Three Months of Warmth
By Tom Lassiter
PhotoS: ©2019 Couvrette studio. www.couvrette.photography.on.ca.
Ottawa may be one of the world’s coldest capital cities, but that doesn’t stop citizens of the Canadian capital from thinking about, shopping for, and buying casual furniture during the depths of winter. That’s because they have to; average temperatures are above 70°F in only three months of the year (May, June, July).
“I’m surprised how many people come in through the winter months and are looking for outdoor furniture,” says Paul Anderson, general manager at Patio Comfort and its sister businesses, The Burning Log and Poolarama.
Shoppers may have come to this two-story retailer to check out hearth equipment or a hot tub, but no matter their original plans, they’re likely to sit for a moment in casual furniture that is strategically placed throughout the building. The shoppers may be deciding on a new fireplace, but they can’t help but be taken by the stylish, comfortable seating.
“Many times, they turn and say, ‘Oh, geez! We should get something like this!”’ Anderson says.
Casual furniture may not be a typical add-on sale for a hearth sales ticket, but Anderson has seen it happen a lot over the years.
He’s been on staff at the family-owned business since the late 1980s. The late Lou Bourada left the Ottawa Fire Department to start a swimming pool company in 1965. He called it Poolarama. He expanded into the hearth business in 1978 (The Burning Log), and in the next decade expanded again by offering what is often known in Ottawa as garden furniture. He called this part of the enterprise Patio Comfort.
Kensington Dining from CabanaCoast.
Today the company is operated by Bourada’s children and grandchildren, and it maintains the same concept: one location, three showroom doors, three symbiotic businesses under one roof.
Anderson originally went to work with the swimming pool component of the business. Like all employees then and now, he learned about all the various categories and product lines. He says he naturally gravitated to learn all he could about casual furniture in the early years. “It was a growing part of the business,” he says, “so it needed somebody to guide its way through the different changes and styles and colors.”
Today, Patio Comfort has about 8,000 sq. ft. dedicated to casual furniture from many of the industry’s leading manufacturers. The decision to focus on upper-end, quality goods was made early on, Anderson says. The strategy was to stick with products “to match what we were carrying with our swimming pools and fireplaces.”
Patio Comfort’s casual furniture brands include Beka Casting, CabanaCoast, C.R. Plastic Products, and RATANA (all based in Canada), as well as Telescope, OW Lee, Kingsley Bate, and Kettler, among others.
Some Canadian casual furniture merchants, especially those that do not focus on outdoor furniture, may place little product on their showroom floors. Instead, they sell from a catalog while stocking interior furnishings or hardware or another unrelated product line. Not surprisingly, these are low-volume dealers who rely on other goods to generate most of their sales and profits.
Patio Comfort approaches the casual furniture business more like specialty retailers in warmer climates, even though the Ontario outdoor furniture season is shorter than in much of the neighboring United States.
“We get people in, and they can sit on things,” Anderson says. “They’re not buying from a catalog. We have all the different styles on the floor, and people can try them and see how they look and feel.”
The advantage of showrooming furniture in a brick-and-mortar store proves itself daily, he says. Some retailers grouse about consumers who shop the Internet ad nauseum before finally visiting a store to experience casual furniture in person – but not Anderson. Once shoppers walk into Patio Comfort, they are bona fide sales prospects.
Salespeople are trained to educate customers about the attributes of each category and brand. They point out the array of fabrics available and how products may be highly customized to suit individual tastes. A store visit also is an opportunity to discuss quality, durability, and value, important factors often missing from the sales pitch on an e-commerce website.
A salesperson’s job, he explains is to “walk people through the whole idea of showing how something is made, why it is made to last, and made to look good for their backyard.”
Anderson keeps some old cushions on hand, cushions of substandard foam covered in inexpensive fabric not engineered to withstand years in the sun. This, he tells his shoppers, is what you risk when purchasing outdoor furniture from Big Box stores or e-commerce sites.
Demonstrations such as these build “confidence that we know what we’re doing,” Anderson says. “I’m pleasantly surprised at how many people actually buy from us, rather than go back and revert to the Internet sale.
“We do a very good job of not pressuring people, but showing them what is available, from us, for their needs. We listen to what they want,” he says. “We help design their backyards.”
Bazza Collection from Telescope Casual Furniture.
Patio Comfort organizes its retail floor primarily by brand. CabanaCoast products here, Telescope products there, “all grouped within their own styles and lines. But that works.”
Anderson sometimes mixes and matches products from different manufacturers in the transition areas between brand displays, demonstrating an understanding that everything doesn’t have to match.
Patio Comfort tends toward a minimalist approach with accessories, which are often limited to baskets or vases of silk flowers on tabletops. “I don’t clutter up the sets with tableware,” he says. “We keep it fairly clean.”
Anderson depends on throw pillows to “offer a punch of color into something that is very monotone or neutral.” Throw pillows, he says, “can give your showroom a really good ‘wow factor.’ A lot of people will ask if throw pillows come with the (furniture) products.”
He finds that the pop of color provided by throw pillows can be a unifying feature. For example, a group of contemporary furniture and a group of traditional casual furniture – side by side – might be visually unsettling, even if the colorways are similar. Anderson finds that smart use of throw pillows “can tie in the colors between the two.”
The downside to throw pillows, and it’s not much of one, is that they invite being touched and therefore moved. Customers move them. Salespeople move them. Anderson has appointed himself the throw pillow policeman at Patio Comfort.
“I go through the store and reorganize them to the styling that I like,” he explains. It’s a beat he patrols several times a day.
Gray has become the predominant frame and cushion color in the last couple of seasons, which makes the smart application of throw pillows even more important. But even throw pillows can’t overcome the tedium of a monochromatic showroom.
“You can’t show everything in gray,” Anderson says with a sigh. “It would be very boring for everybody.”
He recalls his early years in the casual furniture business, when the Patio Comfort showroom was a sea of white frames. Then came the brown frame era. When a single color predominates the showroom, a merchant risks overwhelming shoppers with visual boredom.
In this era of fashionable gray frames and fabrics, Anderson drops in a set with red cushions or blue cushions or even lime green cushions, “the bright, bold, vibrant colors” for “people that want to see something.”
Kensington Sectional from CabanaCoast.
Ottawa is in line with Montréal and Québec City to the northeast, and Toronto to its southwest. The design trend in these influential cities is heavily contemporary, thanks in part to Québec’s strong ties to France, the European continent, and Toronto’s status as a melting pot, an international city.
Anderson finds his customers’ tastes leaning to more contemporary styles these days, though traditional cast-aluminum products still sell well. Sometimes the two styles sell to the same customer.
“People aren’t afraid to mix furniture with a more traditional motif with a sectional that has really sharp lines,” he says.
In shade products, traditional styling touches are out. “I haven’t sold a valance on an umbrella in a couple of years now,” Anderson says.
Patio Comfort has established strong relationships with its manufacturers. “We keep product lines for long periods of time,” Anderson says. “I’m not changing a brand every year or two. We’re dedicated to (our) manufacturers, just as they have some dedication to us.”
Anderson has seen the value of sticking with highly regarded manufacturers that focus on quality; it pays off time and again. The proof is in repeat business. He often recognizes customers who made their first purchase of quality outdoor furniture from Patio Comfort when they were in their 40s. “Now,” Anderson says, “they’re approaching retirement and they’re changing things. They’re downsizing, changing décor, renovating. I’ve seen them come back two and three times.”
What happens to the furniture the retirees are replacing? Often, Anderson says, it goes to their adult children “who will use it and enjoy it.” Eventually, he adds, “they’ll come back to me and say, ‘We’re ready to pick out our own colors and stuff.’ It’s a good cycle.”
Driving north from Ottawa for an hour or so takes you to Cottage Country, a vast region of forests and lakes where urban residents love to get away for long summer weekends or perhaps the entire season.
Patio Comfort has outfitted decks and patios for many customers with cottages. Anderson notes that cottages in bygone eras tended to be simple, rustic cabins outfitted with hand-me-down furniture. A milk crate might have passed for a deck chair, but no longer. Cottages today usually lack no amenities and represent substantial real estate investments. Their owners want casual furnishings that “aesthetically look great for that setting,” Anderson says.
Patio Comfort’s delivery vans make frequent visits to Cottage Country. When a cottage is much more than an hour away, Patio Comfort uses a service to deliver furniture to its new home.
That, however, is the extent to which Patio Comfort will sell to an outlying area.
Anderson refuses to deal with long distance shoppers from Montréal or Toronto who are phone shopping for a better price. The reason is the inevitable service that comes after the sale. Patio Comfort isn’t able to provide service to a customer in a distant city; therefore, Anderson doesn’t want the sale.
Likewise, he doesn’t like it when far-away casual retailers sell product to customers in Patio Comfort’s trading area. When those customers need service and see that Patio Comfort sells the brand of casual furniture they purchased elsewhere, they show up with expectations of service. It makes for a disappointing situation all the way around.
“I get very upset with a lot of other people in my business (retailers),” Anderson says. “I get mad at the manufacturers that allow this, too.”
St. Tropez from Kingsley Bate.
Retailers and manufacturers that enable long-distance sales for short-term profits undercut merchants such as Patio Comfort, Anderson says. “Our company, our brick-and-mortar store, has been a family-oriented business for decades,” he explains. “That’s definitely not the type of service we want to offer our customers.”
Service at Patio Comfort begins with listening to customers, learning about their tastes and home, and helping them select casual furniture that will meet their needs and exceed their expectations. That means lots of customization.
Special orders account for upwards of 65% of sales, Anderson says. Some customers are happy to purchase off the floor or from the warehouse, but most customers want a custom experience. “They pick out their colors, they pick out their size, they pick out the materials they want,” he says.
Manufacturers’ rapid production times on special orders often enables Patio Comfort to satisfy customers with in-season delivery, even though the season is comparatively brief.
“The manufacturers are getting better with production times,” Anderson says. Many are able to ship orders in four or five weeks. “We can accommodate people here fairly quickly,” he says.
RATANA and CabanaCoast have a home court advantage when it comes to shipping orders quickly. These Canadian companies stock frames made offshore and are able to fill custom fabric orders rapidly.
Loyalty to products with a “Made in Canada” label sometimes gets lip service from shoppers, Anderson says, but country of origin isn’t as important as quality and value. Canadians, he says, understand that ours is a global economy. Components of casual furniture may be manufactured in China or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, then shipped to Canada or the United States for assembly.
Canadians are accepting of that, Anderson says. Even if they wanted to buy Canadian, sometimes a product simply isn’t available. Time was when sling furniture was made in Canada, but now, “I don’t know of a furniture manufacturer in Canada that makes sling furniture,” he says. Telescope products, made not so far away in Upstate New York, fill that need, he says, and Patio Comfort’s customers are OK with that.
Canadians also understand that, from time to time, their purchasing power will suffer when the Canadian dollar loses strength against the U.S. dollar. Eventually, however, they know the tide will turn and the advantage will favor their side of the equation. Until then, life must be lived and new casual furniture occasionally must be purchased.
“We have a premium because of the way we live here,” Anderson says. “We have a great standard of living. We have a great hospital system. Our infrastructure’s good. Our social programs are very good. These are part of living in Canada.”
So, too, is winter, which Anderson points out is a great time to buy and use certain types of casual furniture. Resin goods – such as Telescope’s Marine Grade Polymer (MGP) and furniture made by Canada’s own C.R. Plastic Products – are good year-round solutions that have particular benefits in the cold months. The furniture is virtually indestructible and doesn’t care how deep the snow is. So long as the predominant color isn’t white, resin furniture is easy to locate when it’s time to take a break from winter sports.
“We do ski. We do skate,” Anderson says. “There are needs for outdoor furniture in the cold months.”
Store Name: Patio Comfort, Poolarama and Burning Log
Address: 881 Richmond Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2A OG8
Owners: Derek Bourada, Steve Bourada
Key Executives: Paul Anderson (general manager)
Year Established: 1965
Web Site: patiocomfort.ca
Phone: (613) 728-1773
Number of Stores: One
Number of Employees: 16
Gross Annual Sales: >$1 million
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Advertising: Radio 30%,