Call Me Crazy!
By Tom Lassiter
PhotoS: ©2018 Bay Estate Images. www.bayestateimages.com
Brett Freiberg has been at this game for more than 35 years, but he still gets excited when shipments of new products arrive at American Leisure Patio’s warehouse.
“When a truckload comes in,” he says, “I’m the first one out there.”
Another storeowner might let his warehouse and delivery crew handle such a basic task, but not Freiberg. He opens boxes so the crew can check out the season’s new color combinations. He pairs cushions with chairs and has the warehouse staff try them out.
“Sit on this,” he says to them. “What do you think?”
He’s looking for feedback, a reaction. How will the other seasoned pros on his team respond to the new looks? Do they think shoppers will feel the same excitement, and desire this set for their home?
Freiberg can’t explain why he still gets so psyched by every truckload of new casual furniture. It’s just who he is.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s in me.
“I grew up building furniture and stuffing cushions, and here I am at 52, still doing it.”
Still doing it with enthusiasm. Still engaged with every aspect of the business. Still energized by a passion for casual furniture.
Brett Freiberg, owner, American Leisure Patio, San Jose, California.
A Curated Strategy
Late on a weekday afternoon just before Halloween, American Leisure Patio’s San Jose store is quiet. But Freiberg, as usual, is jazzed up about the casual furniture business. It’s the tail end of the season in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and
the bestsellers are missing from the floor of his flagship store, sold out and replaced by slower-selling sets pulled from the warehouse and attractively priced. Freiberg’s second store is in nearby Santa Cruz.
“I bring in what I want to get rid of, what’s not going to be around next year,” Freiberg explains. “The Box stores are now out of furniture; anybody who does seasonal patio furniture is out. So your pickings are a little more slim.”
Freiberg’s eyes smile.
“It’s a great time,” he says, a great time of year to be a patio retailer. Because if a homeowner is in the mood to furnish an Outdoor Room, he says, “There are not a lot of places to go” besides his stores.
Freiberg visually inventories the showroom as he strolls through, commenting on almost every set. The merchandising style is eclectic by design. At this time of year, vignettes are few. Products tend to be grouped by function and category in the eye-pleasing, easy-to-navigate showroom.
Dining tables frequently are paired with chairs from a different manufacturer. It’s a multipart strategy, he explains. Pairing products by different sources presents a challenge to the shopper who comes armed with a list of product names and online prices to use as a bargaining chip. An apples-to-apples comparison is almost impossible, giving the retailer an edge.
And, to the shopper’s benefit, pulling in dining chairs by a different manufacturer often lowers the overall price, reducing sticker shock and raising perceived value.
Among the options are woven dining chairs made just for American Leisure Patio. The store also carries woven deep seating with custom-specified elements. Freiberg tweaked an Asian factory’s design with a custom weave and higher-grade of faux-wood resin accents to enhance quality and raise perceived value. Plus, there’s nothing else like it in the Bay Area or anywhere else.
He applies the mix-and-match approach to teak products. The store carries some of the best-known names in teak; it also offers teak furniture that Freiberg buys direct from factories in Indonesia. The strategy offers shoppers choices from a variety of quality manufacturers, he says. It also gives the store a price and profitability edge.
Freiberg explains: “In order to bring in the imports, get a good margin, and have them be of value, you have to have the Tropitone and Brown Jordan and the Gloster to make them worthy.” The top-shelf brands, he says, actually make the imports worth more.
Freiberg’s always looking to refine his offerings. “One of the things I got from my father is, ‘Don’t ever be a me-too patio store.’” He’s counting on the teak presentation to be even better next season. “I’ve found an amazing manufacturer,” he says. “I’m so excited about it.”
Freiberg relishes devising custom products and pairings, creating what he calls “a curated look.” When he attends Casual Market Chicago and other trade shows, he’s constantly comparing and contrasting individual products, looking for the pairings that will create something totally unique in his showrooms.
Like a sommelier who uses vast knowledge of foods and wines to find the most pleasing combinations, Freiberg applies his lifetime of experience to mix and match outdoor furniture products that set his stores apart and captivate customers.
“I can’t wait for Chicago, for the show,” he says. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. I can’t wait to see the new goods. I bring stuff home all the time, catalogs, or on the Internet.” He shares the new product information with his wife, Heidy, a sales associate at the Santa Cruz store. He’ll ask, “What do you think of this, at this price-point?”
The process of turning the vision in his head into the freshly curated look he desires takes months. Freiberg’s passion keeps him focused on his goal.
“You will not find what I’m talking about in a picture online,” he says. “You will not be able to. I’m going to be mixing vendors, and it’s going to all mix together.”
Some of his vendors are industry leaders. Others are lesser-known factories he’s sought out in Indonesia and Vietnam. Some are current suppliers of American Leisure Patio; others will be new for 2019. The materials in the new furniture presented next season will include stainless steel and teak, as well as synthetic wicker, often in mixed-media combinations.
Though the reality of getting this curated look on the floor is still weeks away, Freiberg has assembled almost all the elements in his mind. He can visualize it. To him, it’s as vivid as metal artwork adorning the walls. He has the passion to see it.
“I’m really big on this curated look for next year,” he says.
Freiberg pulls a laminated printed page from beneath the sales counter. It’s from a 1981 issue of Venture, a local business magazine. There’s a photo of a man grinning broadly, seated on the beach in a patio chair constructed of PVC pipe. It’s Fred Freiberg, Brett’s father. Teenage Brett was on the beach that day and remembers it well.
Fred Freiberg’s business at the time was Pipe-Made Furniture West. “We were solely a factory, opening new dealers,” his son explains.
By the late 1970s, Fred Freiberg already was a successful entrepreneur. As the owner of Quality Electronic Service, he was one of Santa Cruz County’s largest employers, building electronic circuit boards and wiring components for other manufacturers. When he was a teenager, his family had traveled from Germany to the United States as refugees from post-war Germany. He had seized the opportunities offered by his adopted home and built his own version of the American dream.
The shift from the electronics industry to casual furniture can be summed up in a word: opportunity.
The Freiberg family had been on a trip to Florida when they saw PVC pipe furniture for sale by the roadside. “Stop the car!” Freiberg remembers his mother saying. His dad instantly understood the potential offered by what was then a unique product, perfect for California’s outdoor lifestyle.
“He bought the rights to the western half of the United States, as well as the Philippines and somewhere else,” Freiberg recalls.
Teenager Brett already was adept at assembling and soldering circuit boards for Quality Electronic Service. For his father’s new venture, he learned how to build pipe furniture frames, and how to use a foam-blowing machine to fill cushions.
The elder Freiberg opened retail accounts up and down the California coast and in other Western states. Once he got his driver’s license, Brett delivered pipe furniture to ships bound for Hawaii retailers.
“When I say this is what I’ve done all my life,” he explains, “it’s pretty much true. Eventually he opened a factory showroom in Santa Cruz and another in Cupertino. Then the evolution started, slowly.”
The family’s relationship with casual furniture evolved with the industry, which then was entering a period of rapid growth and innovation.
“I credit my dad for everything,” Brett says. “He was always an entrepreneur. He brought in (molded) resin furniture when prices were way up. I was 18. We were doing containers of that back then.”
Cast-aluminum patio furniture soon was added to the retail lineup at what became American Leisure Patio.
“That’s when I started becoming important at the store level,” he said. “I realized we needed more.”
Brett, then a young adult, took over the Cupertino retail location. He tried to land some of the biggest casual furniture brands of the day, without success. “We couldn’t get Homecrest,” he remembers. “We couldn’t get Tropitone. They were already taken” by other patio retailers in the area.
Even so, the Cupertino store did well.
“My goal was to work there until it hit a million dollars,” he says. “And it did.”
The closing of a patio store in Stockton provided the opportunity Freiberg needed to land Tropitone products. Freiberg put an American Leisure Patio store in that city, a two-hour drive northwest of Santa Cruz, just to secure the Tropitone brand. (As a multi-store chain, American Leisure Patio could then introduce the Tropitone line in all of its stores).
The Stockton store only lasted a year (“It was a terrible market”), but American Leisure’s relationship with Tropitone has thrived ever since.
“Tropitone is our No. 1 vendor,” Freiberg says. “I would never give Tropitone up. We sell it through the roof.”
Not coincidentally, Tropitone manufactures in California, shortening the pipeline from factory to Freiberg’s showroom and those all-important special-order customers. Orders promised in four weeks usually arrive in three, he says. California-based OW Lee is another high-volume brand at American Leisure Patio.
“In Silicon Valley, special order is key,” he says.
Not long after Freiberg shepherded the Cupertino store to $1 million in annual sales, that store was shuttered. Cupertino, then as now, was in the heart of Silicon Valley and booming. Changing demographics there (young, single tech workers aren’t prime patio furniture customers) and the time-sucking commute from San Jose convinced Freiberg to close the Cupertino operation.
Meanwhile, Fred Freiberg continued to build relationships with Asian vendors of furniture and other goods. He sourced artwork, such as stylized suns and lotus flowers, from metal artisans in Indonesia. “He had reps selling them all over the country,” Brett says. Similar products can be found today at American Leisure Patio, where they decorate the walls and “still sell very well.”
Organized by Design
Shoppers no longer find barbecue grills at Freiberg’s stores. Nor are there counter-seasonal products, such as Christmas goods. “I think it’s the worst business ever,” Freiberg says. “No, thank you!”
The emphasis is on casual furniture, every day, even in Northern California’s short and usually wet winter. “We do business,” he says. “It’s just not like we do in the summertime.”
Mounted over the sales counter is a Solair awning. “What a great business model!” Freiberg exclaims. “Zero floor space. I love it. It’s a great add-on. Every sale’s about $5,000.”
He expects to sell a dozen or more awnings this year, his fifth as a Solair dealer. Installation is handled by a third party in an arrangement set up by Solair.
Illuminated showcases, much like those that display stemware and fine china in an upscale home décor store, span the wall near the sales counter. Tumblers and dinnerware are featured there, with colors catching the eye and luring shoppers for closer inspection. Many of the casual dinnerware products bear the Merritt brand.
“Do you remember Stotter?” Freiberg asks. He recalls the name of the Stotter rep who used to service the store’s account. “I was just a kid, but I helped pick all the designs. Those were good days.”
The stores exited the dinnerware business for a time before returning to the category “on a smaller scale.” Two years of solid growth convinced Freiberg that “we needed to do something special,” so he invested in the lighted cabinets.
Store manager SuzAnne Sikk uses a handheld remote to flip the lights on and off. Like Kenneth Moore, general manager of Retail Sales, she’s an experienced casual industry veteran. She says the one thing that absolutely differentiates American Leisure Patio from the competition is customer service.
“We’ll spend an hour helping a customer with replacement slings, or looking up glides for a chair they didn’t buy from us,” she says. “It’s just what we do.”
That kind of service builds and enhances the store’s reputation. The real payback comes when a customer calls days or visits after a sale to say thanks for the terrific shopping experience. It happened on the day when Hearth & Home visited. A customer called to put in a good word about Kenneth Moore for his assistance with replacement slings for a set of Tropitone furniture.
Calls like that are one reason Freiberg is so grateful for his staff. “I try to take care of them to the best of my ability,” he says. “People try to steal them” (hire them away). “But Kenneth loves us and tells me he’s not going anywhere.”
In addition to reslinging seating, service at American Leisure Patio includes custom-made replacement cushions, strapping, powder-coating, and repairing welds. The store also repairs fire pits, even those made by brands the store doesn’t sell. The work used to be done in-house, but now it’s all outsourced. The repair business is managed by Fred Freiberg, now 76.
“We had to divide what we do to be good business owners; we now bump heads,” the son explains. “He does that part, and it really adds to the bottom line. It’s his passion, too.”
Service is elemental, Freiberg says. “We want to service our customers from top to bottom. We’ve had a lot of stores send people to us for service because they didn’t want to deal with them. And now,” he says, “we’ve won a customer.”
Freiberg’s passion for the business makes him a hands-on owner-manager involved in every aspect of the business. The store recently introduced a stylish new logo. Freiberg produced the concept and worked with a graphics professional to refine the finished product.
He looks at every sales ticket. He creates photo labels for every box of product in the warehouse, listing the model number and vendor name.
“I spend way more time doing things than I should,” he says. “I’m in the warehouse. I’m in the stores. I set the floor. I do all the buying. It’s a lot of work, but I want it done a certain way.
“And,” he says, “I love every bit of it. Call me crazy.”
Store Name: American Leisure Patio
Number of Stores: Two
Address: 1118 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Owners: Brett Freiberg, Fred Freiberg, Kathi Freiberg
Key Executives: (see above)
Year Estabilshed: 1980
Web site: www.americanleisurepatio.com
Phone: Santa Cruz – (831) 423-2425
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: COPY
% of Annual Gross Sales for Advertising: 2%