By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2016 Hoachlander Davis Photography. Judy Davis Photographer.
The odds seemed be stacked against Great Gatherings from the outset.
For starters, there’s this odd combination of merchandise. Billiard tables and casual furniture? It’s not unprecedented, but not common, either.
The first two stores were located in the Metro D.C. area, some 350 miles from the founder’s base of operations in Ohio. That sounds risky on the face of it.
Furthermore, the guy hired to run things locally had no background in billiard tables or furniture. His retail and management experience was in stores that sold outdoor gear, like REI, and men’s clothing.
And finally, the stores – situated in Annapolis, Maryland, and Gainesville, Virginia – debuted in 2008.
Everyone knows what happened next.
Great Gatherings, however, defied the odds.
Instead of becoming a Harvard Business School case study of how not to do things, the retailer is a casual furniture retail leader in the Mid-Atlantic region, was a 2016 Apollo Award finalist, and has opened three new stores in the last 18 months.
Great Gathering’s five stores now strategically encircle the nation’s capital more effectively than Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia ever did.
None of the above, except for setting things in motion before the economy unraveled in 2008, happened by chance. Every step of Great Gatherings’ rise to prominence was according to plan.
Tim Davis, a sales rep for Gloster Furniture who works five Mid-Atlantic states, calls Great Gatherings, “The premier outdoor destination in my territory. Their presentation is, bar none, the best I’ve seen. When you walk in the door, it’s WOW!”
That was the plan.
Starbucks figured out long ago that customers don’t line up just to pay $4 for a cup of coffee. They are willing to pad Starbucks’ margins because of the experience: cool music, cordial baristas, and ever-changing product displays. The coffee? It’s secondary.
The entrepreneur behind Great Gatherings had a similar notion. Joe Pucci, founder of American Heritage Billiards, a manufacturer based in Streetsboro, Ohio, thought that pool tables could be merchandised better. Retailers of billiards equipment and other game tables typically line them up like soldiers in formation. Good for comparing felt, fit and finish, but certainly not a homelike setting.
Eric Stalzer, the district manager who looks after all five Great Gatherings stores, explains further: Pucci “felt that the customer could understand the product better if you showed it in game room settings.”
Families, Stalzer says, don’t furnish a game room just to have a pool table. Having a game room, he says, “is about gathering friends and family together to have a great gathering. It’s about the experience and the memories that you create within those rooms.”
That’s what Pucci wanted to create, Stalzer says. That’s “what we’ve actually been able to translate in our showrooms.”
Shift the focus to friends and family and creating great experiences, and casual furniture seems a perfect companion for retailing game room gear.
|Pops of color are everywhere, a solid screen separates areas and, once again a wood floor provides warmth and class.|
Great Gathering’s showrooms average 14,000 sq. ft., with vignettes to showcase billiard tables as well as casual furniture. The product mix typically splits 60/40, with furniture getting the larger share in its prime selling season before being flipped in the cooler months.
The retailer also shows and stocks oodles of bar stools (nearly 100, to be exact). A third are mounted three tiers high on a wall, with the remainder divided between two pods that also display the stools three high.
There’s yet another product category that consumes up to 4,000 sq. ft. in each store. “Anything you need for a party, we have it,” Stalzer says. “Barware, serveware, giftware, flatware, wine glasses, beer glasses – we call them our entertaining essentials.” The area,” he says, “is almost like a boutique within the furniture store.”
A conventional casual furniture retailer might give this allocation of precious floor space a raised eyebrow. How many additional deep-seating groups and 84-in. dining tables could be displayed in 4,000 sq. ft.? Certainly the margins are better in furniture than flatware.
Pucci, Stalzer says, saw past that. He knew that people shopping for pool tables and outdoor furniture usually only go to those merchants when they want or need new gear. For most people, that’s not too often.
Pucci wanted people to have a reason to visit Great Gatherings regularly. Maybe they’re only after six new Chablis glasses, but to buy them they have to pass the fire pits, the Tommy Bahama deep seating, the Brown Jordan chaise lounges, and the Gloster teak.
Great Gatherings buys “very shallow and wide” in the entertaining essentials category, Stalzer explains. “We want to sell it out and bring something new in, so customers are constantly coming in and seeing new product.Our customer comes in four, five, six times a year” to purchase glassware or other entertainment accessories.”
Each visit imprints the customer with the overall experience, including strikingly homelike displays of game tables and casual furniture. Sooner or later, the topic of home furnishings will come up with family and friends, and the glassware customer becomes an outside sales rep for Great Gatherings.
The entertaining essentials spur “word-of-mouth advertising for us,” Stalzer says.
|Even though there’s a lot of furniture on the floor, ample space has been provided for customers to browse and see it all.|
Raising the Bar
Great Gatherings lets shoppers know up-front that high-quality outdoor furniture commands higher prices. The website notes that outdoor dining sets start at $3,495. Outdoor seating groups start at $4,995. No $999 or even $1,999 come-ons here.
“We’re never going to make excuses for the product we carry,” Stalzer says. “We’re in a very affluent area here, and there’s a retailer for everybody. There’s people that shop Sears and there’s people that shop Nordstrom’s. If you want to categorize us as a Nordstrom’s, that’s OK. We’ll take that.”
The D.C. area, with tens of thousands of high-level government and military employees, is ripe with affluence. The region’s economic demographics were a major factor in Pucci’s choice to locate Great Gatherings there.
But Pucci drilled deeper than householdincomes and desirable ZIP codes. Consultants helped identify social demographics that Pucci thought would benefit game room and outdoor furniture sales. He wanted to locate his stores in an area with spacious homes and large lots that would accommodate outdoor living. He also wanted to locate where entertaining at home is part of the culture.
The suburbs around the national capital met those criteria.
“There’s a lot of big homes, a lot of big dinner parties, and a lot of affluent people that do a lot of entertaining, which is obviously conducive to the product we sell,” Stalzer says.
Customers spend lavishly. A late October shopper purchased two billiard tables, one for his lake house and – oh, what the heck – a second for his primary residence – plus a new bar.
“It’s astounding how much people can spend with us,” Stalzer says. “We have customers that have spent over $100,000 with us. It boggles my mind.”
Website visitors will not see any furniture manufacturer logos or brand names, with the exception of Tommy Bahama Outdoor Living. The reason is two-fold. Most casual furniture shoppers have no brand awareness, Stalzer says. And if there’s no brand name present, it puts an extra burden on the shopper, whose main interest is price and pitting one retailer against another, whether brick-and-mortar or online.
Casual furniture dealers with large showrooms often fill them with products from a wide range of manufacturers. Many operate with a “something for everyone” philosophy in an attempt to touch all price points.
Great Gatherings offers furniture from just a handful of vendors: Cast Classics, Gensun, Lloyd Flanders, and Tropitone, plus the previously mentioned Brown Jordan, Gloster, and Tommy Bahama. For shade products, the stores rely on Treasure Garden and TUUCI.
“We sell what we would term heirloom quality product,” Stalzer says. “Investment furniture,” which he describes as “quality that you’re going to be happy with for years and years.”
It’s up to the sales staff to help customers understand why they benefit from paying more, that high-end product represents a better value proposition over time.
“We’ve identified this market,” he says, “and it’s worked very well for us.”
Deals, however, can be had at Great Gatherings. The company worked closely with a couple of its vendors to buy deep in particular groups with fire pits. The volume purchase allowed Great Gatherings to offer the groups for $9,995. “If we had special ordered (for a single customer), it would have been $12,300,” Stalzer says. The arrangement benefits the manufacturer, the merchant, and the customer.
“That strategy has worked extremely well for us,” Stalzer says.
|An elegant pool table holds down the center of a display of matching chairs, a bar and stools.|
Furniture Sales 101
Stalzer’s previous experience, as a director of stores for a local retailer of outdoor equipment, similar to REI, and as a regional manager for a chain of men’s clothing stores, was excellent but insufficient to prepare him for outdoor furniture sales.
He says he always considered himself a top-notch salesperson and sales trainer, someone who could “hit numbers.” He was quick to recognize that “the selling process is a lot different in furniture. It’s just more detailed. There are a lot more steps in selling this type of product.”
The realization made him aware of “the quality of personnel that I would need to be successful.”
For the three most recent stores, Stalzer put new hires through six weeks of sales training before opening day. One full week was spent on the outdoor furniture sales process. Another week focused on outdoor product knowledge. This was classroom time, not on the sales floor.
Donald Fleischman, a sales representative who calls on Great Gatherings for Lloyd Flanders, says the in-depth training contributes to a company culture that’s immediately apparent.
Stores are warm and inviting, Fleischman says, and sales staff never open with “Can I help you? Are you looking for something in particular?”
Instead, he says, sales personnel explain what Great Gatherings is about and invite guests to wander around and explore. The technique puts shoppers at ease and starts the relationship-building conversation.
Stalzer has hired people with casual furniture sales backgrounds. But he also looked outside the industry. He identified another channel that has blossomed by honing its sales approaches. That channel is the sleep industry, or mattresses.
The bedding business transformed itself over the last decade, Stalzer says. The old model of selling on price was replaced by “sleep centers” where sales consultants learn about the customer’s mattress preferences, wishes, and needs. Armed with that information, the consultant makes an informed recommendation.
The process, Stalzer recognized, parallels best practices in how casual furniture should be sold. Listen to the customer, understand her needs, and make product recommendations that meet those needs.
Stalzer ended up hiring a couple of “very good mattress people that have that mindset,” he says.
A further bonus of hiring mattress people is that they understand that second-chance sales rarely happen. Shoppers who leave to check out merchandise in other stores usually buy elsewhere. It’s a waste of time and paper to give them a business card. That’s why bedding sales people don’t usually have personalized cards.
As the mattress guys say, “The Be-Back Bus is a one-way trip.”
“I love that line,” Stalzer says. “I love that line.”
|A mirrored screen reflects the flames of a fire pit/table in the center of a deep-seating group.|
Building the Brand
Great Gatherings buys no print advertising and no radio spots. Ad dollars are spent with network television stations that cover the entire D.C. market, on cable TV ads, and Internet marketing. On the Web, spending goes to Google AdWords (pay per click advertising), Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and social media including Facebook and Twitter.
Stalzer also allows the stores to host charity events. The Annapolis store has hosted an event to benefit a homelessness prevention center for the past seven years. “Now it’s an event that people look forward to,” he explains. “We bring in 200 people every year and give back to the community.”
A Group Effort
Stalzer credits the striking accessorizing in Great Gatherings’ stores to Alice Anderson, who also buys everything from greenery to wall art to tabletop décor. She visits the Atlanta Gift Mart and other shows to fill those needs, buys all the barware and serveware, and is part of the buying team that shops Casual Market Chicago.
Others attending Casual Market Chicago are Stalzer, store managers Shannon Danforth and Keith Cohen (the first hires in 2008), and owner Joe Pucci. Furniture decisions are made collectively, with Anderson (who has “incredible taste”) choosing fabrics.
The company culture, in which “everybody has a say” at the Casual Market Chicago, impresses Davis, the Gloster sales representative.
“They empower their people,” he says. “At the end of the day, everybody’s involved in their success in what’s sold on the floor. It’s one of the best-run businesses I’ve seen.”
The success of Great Gatherings builds upon that of American Heritage Billiards, which Pucci started in 1984. The company’s Asian-made pool tables are produced in dozens of styles, with each being part of a “designer collection,” often with matching racks for cue sticks, viewing chairs, and other paraphernalia.
By the turn of the century, Stalzer said, Pucci’s billiard tables were available in some 200 stores nationwide. Great Gatherings’ apparent success confirms his notion that game room products could be more effectively merchandised in richly appointed, homelike settings. Just as you would see in leading casual furniture stores.
The company’s current five stores will be supplemented with additional locations in “a couple of years,” Stalzer says. They, too, probably will be located not in standalone buildings but in so-called “lifestyle centers” such as One Loudon. Located in Ashburn, Virginia, northwest of Washington, the One Loudon complex features 700,000 sq. ft. of retail, restaurant, and entertainment destinations.
Great Gatherings isn’t saying where the next store or stores will be. Only two things are for sure: They won’t be in the Washington market, and the furniture lineup will be distinctive.
“We just want to make sure that what we’re showing is significantly different from what you can find out in the market,” Stalzer says. “We’re not going to get caught in that gray area that doesn’t look too much different from what I saw at Costco.”
Stalzer is confident, not cocky, about the plan going forward. If this were a game of pool instead of business, he might express that confidence in four words.
“Eight ball, corner pocket.”
Store Name: Great Gatherings
Number of Stores: Five
Owners: American Heritage Billiards
Key Executives: Eric Stalzer
Year Established: 2009
Web site: www.greatgatherings.com
E-mail: Via website
Phone: (855) 685-2455
Number of Employees:
Patio – Brown Jordan, Lloyd Flanders, Gloster, Tropitone, Cast Classics, Tommy Bahama, Gensun Casual Living, Pawley’s Island
Gross Annual Sales: $18M+
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 8%