Outside & In
By Tom Lassiter
Bruce Erickson’s new furniture store in Highland Park, Illinois, is all about Summer Classics. Period.
Erickson’s Summer Classics Home store opened in March in the upscale suburb north of Chicago. The only furniture brands offered for sale are Summer Classics and Gabby, a sister line of interior furnishings.
Even though most readers of Hearth & Home won’t have a chance to visit the 6,900 sq. ft. store, anyone who has experienced the Summer Classics showroom at the Merchandise Mart knows what to expect.
The ambiance is 100 percent Summer Classics. From the way vignettes are set, to wall colors and lighting, to the flow from one space to another, the store is designed with the same attention to detail as a Hollywood production.
Nothing is left to chance. If the space were anymore appetizing and tasteful, guests would be handed cocktail napkins and sterling silver upon entry.
Even the background music is prescribed, according to the license agreement between Erickson and Summer Classics. Summer Classics recommends a number of playlists available on Pandora for Business.
Summer Classics also has guidelines for employee clothing. Guys receive golf shirts bearing an embroidered Summer Classics logo. Female employees buy their own tops, using a semi-annual clothing stipend. Summer Classics pays for the monogramming.
|Summer Classics Home, Highland Park, Illinois.|
The Highland Park store, said Summer Classics co-CEO Dick Cross, “is the model going forward” for stores owned by Summer Classics and its licensees. Erickson’s store “is the vanguard of the new program,” said Cross, who manages the company’s licensing arrangements.
Summer Classics currently has 10 company-owned stores and one other licensee, in Louisville, Kentucky. All eventually will be rebranded as Summer Classics Home stores, Cross says.
The bones of the licensee agreement are relatively simple. The store must limit its merchandise to Summer Classics and Gabby products.
“Summer Classics has control of the appearance and what happens within the stores,” president and CEO Bew White explained in an email response to questions. Summer Classics’ specifications include “dress, music, appearance, advertising, merchandising, etc., but we don’t charge a royalty or franchise fee.”
Summer Classics does not have a financial stake in the Highland Park store, though it did provide financial assistance with “leasehold improvements,” White wrote.
The Alabama-based manufacturer also helped with launch advertising and the March 10 grand opening party, White wrote.
White and Cross often abbreviate Summer Classics Home as SC Home, in writing as well as speech. Using shorthand references is common in any business, but there may be other considerations at work.
There’s a national branding trend toward using initials. RH comes to mind, though casual furniture competitors commonly refer to Restoration Hardware as Resto. And White’s admiration for RL (as in Ralph Lauren) is widely known. So SC Home it is.
|Bruce Erickson, president of Summer Classics Home, Highland Park, Illinois.|
Erickson is a casual furniture veteran with a long relationship with Summer Classics products. He spent 17 years with Williams Ski & Patio, the well-known Highland Park casual furniture retailer, where he was a buyer and vice president. Williams (also known as Williams All Seasons) is a Summer Classics dealer. Before that Erickson was a manufacturers’ representative, and Summer Classics – then a fledgling brand – was one of his accounts.
In 2015, Erickson began thinking of making a change. “The Williams are great people, and I had a really great run there,” he says. “But I felt it was just time to do something on my own.”
Erickson was leaning toward opening a typical casual furniture store when, at the 2015 Summer Classics Garden Party in Alabama, he met Summer Classics’ lone licensee as well as the manager of a corporately-owned store.
The Garden Party, usually held in August, is a gathering for Summer Classics dealers and suppliers. It includes social events and facility tours, as well as previews of new products in advance of Casual Market Chicago.
Erickson liked what he heard about Summer Classics stores. Instead of integrating products from a variety of manufacturers, a dedicated Summer Classics store offers a single-source approach. Product designs tend to be complementary and coordinate well. Only one speed-dial button is necessary to handle concerns about shipping, warranty issues, and special orders.
The next day Erickson had an extended conversation with Bew White and other Summer Classics executives. They were enthusiastic about his idea of a dedicated Summer Classics store for the Chicago market.
That conversation caused Erickson to change his vacation plans for the next week. He said to his wife, “Do you want to take a road trip?”
Erickson and his wife, Brenda, traveled to visit Summer Classics corporate stores in Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and St. Louis. They also visited the Summer Classics licensee in Louisville, Kentucky.
Their shared impression: “This would be good. This is a perfect fit. We could do it on the North Shore of Chicago. We know Summer Classics sells in Chicago. So we just pursued it from there.”
The space Erickson settled on formerly housed a Restoration Hardware store, which was almost move-in ready. “It’s set perfectly for our type of furniture,” he said. “We did a few things to make it more Summer Classics-like and put fresh coats of paint on the walls. It’s very cool, all open.”
A design team from Summer Classics arrived in Highland Park days ahead of the soft opening. “We had been working with them on the floor plans, lighting, and everything,” Erickson said. The team helped turn concepts and sketches into reality by hanging chandeliers and placing product throughout the store. Erickson is pleased with the result.
“I don’t know if I want to say it’s the best looking Summer Classics store yet,” he said. “We will let other people decide that.”
Erickson’s Second Street neighbors include Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and Jos. A. Bank Clothiers. An Italian restaurant featuring al fresco dining is directly across the street.
When Erickson began his search for a store location, “We didn’t know where it was going to end up. I didn’t intend for it to end up in the backyard of my former employer.”
Actually, it’s not quite that close. But the Summer Classics Home store is less than two miles from Williams Ski & Patio.
Seasons and Products
Sales and rental of winter sports gear keep customers and cash flowing at Williams Ski & Patio during the fall and winter. Having a counter-seasonal product lineup is necessary to sustain most specialty retailers north of the Sun Belt.
Erickson admitted to being concerned initially about how he would get through the off-season. He said, “It was always in the back of my mind: What are we going to do in the winter?”
The answer, he learned, is Gabby.
When September arrives, the store will flip its product mix. Summer Classics products will give up the majority of floor space to be replaced by upholstered furniture, case goods, and occasional items from the Gabby side of the business.
“We will continue that look probably into February,” Erickson said, “and then transition back to patio.” Gabby products will remain on the floor year round, but with a reduced presence during the casual furniture season.
Summer Classics’ casual lineup is broad enough to provide choices for shoppers no matter what category appeals to them most, Erickson said.
|L to R: Gabby indoor line, Waterstone fire pit, and Croquet chair.|
The brand, he said, “is kind of a one-stop shop. I can cover my woven category, my cast-aluminum category. There’s some sling now. I can do teak. I felt I could cover my bases well in just doing Summer Classics.”
The Highland Park store also will benefit from Summer Classics’ corporate marketing arsenal, which Erickson called “one of the best in the industry, if not the best.”
The store has access to Summer Classics’ advertising material, such as television commercials, to provide to local broadcasters and cable companies. Erickson also can draw upon Summer Classics’ considerable expertise in digital marketing via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and the like.
It works like this, said Mark Griggs, Summer Classics’ vice president of marketing. His digital marketing team at the Alabama corporate headquarters places ads on Facebook on behalf of the Highland Park store. Facebook bills the Highland Park store’s credit card on file.
Griggs’ team also posts items on Facebook, Pinterest, etc., on behalf of the store.
For instance, a post might be as simple as a photo of a Summer Classics chair with a comment. The information goes online associated with the Highland Park SC Home store. The Summer Classics’ marketing department charges the store “an hourly fee that is half or less what it could cost them if done by someone else,” Griggs said.
The corporate marketing department currently provides digital marketing services to 10 Summer Classics dealers/licensees, in addition to handling digital media for the company-owned stores. Griggs’ staff of a dozen (three of whom focus on digital media) also handles marketing for Summer Classics’ five divisions.
Erickson said the store also is pushing out targeted direct mail and inserts in advertising circulars.
The new store mailed about 1,000 invitations for its grand opening event, expecting perhaps 200 to attend. The actual turnout probably was closer to 250, Erickson said. A number of invitees were interior designers. The store has a flexible designer program that allows members of the trade “to do it totally how they want or have us involved,” Erickson said. “We want to make sure that we are open to the design trade.”
The business opened with a sales team of four, including Erickson. The shop expects most business to be special order, though there is room for some popular frames in a nearby 3,000 sq. ft. warehouse.
Deliveries will be handled by a third-party company that “can do whatever we want,” Erickson said. “I think it’s going to work well.”
The grand opening was followed by a 72-hour sale featuring “a little better pricing and some special giveaways,” Erickson said.
“We’re starting to get rolling here,” he said as the store entered its first full week in business. “We’ve already started ordering for people and sending them out the door with a lot of accessories.”
The buzz created by Erickson’s Summer Classics Home store, and its ongoing marketing efforts, should benefit all Summer Classics dealers in the Chicago market, he said.
“We’re advertising outdoor living spaces,” he explained, “and we can’t get everyone to come to our store.” The marketing “should expose them to the brand and to outdoor living in general, and that should help (other Summer Classics dealers) as well.”
Chicago, in Erickson’s opinion, is big enough to accommodate a Summer Classics Home store as well as traditional casual furniture stores that sell the Summer Classics and Gabby brands.
“I expect that we will all do just fine,” he said.