The Cool Factor
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2019 Aaron Adams. icon spd.
Not many casual stores keep a piano in the showroom, but perhaps they should. Live music makes those evening social events at Keep It Casual so much more appealing.
Most casual furniture storeowners probably don’t keep up with the start of hunting season. The folks at Keep It Casual track hunting season like a bird dog on point. When hunters take to the field, it’s a good time to invite their spouses to come see what’s new in casual furniture, accessories, and gifts.
Minding details such as these are part of Keep It Casual’s turn-around.
Three years ago, the casual retailer in Tupelo, Mississippi, was just another run-of-the-mill outdoor furniture store. Sure, it offered top brands such as Summer Classics and Lloyd Flanders, but its rented quarters in a strip mall were run down and lacked pizzazz. The atmosphere just didn’t jibe with elegant merchandise and high-touch customer service.
Store owner Meredith Tollison, who grew up in the casual furniture business and who had run the shop since it opened in 2002, knew that Keep It Casual had to change to survive. A dowdy retail environment for top-flight outdoor furniture can no longer compete in this age of e-commerce, eye-candy marketing, and ever-expanding channels for look-alike goods at cutthroat prices.
Plus, Tollison was tired of the same-old same-old. Especially after surviving the Great Recession and the stressful years that followed.
(L to R) Bill Warren, Meredith Tollison, and Eric Wright.
“There were certain moments where I said, ‘I’m going to walk out that door tonight and I’m just not coming back tomorrow.’” She pauses. “I just wasn’t having fun anymore.”
Tollison could have closed shop and devoted herself to her other responsibilities, running the family’s commercial real estate holdings. She was contemplating her options one Friday afternoon when Bill Warren, an old family friend, stopped by. A long-time retail sales pro, well-connected throughout the community, Warren mentioned that he was thinking of taking a job with another Tupelo store.
Tollison’s next words surprised her and Warren. “Why don’t you come manage my store?” she asked.
An awkward pause followed. The friends decided to talk again after the weekend.
Warren returned to announce his decision. Sales is sales, he said. Even though his background was in giftware and clothing, he was ready for something new. “I think I’d like to give this a shot,” he recalls telling Tollison.
The chance meeting of old friends was the tipping point. “Everything fell into place all at once,” Tollison recalls. She resolved “to get serious about this reinvention.”
Tollison, a Georgetown graduate who spent a number of years in Boston before returning to her hometown, started searching for a smaller building that would lend itself to a more design-oriented business.
As luck would have it, she didn’t have to look far.
An iconic building, former home to a well-known jewelry store, came on the market. The 4,000 sq. ft., fortress-like building, with concrete walls 12 inches thick, was located within walking distance of Keep It Casual.
“It’s a building I’ve always loved,” she says. Its mansard roof gave it character in a funky, 1970s way. Furthermore, it had stories to tell. There’s the hole where the bulletproof glass took a round but didn’t shatter. There’s a walk-in vault, in which the jewelry store secured its merchandise after hours.
“We just needed a different environment to continue to work our magic,” Tollison says. In the former Diamond Brokers building, she found it.
Proof, if it’s needed, of the store’s success is that it now draws from a radius of 150 miles.
A Space Transformed
Rob Robinson, the Summer Classics sales representative for Keep It Casual, watched as the store downsized, refocused, and honed its edge. The relocated store, “totally transformed,” opened in spring 2017. The shop had to close for only a week while making the move.
“The way it’s merchandised is one of the best I’ve seen in the industry,” Robinson says. “It looks like one of the Summer Classics stores, but even better.”
Generous use of throw pillows creates the ambiance of a boutiquey, upscale, interior furnishings store. Glass showcase counters, a holdover from the building’s days as a diamond store, appropriately display arty giftware. Big mirrors, mounted on the wall at an angle, another holdover from the past, reflect light and color to jazz up the environment.
The drop ceiling was removed before the overhead structure was sprayed with a matte black finish. Underfoot, the “lovely malachite and burnt orange carpet” was pulled up to expose the concrete slab floor. Tollison had the gunk sanded off and left the imperfections before applying sealer for a “casual, industrial feel.”
Guests walk into an entrance foyer with a trickling fountain and burning candles. “All your senses are touched,” Tollison says. Summer Classics seating with pink flamingo cushions provided the initial “wow” factor on a hot fall afternoon. Elsewhere guests see deep seating cushions with a bold, contrasting welt. Keep It Casual presents its fashion-forward products confidently and by design.
“For so long,” Tollison says, “we felt like we just had to be safe. We stocked brown frames with beige cushions and fabulous throw pillows. And that worked. But something as simple as a wacky, contrast welt makes a statement.
“Sometimes people feel like they need permission to do something different like that. They need some sort of validation that it’s OK to step outside of that beige and brown and gray box.”
All the casual furniture is displayed in vignettes, but you’ll not find any vignette restricted to a single collection or manufacturer. The presentation is eclectic, with each item selected because it pairs well with its neighbors. It’s a curated, designer-like approach.
The mix-and-match strategy is to generate special orders, and it works. Tollison estimates that special orders account for about 70% of sales.
Tupelo has responded well to the reimagined Keep It Casual.
“Their numbers are going through the roof,” Robinson says. “From a sales perspective, they are on fire.”
Everywhere the eye goes, there’s something unique, something colorful, something interesting.
Tupelo, in addition to being the hometown of Elvis Presley, is known as a furniture-manufacturing center and for its regional furniture market. The population, however, is less than 40,000 – meaning that Keep It Casual must look to a broader base.
The shop has developed that market by strong word-of-mouth references, and advertising in high-end regional and statewide magazines.
“We have customers that come a long way,” Tollison says. “I’d say we easily draw from a 150-mile radius.”
Within that market, which ranges from deep into Alabama in the east to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta in the west, she says, “We have a lot of folks who have the available income to get what they want.”
Keep It Casual does tons of repeat business. A customer’s first purchase may be for a primary residence. Then they come back to furnish the Outdoor Room at their 5,000 sq. ft. lakefront cottage or condo on the sparkling beaches of Florida’s Panhandle. Keep It Casual also has outfitted more than a few football condos in Oxford, home of Ole Miss.
Another reason for the shop’s success: The staff of Keep It Casual never miss an opportunity to reach out, embrace, and honor Tupelo. Warren calls it “maintaining a presence.”
Between himself, Tollison, and longtime right-hand sales colleague Eric Wright, he says, “I think one of us is in every club in town.” They go to arts events and Chamber of Commerce meetings, and never miss an opportunity to “keep a finger on the pulse and be the first one to slide a card in someone’s hand at Rotary.”
Example: Warren met a woman at a garden club event who had him make a pre-sale design visit to her home in Oxford, some 40 miles away. That led to a chance meeting with a neighbor, who became a customer. When that sale was delivered, the scenario repeated itself. “So we got three addresses, on the same street, just by schmoozing,” Warren says.
Warren occasionally adds an extra piece or two of furniture onto the truck when making a delivery. The point, he explains, is to “just throw it out there” so the customer can see how it works. “A lot of times,” he says, “they don’t know they need it. I do.”
Tollison’s makeover vision for Keep It Casual was to position it as a warm, welcoming place for locals to drop by and socialize. They do. “We have a good time here,” Warren says. “We cut up.” On Saturday mornings, the store’s small service kitchen always has coffee and pastries and juice. Jazz plays on the sound system.
“We have people that just come to see us,” Warren says. “But I always find a way to get something in their bag before they leave.”
The shop has regular evening events, “little get-togethers,” Warren says, with hors d’oeuvres and punch, especially as the Christmas shopping season approaches. Other stores in the neighborhood also take part.
There’s really a good amount of casual furniture in the store, but it has been blended beautifully with lanterns, pillows, rugs, statues, dried flowers, mirrors, trays, and much more.
The evening gatherings are “highly anticipated,” Warren says. “A lot of people come and do their Christmas shopping. We’ve got boutique lines of candles, lighting, lots of quirky gifts. So far, we’ve been really successful.”
The staff at Keep It Casual know their customers’ purchase history as well as they know the individuals. When Warren and Tollison attend Casual Market Chicago, they’ve been known to see a new product and instantly think of someone who might like it. Warren might even take a photo and send it. “That goes a long way,” he says, “letting someone know you’re thinking about them.”
When the team at Keep It Casual can’t remember exactly what a customer purchased, the shop’s computer system can.
“Our system keeps up with the collections you buy, and your fabrics and finishes,” Wright says. “If you need a spring replacement or a foot cap, I can look up all the way from the very beginning of when we opened and get replacement parts.”
The Keep It Casual team understands that customers who purchase its high-quality outdoor furniture won’t need to replace it anytime soon. To keep them coming back, the shop keeps things fresh and exciting with accessories, much as an interior furnishings store might.
Warren ticks off the possibilities like an auctioneer. “There’s always going to be accessories,” he explains. Outdoor clocks. Outdoor TVs, which require outdoor consoles. Lighting. Tables. Fire pits. Even diffusers that spritz essential oils to repel mosquitos with non-toxic vapors. “We sell it over and over and over again, by the case,” he says.
The reinvention of Keep It Casual, Tollison says, is a never-ending process. She had a vision of “what I wanted the business to be like … a feel, even more so than a look … and then translating that into something my employees could understand and maintain.”
Some of the ideas she had simply didn’t work. She thought the store’s walls would be good to hang colorful outdoor art. But driving nails into the concrete walls to hang the art wasn’t so practical, nixing that idea.
Tollison initially thought she’d remove the store’s angled mirrors, only to find out she would have to destroy them to move them. “And,” she notes, “I’m entirely too superstitious to take a sledge hammer to mirrors. So we left them. Some things we decided to live with, and ended up loving.”
A Good Move
Tollison depends on part-timers (usually college students) to handle receiving and deliveries, which allows Warren and Wright to concentrate on taking care of customers.
Warren also drives the shop’s social media efforts, primarily on Facebook and Instagram. He understands the best times of day to make a post to fit the rhythms of people’s lives. He’s been known to post a photo that only shows a portion of an item, challenging viewers to guess what it might be. He understands the power of a tease.
“It’s a good way to cast one stone and make a lot of ripples,” he says. “If you’ll stay excited and convey that to your customer, they’ll get excited.”
Keep It Casual naturally staged a big grand opening event at its new location. Representatives of the Chamber of Commerce came, along with elected officials and the press. Tollison invited the former owner of the building and his family. She also reached out to about 50 of the store’s best customers with a postcard invitation and followed that up with a personal phone call.
Perhaps the most important person attending was her father, Bill Deas. Her dad is well known in the casual industry as the man behind Casual Furnishings International, initially the less-than-truckload distributor for products imported by Erwin & Sons. Decades ago he had a patio store in Tupelo called Patio Place, as well as other retail furniture interests.
Tollison was managing the wholesale business with her dad in 2002 when he said, “We need to open an outdoor store. … Oh, and you’re going to run it.”
Tollison now says she had “no intention of doing” that, but she did.
Her dad introduced her to the industry and executives with whom she’s built decades-long business relationships and friendships. At Casual Market Chicago, they ask about her father and even her dog. Much like Keep It Casual’s carefully nurtured relationships with its customers, the casual industry remains relationship oriented in an era when most business is merely transactional.
“To feel like the owners of these phenomenal companies are accessible and they know me and they care, that’s significant,” she says.
Tollison empathizes with the adult offspring of successful retailers who are reluctant to take over the family business. She had been that way herself at one time.
It was like being handed the torch, she says, “and I felt obligated to take it. Now I’m glad I did. It’s been an incredible experience, quite bumpy at times.
“But now I feel like I’ve taken it and made it into what I’ve wanted it to be for quite some years. I think we’re doing something really cool.”
Store Name: Keep It Casual
Address: 106 South Industrial Rd. Tupelo, MS 38801
Owner: Meredith Deas Tollison
Year Established: 2002
Web Site: www.KeepItCasual.com
Email: Click here for email
Phone: (662) 840-6145
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: Patio – Summer Classics, Lloyd Flanders, OW Lee, Hanamint, Woodard, Lane Venture, Homecrest, Kingsley Bate, KNF-Neille Olson, Oxford Garden, Seaside Casual, Breezesta, Watermark Living, Three Birds Casual.