The Feminine Touch
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: 2014© Alexander Denmarsh Photography. www.denmarsh.com.
Basic black is fine for cocktail dresses and limousines. Otherwise, the color is too restrictive, too tame and – let’s face it, boring, in this high-fashion world. That’s one reason shoppers find much more than basic black stoves at Hearth & Home Furnishings in Zelienople, Pennsylvania.
Black stoves, black fireplace doors and black accessories take a back seat to bright enamels and burnished surfaces that look more Lexus than Model T. (You’ll recall that Henry Ford once remarked that a customer could have a car painted any color he wanted, as long as it was black).
“Being gals, we’re not into black. We appreciate colors,” says owner Nancy Reader. Daughters Megan Murphy and Laura McDaid assist her in running the business founded in 1983 by Reader and her late husband, Jim.
Color, Reader explains, transforms a mundane stove into a fashion focal point for the home. Plus, as she points to her female shoppers, enameled surfaces don’t show every dust speck and are easier to clean than flat black.
Reader’s passion for color and fashion is convincing. “We sell more colors than we sell black,” she says. Others in the hearth industry find that hard to comprehend. “Most people are blown away that our wood stove sales are predominately color instead of matte black,” says daughter Megan.
Sure, stoves with upgraded finishes cost more, but the additional expense is just a few dollars a year over the life of the product. Most customers appreciate the difference, Reader says, understanding that enamels and color “make it a piece of art instead of an appliance. Our customer wants it to look good as well as perform well.”
Combining style with performance applies to gas units as well as wood. She cites the Bari stove, by Hearthstone as an example. The cylindrical stove, which features a large glass door and a satin gray finish, retails for around $5,500. “That’s pricey for a gas stove,” Reader says, “but it’s done well. Once the customer’s appetite is whetted for something like that, they want it. The price becomes secondary.”
That philosophy sets Hearth & Home Furnishings apart from hearth and patio shops that remain uncommitted to more stylish, premium products. And it’s only one element in the shop’s formula for success. Reader’s conviction that better products will draw customers at the higher end is enhanced by her good taste in design and merchandising. Her enthusiasm for higher-quality merchandise and fashion-forward products is balanced by cautious, deliberate decision-making.
“A salesman would have a hard time coming in here and selling me a line on the spot,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not going to happen with this girl.”
|A comfortable seat in front of the flames is very inviting throughout the year and, in particular, during the cold winter months.|
Booming in Zelienople
Flue pipes rise like periscopes from the roof of Hearth & Home Furnishings’ 10,000 sq. ft. showroom. Towering hardwoods form a backdrop for the shop, which sits on a corner near the Main Street bridge over Connoquenessing Creek. No adjoining retailers offer the chance for walk-in traffic. The shop’s nearest neighbors are professional offices and a weathered stone church.
The borough of Zelienople actually saw its population decline over the last dozen years, to fewer than 4,000 people. Yet sales at Hearth & Home Furnishings never lagged during the Great Recession, growing every year. A look at the greater metro area explains why.
Pittsburgh lies just 30 miles to the south, and between Zelienople and western Pennsylvania’s best-known city is “the highest-growth area in the state, commercial and residential. Every scrap of property around here is going for big bucks.”
Three decades of building brand awareness has spread the shop’s notoriety far beyond Reader’s hometown, drawing customers from up to 100 miles away. Reader advertises in local newspapers as well as regional magazines. She also buys TV spots. But she gives the most credit for building consumer awareness to an annual home and garden show in Pittsburgh.
The 10-day show, Reader says, “is grueling, but it definitely puts you on the map.” Supportive manufacturers’ sales representatives pitch in for a day or so, supplementing Reader and her staff of 12 who must also keep their store open and handle service calls.
The trade show, she explains, is an opportunity for face-to-face communication with people who have prequalified themselves by showing up. Even though she advocates having a strong web presence, Reader knows it can’t replace human interaction. The chance to build trust, answer questions and follow up immediately are impossible on a website.
“There’s nothing like talking to someone one-on-one,” she explains. “At the trade show, we can sit down, have a Coke, and talk.”
Reader appreciates the home and garden show as much for the other exhibitors as for the consumer traffic. It puts her products on a par with high-end builders, remodelers, landscapers and other home furnishings experts. The networking opportunities are priceless.
“I reach out to high-end kitchen and bath places,” she explains. “You have to be out there. I enjoy it, and I encourage my family to do it. It’s ingrained into us to be a networking, marketing team.”
Each opportunity to interact with consumers and potential network referrals is a chance to reinforce one of Reader’s core beliefs: There’s a market for finer goods, a market
that responds to retailers who exhibit confidence in their products.
“We always had an appreciation for better products. We aren’t afraid of price,” she explains. “We recently sold two fireplace doors for $8,500. You can’t cower when you’re selling something that expensive. You have to hold your head up high, like you appreciate it.”
Not all consumers can afford the very best. But those who can, Reader asserts, will spend with a confidence that matches that of the seller. To think otherwise is a mistake. Otherwise, she explains, “there wouldn’t be BMWs and Mercedes.
“If you know your product and can portray that you are knowledgeable, you’re going to get people to buy,” she says. “You might be surprised.”
|A cast table sits on an outdoor rug (color!) at the base of a stairway leading to more product displays.|
An Opinionated Individual
Nancy Reader, as is apparent, is plain spoken and opinionated. She’s blunt in her criticism of manufacturers who don’t look at hearth products as a fashion business. Women respond to color and style, she says, while men typically are more interested in Btus and efficiency. The female half of a couple often holds the deciding vote in a purchase. “Most of the companies don’t get that,” Reader says. “I think they leave a lot of money on the table by not chasing those bells and whistles.”
Another point of ire is what Reader sees as a lack of attention to the remodeling industry by makers of hearth products. She’s seen the results of cultivating relationships with remodelers whose homeowner customers typically are interested in “buying up. They want to do something really nice, and they are willing to spend big dollars,” Reader says. Hearth manufacturers, she says, should devote more effort to marketing to the remodeling industry and educating those builders about better-quality products.
The new home construction industry also needs attention from hearth manufacturers, she says. The budgets that builders allocate for fireplaces are unrealistic, in Readers’ opinion. She’s appalled to see inexpensive, direct-vent systems going into high-end homes where amenities such as granite countertops are expected. Home buyers, she thinks, might assume that the hidden mechanical systems also are first quality and state of the art; in Reader’s view, that’s frequently not the case when it comes to builder-grade fireplaces.
“I love masonry,” Reader says. “I think direct-vents are not that good of a thing.” The technology has a place in condominiums and high-rise applications, she says. Otherwise, direct-vent systems “are oversold in houses. The customer wasn’t educated, and the builder used them because he could get out cheaper.”
For the hearth retailer, she says, lower-end appliances eventually are a pain to service and repair as time goes by. Technology improves year after year, as does efficiency. When a lower-end hearth appliance reaches a certain point, Reader advocates replacement over repair. She pointedly asks, “You wouldn’t try to repair a 20-year-old refrigerator, would you?”
When negotiations reach this stage, it’s the perfect opportunity to introduce the notion of fashion in hearth equipment. It’s a conversation that Reader has been having since her earliest days in the business, when her first products were fireplace doors.
“Our competition didn’t want to deal with arches and custom doors,” she explains. “We found that the customer wanted their hand held a bit, and we still do that today. Since we’re not afraid of price, we offer lines that have beautiful faces for their fireplaces. We’re a big glass door company. We treat it like furniture, not like an appliance. If you view it as an appliance, it will never be a good category for you.”
|A large number of hearth and patio products are displayed in this narrow area of the store, but without clutter and still leaving ample room for customers to walk and browse.|
Big Green Opportunity
Loretta Dolan is a hearth products rep who has watched Reader grow her business over the years.
“She’s responded to the marketplace really well instead of sitting in her store and wondering what’s next,” says Dolan, who in March will become chairman of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. “Man, does she have good instincts!”
Reader and her daughters, Dolan says, “have been almost fearless when it comes to finding a new opportunity and trying it.”
Dolan cites what Hearth & Home Furnishings does with the Big Green Egg as an example. As a rep, she first connected the store with the high-end, kamado-style grill. At first, the Egg was just another grill product in the mix. Annual sales were modest.
Then, as was the case with many specialty retailers, the shop saw sales of gas grills decline in the face of price competition from mass merchants. Reader and daughter Megan Murphy realized that the pricey Big Green Egg never would be a mass-merchant product; furthermore, it stood out from the competition visually as well as in performance. Mother and daughters knew that, as a group, Egg owners were loyal and enthusiastic. They saw opportunity at hand.
Murphy took responsibility for Big Green Egg promotion and learned about Eggfests. These events, started by the manufacturer, bring evangelistic Egg owners together with the curious for a day of sharing tips and techniques, grilling, tasting and socializing.
Big Green Egg enthusiasts, also known as Egg-heads, have been known to travel across several states to take part in an Eggfest.
“These are people who just love their Big Green Egg,” Murphy says. “They are creative with what they make, from breakfast to dessert. Egg-heads are very willing to share advice and opinions.”
The Egg-heads cook on grills provided by the retailer host. Hearth & Home Furnishings begins promoting its Eggfest 90 days in advance, offering discounts to customers who purchase an Egg to be delivered after it’s first used at the Eggfest.
Meanwhile, Egg owners and potential owners pay as much as $20 a person to attend the event. They look, learn, eat and shop. “Egg people are loyal,” Murphy says. “They will buy pretty much any accessory that has a Big Green Egg label on it.”
The local Whole Foods Market partners with the store, sending its full-time grill chef to take part. Whole Foods Market also provides some of the food that is cooked.
The 2013 Eggfest hosted by Hearth & Home Furnishings brought some 300 people through the showroom. About 27 Big Green Eggs were pre-sold at a discounted price of about $1,000, Murphy says. The one-day event drew Egg-heads from Canada, Maine, Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia. On the night before the event, Reader treats them with a social event and dinner, thanking them in advance for their participation.
The Eggfest benefits the retailer throughout the year. Murphy says the Egg “is a gateway to a higher-end customer that is coming back to you every couple of months. The opportunity for add-on sales is huge.”
The good vibes generated by Eggfest reverberate throughout the community long after each Egg has moved to its new home. Hearth & Home Furnishings raffles off a full-size Big Green Egg at the Eggfest, donating 100 percent of the proceeds to a fund that provides heating assistance to low-income citizens. The 2013 event raised $1,700 for the Dollar Energy Fund, which is a project of Peoples Natural Gas, a utility serving western Pennsylvania.
The retailer has had a partnership with the gas company for five years. For several months each year, the store donates a portion of each gas-related sale to the Dollar Energy Fund. Peoples Natural Gas matches the donations, dollar for dollar. Through its Warm Your Hearth/Touch a Heart campaign, Hearth & Home Furnishings and the utility have raised more than $87,000 to help heat low-come homes.
|Settings such as this are bound to appeal to female customers; Reader is well aware that women have the final say in almost every buying decision.|
Wicker Then & Now
The first furniture offered by Hearth & Home Furnishings, about 22 years ago, was traditional wicker and rattan. “We specialized in wicker, because sunrooms are big in our area,” Reader says. The store still offers traditional wicker products, supplemented by resin wicker, steel and cast-aluminum furniture.
“We are more known for wicker, because that’s what we started with,” Reader says.
An outdoor patio display area, constructed about three years ago within sight of passing traffic, is outfitted with products that “push the envelope,” Murphy says. Last season, “We went out on a limb with bright fabrics and furnished it pretty grand. It has been an invaluable tool for us.”
The shop concentrates on deep seating and conversation groups, with an emphasis on resin wicker by Lane Venture and Telescope Casual Furniture’s MGP products. Cast-aluminum deep seating also is represented. Some competing stores in the area show lots of dining groups, Murphy says, so Hearth & Home Furnishings strives for a different focus and product mix. The goal is an eclectic presentation.
“It’s more our style to mix things up,” she explains. “You might find an Outdoor Lifestyle dining set paired with Lane Venture seating, with some cool accent pillows. That’s our look.”
The showroom is divided approximately equally between furniture and hearth products, she says, but hearth products drive a larger share of sales and profits.
The company employs 12 people, including a full-time warehouse person and five installers. Readers’ two sons-in-law work in the business, leading the two installation teams. Mother and daughters share buying responsibilities and divide other office duties, from scheduling to order processing to sales training. Everyone can work the showroom, where manufacturers’ rep Dolan says the women excel at merchandising.
“It’s tasteful. It’s interesting. It makes you want to shop,” Dolan says. “She and her daughters have an excellent eye for design. Each item is dressed up well.”
Murphy says that each sales person “is trained to get to the bottom of what a customer needs.” At Hearth & Home Furnishings, selling is “about educating a consumer, who can make the decision about what she needs.”
It’s a formula that works. “We get a lot of repeat business,” Murphy says.
“We stick with what we know how to do,” she adds. “We’ve never wavered.”
Part of the formula is being open to change, being willing to give a cutting-edge product a chance. Hearth & Home Furnishings probably won’t add a dramatic new product immediately upon introduction. Mother and daughters will study how a manufacturer supports an innovation (such as a linear fireplace). After a season or so, if the product appears to be gaining traction, Hearth & Home Furnishings may add it to their lineup, keeping “the Wow factor” fresh.
They used that approach with contemporary linear hearth products. Though slow to take off in an admittedly conservative market, linear products now are an important part of the store’s business.
The owners know that innovative designs and products often take a season or more of local exposure before sales begin to climb. They wish manufacturers would back up innovative colors, designs and products with persistence. They wish manufacturers would give good ideas more of a fighting chance.
“We battle that with manufacturers,” Murphy says, frustrated that companies pull new products “because we didn’t have enough sales.” In Murphy’s view, the products weren’t given a realistic chance at retail.
Reader credits her late husband with instilling everyone with an appreciation for high-quality merchandise. Jim Reader, who died six years ago, “was a firm believer in better products,” she says.