By Tom Lassiter
PhotoS: ©2019 DEREK JOHNSON VISUALS. WWW.DEREKJOHNSONVISUALS.COM.
There will be no one tasked with snow removal at Fruehauf’s this week, even if the winter weather brings a record snowfall. Nor will arriving boxes of early-buy products stack up in the parking lot, waiting to be shuttled through a two-acre conglomeration of tents, pavilions, and out-buildings to a distant storage shed.
That would be so 2017.
February 10 marks the one-year anniversary of Fruehauf’s move from the university town of Boulder to Westminster, a city of more than 100,000 that strategically nestles between Boulder and Denver.
The shift represents something far more transformative than a mere 20-mile relocation. The 40-year-old business, founded as a nursery, evolved to become a nationally recognized force in the casual furniture business.
Under the leadership of the late Mary Fruehauf, the store won an Apollo Award in 2011, and enjoyed a reputation for its creative, individualistic approach to merchandising.
Fruehauf’s earned its bragging rights as Colorado’s largest casual furniture retailer.
In Boulder, Fruehauf’s truly was a shopping destination. Returning customers looked forward to exploring the maze of indoor and outdoor spaces, where the process of discovery was every bit as enticing as the merchandise presented. It mattered little that Fruehauf’s was inconveniently tucked away on a side street, where its nearest neighbor was a Salvation Army Family Store.
After all, where else could one find such an eclectic array? A trek to Fruehauf’s could result in loading the Range Rover with a Vera Bradley handbag, a gift bag stuffed with bath and body lotion products by Crabtree & Evelyn, and perhaps some sparkly bangles and beads by Chamilia. The new gas grill, the cantilever umbrella, and the deep-seating conversation group – those would soon follow in a Fruehauf’s delivery van.
All those products – giftware, grills, outdoor living products, and more – remain available at Fruehauf’s new home in Westminster. Now, however, they are consolidated under one roof, protected year-round from the elements in a 40,000 sq. ft. space that anchors a suburban strip mall.
Fruehauf’s CEO Mariah Maydew and brother Micah Maydew, Operations manager.
The landlord takes care of snow removal. Half of the space is devoted to retail showroom; the other half is an on-site, climate-controlled warehouse. Retrieving a coffee table from inventory no longer requires sleuthing through numerous outbuildings jammed with boxes of furniture.
One year in at the Westminster location, the new Fruehauf’s is still finding its way forward. Now that doing things differently is possible, management is recalibrating old strategies and discovering what works best in its new home.
The real estate maxim of location, location, location determined much of the funky character of Fruehauf’s in Boulder. Pristine new quarters in a new town erased that cachet overnight. To be sure, the move generated some uncertainty, which hovered in the background throughout 2018.
Would the new Fruehauf’s be the same – or at least as successful – as the old Fruehauf’s?
Now, as the store marks its one-year anniversary in Westminster, the answer becomes clearer every day.
The original landlord was kind enough to give Mariah Maydew, Fruehauf’s president and CEO, two years’ notice that the store would have to find a new home. The decision, announced in the fall of 2015, actually was all in the family.
The family-owned retailer rented its location from another arm of the family business, Fruehauf’s Investments. The property-owning entity had determined that, after four decades of growth and change by Fruehauf’s and Boulder, it was time to divest of the site.
“The whole property was set up to be a nursery,” Maydew says. “We didn’t have a proper loading dock or air conditioning, things that most modern properties have. Over the years it had deteriorated and was out of date.”
One thing in particular made the prospect of moving less onerous. “About 80% of our business was coming from outside of Boulder,” she says.
Fruehauf’s customers came from throughout the Denver metro area and beyond, justifying the store’s long-standing marketing claim that, “It’s well worth the drive.”
Once the shock of the news wore off, Maydew began to see opportunity. “We realized that we should have moved years ago,” she says. “This gave us an opportunity to move closer to our market and into an updated facility.” Excitement replaced dread.
Still, it was difficult to bid farewell to the site that helped determine Fruehauf’s eclectic environment. Making the ill-suited hodge-podge of structures function as a fashionable giftware and outdoor living shopping experience called for constant innovation. Customers literally didn’t know what to expect.
“That’s what made people remember us,” Maydew says. “There was a second level; it was shaped like a pyramid. There were outbuildings and all these separate rooms.”
That sort of thing might not have flown in San Diego or Dallas or Miami. But it was just right for Boulder.
“Their uniqueness and quirkiness really fit that market,” says Steven Dennis of Dennis Sales Associates, which represents Breezesta and other lines. He has served Fruehauf’s for more than a decade.
Fruehauf’s – first under the guidance of Mary Fruehauf and then under Maydew, her understudy, friend, and successor – figured all that out and made it work.
Groupings of teak furniture.
Boulder, Dennis explains, is unlike any other community in the nation. The city is known for its forward-leaning politics. Friends as well as detractors often refer to it as “The People’s Republic of Boulder.”
It’s the home of the University of Colorado and a place that attracts hipsters as well as retirees. People flock there for the granola atmosphere, but it helps to have a no-limit American Express card.
Housing today is at a premium and lots are typically small, often too cramped for expansive Outdoor Rooms. The lifestyle leans more toward bohemian than fashion statement.
“Everything is very, very small there,” Dennis says, with recent construction dominated by condos, patio homes, and apartments. Add to the mix the homes of the very well-to-do with “big, expensive outdoor areas.”
Fruehauf’s adjusted its product mix to accommodate the needs of its hometown customers, he says.
As Fruehauf’s evolved to satisfy Boulder’s tastes, Boulder itself was changing.
“Over the past several years, that community has moved away from Fruehauf’s,” says Gary Deane of G & R Deane Associates, “and Fruehauf’s has moved away from them.” Deane is a sales representative for OW Lee and Treasure Garden.
Over time, Fruehauf’s became more and more dependent on customers who lived elsewhere, in localities not hemmed in as Boulder is, in communities with larger backyards and vacant land for more typical single-family housing.
Both Dennis and Deane understood the risks at stake in Fruehauf’s decision not just to move, but to move beyond Boulder.
“That’s a big transition for anybody,” Dennis says, “especially for a company that is under fairly new management. It’s a lot different than a chain opening one new location. It’s moving the entire business. We were all concerned.”
But staying in Boulder wasn’t an option for Fruehauf’s. Finding affordable space of sufficient size was highly unlikely, and the executive team already knew that a significant majority of customers traveled in from elsewhere.
If customers didn’t mind driving 45 minutes to Boulder and Fruehauf’s, they reasoned, they shouldn’t mind driving to Fruehauf’s in another Denver-area locality.
For that reason, Maydew and her team didn’t set their sights on a particular city for Fruehauf’s relocation. The most important item on their real estate shopping list was square footage.
Maydew figured that Fruehauf’s would need around 20,000 sq. ft. of retail showroom space in order to replicate the amount of space, indoors and out, that the store enjoyed in Boulder. She wanted at least 10,000 sq. ft. of warehouse in the same location.
Size requirements trumped all else. “The particular neighborhood wasn’t as important to us,” Maydew explains, “since we pull from all over Colorado.”
The site in Westminster more than met Maydew’s requirements, creating the needed 20,000 sq. ft. of showroom with an additional 20,000 sq. ft. of warehouse. The showroom has 14-ft. ceilings, allowing merchandisers to install vertical elements to subdivide the space into vignettes, and display cantilever umbrellas at full height.
The only feature missing from the new location was a bit of outdoor space to display outdoor living products in an eye-catching way. There’s only room on the sidewalk for a few colorful resin Adirondack chairs.
But then Maydew remembered that outdoor displays can have drawbacks, such as squirrels, birds, and tree sap. “In hindsight,” she said, “we realized that having an outdoor space is not really as important as we thought.”
A colorful array of chairs, umbrellas, and cushions.
The Big Move
The last day in Boulder was Feb. 5, 2018. Five days later, Fruehauf’s opened in Westminster. The store wasn’t fully merchandized and accessorized. There were no rugs or other floor coverings on the polished concrete underfoot. No metal art hung on the walls. But Fruehauf’s was open for business.
With one notable exception, the business plan was to stick with what worked in Boulder until experiences dictated a change. No outdoor space meant that Fruehauf’s no longer would sell live Christmas trees. The majority of those sales had been to Boulder residents, who now were 20 miles away.
“It didn’t make sense for us to sell Christmas trees anymore,” Maydew says.
Everything else, however, survived the transition. The store has hundreds of giftware lines that earned repeat business from loyal customers at the Boulder store. Would those customers come to Westminster to shop for birthdays and holidays? Would new customers discover those products and check out with beads and scarves and body lotion?
“In the end, we said, Move it all. We’ll see how it goes,” Maydew recalls. “Then we’ll make some decisions.”
Not everything on the old property made the move to Westminster. Forty years in the Boulder location, with two acres to stow various odds and ends, required a massive effort to clean up, sell through, throw out, and recycle.
Overseeing that job fell to Micah Maydew, the CEO’s brother. He serves as Operations manager.
“You can imagine the amount of extra stuff that accumulates,” he says. “Parts. Extra parts. Parts that customers didn’t pick up. Over 40 years, that stuff just builds up.”
A closeout, moving sale to find new homes for old stock merchandise began in August 2017 and didn’t end until the store closed.
The challenge of figuring out how to move what was left in an organized fashion fell to the Operations manager. “That was probably our biggest challenge,” he says.
Fruehauf’s was able to begin moving goods into its new warehouse well in advance of opening the new store. One by one, the various tents, pavilions, and outdoor spaces were emptied and shuttered.
Among the critical items to be moved to the new space: nearly 200 artificial Christmas trees. Come the Yuletide season, each one is decorated with a different theme.
The previous occupant of Fruehauf’s new home left in place a conveyor belt to move goods to upper-level storage. It came in handy in getting the Christmas trees properly stowed away.
Nearly 180 trees were erected throughout the store for Christmas 2018. There was an orange-colored tree for fans of the Denver Broncos. One tree featured polar bear ornaments, another featured penguins. One tree’s ornaments were German-themed, while another had all things Mexican. You get the picture.
“We have to decorate all of those, every year,” Micah Maydew says. “It’s pretty cool.” There’s enthusiasm in his voice. He’s not kidding.
So you want a purse? No problem.
Micah, who started his career at Fruehauf’s as a part-time floral delivery driver, assists his sister on buying trips for giftware and furniture. “We get along really well and think similarly,” he says. “It helps to have two people doing the buying. You kind of bounce ideas off of each other.”
Fruehauf’s has made its name in the casual furniture industry, but the role of giftware in the store’s success cannot be overstated. “We’re geared toward women,” the CEO explains.
There’s a boutique with jewelry, handbags, and scarves. Nice stuff for special-occasion giving. There’s a children’s area with playhouses and toys. Another section has products for dogs and cats; or perhaps we should say for the owners of dogs and cats who want to pamper their pets.
Shoppers will find things for the kitchen, but they won’t be the same type of goods found in a department store’s kitchenware department. “We’re not selling pots and pans,” Maydew emphasizes. To be selected for Fruehauf’s, an item has to be “something that would make a unique gift.”
The giftware helps attract walk-in shoppers at the new location, she says. She attributes that to the store’s suburban strip mall location. Walk-in business simply didn’t happen at the Boulder location.
“People will drive 20 minutes for patio furniture,” Maydew says. “For a candle, I don’t think so. We’re having to re-establish ourselves as a gift store here.”
Gifts are a major part of Fruehauf’s business.
Selling from Stock
Fruehauf’s big, on-site warehouse is not just a convenience; it’s a necessity. About 80% of casual furniture sales are from stock, Maydew says. The remaining 20% can be considered special order, though not necessarily in the traditional sense.
“It’s not your usual swatch-book special order,” she explains. Instead, a Fruehauf’s special order is more likely to be add-ons (such as extra chairs) or replacements for sold-out items. Fruehauf’s customers like to know that their furniture purchase won’t be weeks in transit; they expect to see it in the Outdoor Room pronto.
“We bring in lots of early-buys,” Maydew explains. “We need the warehouse space to bring it all in at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, we’re mostly empty. That’s the idea.”
Maydew learned the trade from the ground up. She was hired some 18 years ago, fresh out of college with a marketing degree. She answered a Fruehauf’s ad for “a greeter position,” and Maydew needed to pay bills. Her responsibilities included greeting shoppers and running the register – “very entry level.” Best of all, she lived nearby. She took the job thinking she would stay “until I find something better in my field.”
Maydew was a quick study; she learned the trade from Mary Fruehauf, acknowledged by the casual industry as one of the best retailers. They became fast friends as well as colleagues.
When Mary Fruehauf died of cancer in 2015, Maydew was the logical choice to take over. Her mentor’s impact on the casual furniture industry continues. The International Casual Furnishings Association in 2017 created the Mary Fruehauf Retail Genius Award to recognize casual retailers “whose creativity invokes the spirit of the late industry leader’s unique approach to igniting excitement, and emphasizing the fun in outdoor living.”
The New Home
The initial year in Westminster has, as expected, been one of discoveries and lessons learned. Maydew expected “a big chunk” of business to continue to come from Denver, some 10 miles to the south – and it has.
Yet “a surprising amount” of patio furniture has been sold to customers in Westminster and neighboring Arvada, she says, an unexpected “nice bonus.”
As those first weeks grew into months, customers came and purchased furniture in an environment that everyone admits was not quite ready.
“We hit the ground running,” Maydew says. “We didn’t have time to accessorize or merchandise the space. It was bare bones.”
The expertise of Fruehauf’s staff likely helped keep sales churning even if the store lacked some ambiance. Deane, the sales rep, says the Fruehauf’s team “is not your everyday, regular salesperson. They really carry on conversations with folks. That’s their personality.”
Even with a relatively smooth move and the crackerjack sales staff intact, even with a year of planning, Maydew had concerns that Fruehauf’s would experience a soft year. She feared that it would take time to rebuild market traction and sales momentum.
“I thought it would take a year or two for people to find us, for us to get back to where we were in sales,” she says.
Her fears were unfounded. Fruehauf’s concluded its first calendar year in Westminster with sales almost even with the last year in Boulder.
As it turned out, Maydew says, the effect of the move “wasn’t a big deal.”
Fruehauf’s remains Colorado’s largest casual furniture store, albeit in Westminster instead of Boulder.
The giftware business was off slightly in 2018, but growing walk-in business and returning first-time gift shoppers may fix that in 2019. Overall, Micah Maydew says, the gift business has been “pretty consistent, surprisingly.”
From an operations and efficiency standpoint, he’s loving it. “Every day, we realize how much better it is here,” he says.
One year in, there’s no question that Fruehauf’s is set to thrive in its new home.
“Fortunately,” the CEO says, “we’re a destination.”
Store Name: Fruehauf’s Patio
Address: 6795 W. 88th Avenue, Westminster, CO 80031
Number of Stores: 1
Owner: The Fruehauf family
Year Established: 1977
Web Site: www.fruehaufs.com
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales by Product Category:
% of Annual Gross Sales for Advertising: