker shock is necessary for some customers, especially if they have patio goods from mass merchants.
Customer education prevents blowback and resentment, Kapp explains, when a couple comes in after visiting a Big Box store. The husband has fixated on an $899 price; his wife wants the $2,000 version. They compromise on a $1,500 purchase. Without sufficient presale education, Kapp says, “She thinks they just bought a Rolls Royce; he thinks they just got sold.”
Kapp’s goal is to make sure the customer understands the purchase and is comfortable with the price. “If not,” he says, “I don’t want to sell it.”
The Taylor Creek sales staff – all female except for Kapp and one other guy – stands ready to explain why special orders take time. Even in a short-season climate, they say, waiting a few weeks for products that will serve for years is worth the wait.
“We live in an Amazon world,” Kapp says. At Taylor Creek, “We keep ourselves different.” The quality, value and customization Taylor Creek offers aren’t possible “without it taking a little bit of time.”
That approach keeps customers coming back. It might be once a season; it might be once every three or five years. But come back they do. Green Bay has a population of just over 100,000. Kapp figures there are just over 300,000 people in his entire market area. Much of Taylor Creek’s business is repeat business.
“We have grown very loyal customers,” he says. “Every five or 10 or 12 years, they are here. They always come back.”
Taylor Creek gives its customers reason to return. A purchase this month will result in a rewards coupon arriving in the customer’s mailbox next month. The reward for a small expenditure may be valued at only $3, but it’s a thank you that works.
Regular contact through regular mail and e-mail keeps the Taylor Creek name in front of customers. They won’t see it in newspaper advertising. It won’t be seen in TV ads or heard in radio spots. Kapp dramatically scaled back his ad expenditures during the economic slump and found that e-mail, Facebook and other social media were equally effective. Some of the dollars formerly spent on advertising now go to a marketing company. Today the store does no traditional mass media advertising.
“We’re staying where we need to be and communicating with our customers, the ones who actually shop here,” Kapp says.
Drive from Within
Juliano says Kapp’s drive, his quest to avoid becoming complacent, sets him apart. “He does a good job of putting the special in specialty,” Juliano says.
“Mike’s always treated himself as his biggest competition. He’s always challenging himself and his people to make it look different. He’s very passionate about what he’s doing,” Juliano says. “Anytime you’ve got an owner who is that hands-on involved, you see good things.”
Having a passion for the business, in Kapp’s case, means constantly striving to improve, to do more.
“Right now I’m mad at myself because I haven’t redone the floor,” he says. “We want to keep it fresh for customers every time they walk through the door.
“I like to make the floor look as good as I can. Neat. Clean. Straight. And have everything out there.”
Maybe three weeks had passed since he last reset the floor.
Meanwhile, his mind churns. “What did we do wrong last year? What can we do better this year?”
Kapp knows some of his questions don’t have answers. True passion can’t be explained. He’ll just keep reaching, experimenting, striving to offer Taylor Creek’s customers the perfect mix.
“A lot of it is a big guess,” he admits. “You’re piecing together stuff that you love.”