Entertainment Is Key
By Tom Lassiter
PhotoS: ©2020 AJ MAST. www.AJMast.com.
Travel time to see Santa at the North Pole is seven and one-half minutes. Not by SpaceX rocket, not by reindeer-powered sleigh, but by the Sullivan Santa Express.
A Sullivan Santa Express train leaves from Central Station, right outside the restaurant known as Sully’s Grill, every 15 minutes.
Seating for the family in a private car is by reservation only, so there are no lines, no fidgeting, no tears. Parents remain happily dry-eyed, knowing that they won’t be pressured to buy a photo of the kids squirming in Santa’s lap. At this North Pole, Mom and Dad take the pictures.
Once the Christmas lists have been shared with St. Nick, families re-board the train for the ride back to Central Station. Day or night, more magic awaits at Sullivan Hardware & Garden.
This scene played out 6,000 times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s as many bookings as the schedule would allow, even with four trains running up to 12 hours a day. Each family paid $50 to $60 to ride the train and see the kids get lap time with Santa.
You do the math.
Along with a guaranteed holiday memory, each family was treated to a rolling tour of what must be one of the most vibrant, fun destination shopping locations in the Midwest.
Mom saw The Yellow House, a century-old farmhouse chock-full of gifts, decorative items, and fashion apparel. Dad saw Big Green Eggs and Weber grills, and the place where cooking classes are held. Everyone saw the nearly 200 artificial Christmas trees, the cut live trees, the seasonal greenery, and greenhouses prepping plants for spring.
The only specialty product line not on display during the holidays was casual furniture. What remained from last season was packed away to make room for Christmas. Soon the warehouse will be brimming again, refreshed with containers from Hanamint, NorthCape and other vendors.
That twinkle in Santa’s eye? It’s a low-wattage glimmer compared to the one Pat Sullivan has – and it’s there year-round.
Thirty years ago, when Pat Sullivan purchased the business his dad had founded in 1954, Sullivan Hardware & Garden was a typical hometown retailer of necessities trading on service and goodwill. On the north side of Indianapolis, it was the place to go to get keys cut, gallons of paint, plumbing repair parts, and plantings for the yard.
Business was still strong when a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse located nearby. The better selection of plants at the Sullivan garden center gave shoppers sufficient reason to trade with the locally-owned store. Sullivan could compete on that turf and win. “I could see that’s what people came to us for,” he says.
It was a different story on the hardware side. Sullivan’s would never be able to go head-to-head on price or selection. Much of the hardware business that remained, he says, was “sympathy business.” Customers coming in for a box of nails or washers often would say, “We always bought our hardware from your daddy.”
“I still rang up the sympathy business,” Sullivan says, “but that really wasn’t what I was craving.”
Sullivan wanted products that would allow the store to not just compete but crush the competition. He wanted to offer products that would establish Sullivan Hardware & Garden as the premier source for those goods in the market. Those products would draw greater numbers of customers and generate higher revenues and profits than screws, bolts, paintbrushes, and fertilizer.
At the same time, the higher revenues and profits would allow Sullivan Hardware & Garden to maintain its historic product lines and continue to offer those necessities, necessities that drive foot traffic to the store every day of the year.
At a friend’s suggestion, Sullivan traveled about the Midwest, visiting other large, successful garden centers to get ideas. From his research he developed a list of new categories “that we wanted to do better than everybody else.”
The list included:
- A bigger, broader selection of plants. “Plants were a natural,” he says.“We were already doing plants.”
- Artificial Christmas trees to supplement sales of fresh cut trees.
- Patio furniture. “Good quality, mid-price patio furniture.”
- A better selection of grills. “We wanted to blow that up.”
- Gifts and decorative items.
- A fireplace department.
Sullivan made the transition in 2004. The expansion of the product lineup coincided with the construction of new, larger facilities. The retailer moved into a 14,000 sq. ft. store, and constructed a 10,000 sq. ft. greenhouse.
Most retailers probably would take a gingerly approach to such an undertaking. Test sales in a new category, maybe two, then expand after a season or two of market acceptance.
That wasn’t Sullivan’s approach. His gut told him to go all in. Enter the new categories with a splash. Make an impression. Go big or go home.
For example, other retailers in town might put up a dozen artificial trees. A Big Box store might display 20. Sullivan was not about to let the competition offer a greater selection.
Sullivan Hardware, which had never sold an artificial Christmas tree, bought $70,000 worth of inventory that first year. “We put up 70 artificial trees” throughout the store, giving shoppers options and ideas.
“We instantly had the biggest selection in our city,” Sullivan says.
The tree gambit worked. The trees sold well and drew lots of traffic. The selection grew year-after-year.
Sullivan Hardware & Garden mounted 170 artificial trees for the 2019 Christmas season. Customers often travel as much as two hours to shop Sullivan’s artificial tree selection.
Wasn’t it a challenge to take on so many new categories at once?
Not at all, Sullivan says.
“You’ve got to remember,” he explains, “I was coming from hardware,” not a specialty retail business. “Hardware is plumbing, electrical, housewares, fasteners, building supplies. It goes on and on and on.”
When you’re already dealing with thousands of SKUs and a diverse product lineup, adding a few new categories is not a problem. “It may seem like a big list to you,” Sullivan says. “But it was pretty small to me, after trying to figure out how to do plumbing, how to do the paint department, and all the different things that are in a hardware store.”
The only tweak that didn’t work out was the fireplace and hearth department.
“I don’t know why we weren’t successful at it,” Sullivan says. “Everything else just skyrocketed. We finally just got out of it,” leaving more space for casual furniture and Christmas.
Sullivan Hardware & Garden eventually opened two more Indianapolis locations, but the original store on the north side of town remains the largest and most prominent.
Pat (at right) hosting a radio broadcast from Slaw Fest.
There’s a good chance that people in the Indianapolis media market who have never been to Sullivan Hardware & Garden know Pat Sullivan’s voice. They might even recognize him on the street.
Sullivan has had a radio show for almost a quarter-century. He co-hosts a four-hour “Home & Garden” program each Saturday morning on WIBC-FM. A recent topic focused on caring for patio furniture during the winter. The radio show is a paid gig.
Sullivan also regularly provides helpful tips on home maintenance and outdoor living during regular Sunday morning features on WTHR, Channel 13 in Indianapolis.
Sullivan isn’t paid for these TV appearances, nor does he pay the station. The “Home & Garden with Pat Sullivan” segments make clear his relationship with Sullivan Hardware & Garden, and segments often are recorded at the store.
Recent segments looked at preventing house fires, plumbing preparation for the holidays, and turkey cooking tips.
Sullivan has a comfortable, easy-going, on-screen presence. His delivery is warm and conversational yet authoritative. When discussing outdoor living products, he’ll talk about the features and benefits of certain materials and categories versus others, leaving it up to the viewer to decide which is best. He doesn’t mention brands.
After watching a handful of three-minute TV segments online, one thing is clear: Whatever this guy is selling, people will buy. He’s a natural.
A sample of “Charcuter-Slaw” (where charcuterie and coleslaw meet) at Slaw Fest.
Sullivan’s strategy to distinguish his business from other competitors, especially Big Box stores, worked well. But the rise of e-commerce provided an even greater challenge.
“None of us saw the Internet coming,” Sullivan says.
His counter-offensive was not to push the store into online sales. The challenge, as he saw it, was to convince people “to get out of their pajamas and come into the store.” Products alone weren’t sufficient, he reasoned. Good prices weren’t sufficient. People need motivation to take a break from surfing the Internet and shopping with one click.
The motivating factor, Sullivan reasoned, was entertainment.
“We decided we needed to entertain them while they’re here, and make it a cool place to hang out,” he says. “So that’s what we’ve created. Sullivan Hardware & Garden launched its entertainment offensive about five years ago.
The space where cooking and grilling classes were held was transformed into a restaurant. Sully’s Grill is open six days a week for lunch and dinner. The casual dining menu with sliders, wings, hot dogs, and pulled pork is grill-focused, of course. Item descriptions reflect a good-natured sense of humor that seems to permeate the place. Who could resist Sully’s Chips ($5), kettle chips “seasoned with a secret blend of spices developed by the guys in the electrical department?”
Beer and wine are available, and customers are welcome to stroll about with beverages and shop.
“Saturday nights are busy now,” Sullivan says. “We’re open until 10pm, because it’s date night. A husband and wife come in. They’ll grab a beer or wine and just wander around. Maybe before dinner, maybe after.”
Nothing puts people in the mood to buy casual furniture, Sullivan says, like relaxing with a favorite beverage.
As a Big Green Egg dealer, Sullivan Hardware hosts an annual EggFest that draws about 1,600 people. As Big Green Egg dealers know, it’s a great, fun event.
But why limit the fun to just one event a year?
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Sullivan Hardware hosted its annual Turkey Fest. About 2,000 people turn out each year to get turkey-cooking tips and see cooking demos on products from the Big Green Egg, Traeger, Weber, and Broil King. For those who prefer a DIY approach to cooking the bird outdoors, there’s also a demo of Trash Can Turkey. (This apparently is a thing; Google it.)
Sullivan Hardware & Garden held its third annual Slaw Fest in 2019. According to Sullivan, it is the first (and perhaps only) festival dedicated to the celebration of cole slaw.
About 400 people showed up and paid $10 to sample 25 varieties of slaw. “We have slaw wontons and all kinds of crazy stuff,” Sullivan says. Half of the proceeds were donated to the Salvation Army.
Ladies Night at Sullivan Hardware last September drew about 500 women. There’s beer, wine, and food, plus decorating seminars. Invitations go out to the 15,000 people on the store’s customer-rewards list. “It’s a wild one,” Sullivan says.
Entertainment is serious business and sometimes requires serious investment. Sullivan Santa Express, which first ran in 2015, has grown from one train to four. The most recently purchased unit, with an engine and four passenger cars, cost about $70,000, Sullivan said. Engineers must be hired and trained, and the trains absolutely must run on time to accommodate the tightly scheduled ticket holders. The 2019 season required a team of seven Santas, with two usually on duty in separate houses on the property.
Cocktails among the casual furniture at Ladies Night.
Sullivan Santa Express ran several North Pole trips for adults only and, after Christmas, staged a series of North Pole Comedy Club shows featuring comedian Ross Bennett.
Memories of his childhood in the 1960s, and visits to Indianapolis department stores to see Santa, prompted Sullivan to bring Santa and the North Pole to his store. He knew that families would want to create those moments with their children, but he also wanted to eliminate the frustrations he remembered.
A ticket good for a certain time would eliminate lines and waiting, making parents and children happy. There’s no need for a photographer; everyone carries a cellphone camera to snap the kids on Santa’s lap. Plus, mom and dad have already paid for the train ride, and Santa. Sullivan reasoned that hitting them up again for a photo just didn’t seem fair.
The community’s enthusiastic response proved him right. Online tickets for the 2019 Sullivan Santa Express went on sale on November 1. “We sold 1,700 tickets in 14 minutes,” Sullivan says. “Fifty percent of the tickets were sold in about eight hours.”
(Pause here and think about that. We’re talking about a pint-size train and Santa Claus, not the Rolling Stones.)
One house used by Santa during the Christmas season serves as an event venue during the rest of the year. “We have wedding showers, birthday parties, baby showers, literally every day of each weekend,” Sullivan says.
Clearly, Sullivan Hardware misses few opportunities to draw people to the complex.
When people visit Sullivan Hardware & Garden to see Santa, attend a baby shower, or to purchase a quart of white latex or five pounds of grass seed, they catch a glimpse of the wide variety of home and outdoor living products available.
Sooner or later they buy stuff, including lots of casual furniture.
“Chopped” container garden contest at Ladies Night.
Sullivan Hardware & Garden moved about 40 containers of casual furniture in 2019. The retailer carries products by a handful of manufacturers – Hanamint, NorthCape, Berlin Gardens, and ScanCom.
Sales of patio furniture generated about $4.2 million, Sullivan says.
The positioning of Sullivan Hardware in the casual furniture business remains the same as it was when he entered the category in 2004. The aim is to offer mid-priced products of excellent quality, better than furniture at Big Box stores, with a better selection and immediate availability.
Sullivan Hardware & Garden doesn’t chase after designer business. Nor does it dive deep into special orders, providing endless variations of frame colors and fabrics. But it does offer customization options that apparently satisfy customers to the tune of more than $4 million annually.
People often shop for new casual furniture when they have a pressing need, Sullivan says. The reason may be a graduation party or similar special occasion, and it is imminent. Perhaps just days away.
Telling the customer that ordering frames and cushions will take six or eight weeks “doesn’t get them to pull the trigger,” Sullivan says.
So Sullivan Hardware offers this solution: cushions in four stocked colors or loaners.
If the customer wants something other than the four stocked colors, Sullivan delivers the furniture with loaner cushions. An order is placed for the customer’s chosen cushion fabric. A few weeks later, when the cushions are ready, Sullivan’s calls the customer to return to the store to swap the loaner cushions for the custom order.
“That sells so much furniture,” Sullivan says.
Is it a hassle to steam clean the loaner cushions when they are turned in? Maybe. But the return is well worth the effort. Remember, he says, “It sells a lot.”
At the end of the season, Sullivan Hardware cleans the loaner cushions one more time and slips them onto in-stock frames. The outdoor furniture is displayed at closeout prices, making the warehouse ready for fresh containers of new season products.
Sullivan acknowledges that the niche he’s created sidesteps the highest end of the market, and he’s OK with that. “We feel like there’s a lot more people who are going to spend $3,000 or $4,000 than there are who will spend $20,000 or $30,000,” he says.
Sullivan Hardware occasionally writes five-figure orders, but the average ticket “is in that $3,000 to $5,000 range.”
The store is looking into expanding its grill offering to open an angle on the outdoor kitchen business. Sullivan is investigating a Midwest company that makes modular cabinets for outdoor kitchens. That, and a planned 3,000 sq. ft. expansion to make more covered space for grills and outdoor furniture may soon give shoppers something new to discover.
That’s an important element of Pat Sullivan’s success. There’s this “constant thing,” he says, “of getting people to come in and wander around.”
Eventually those wanderers see something that captures their imagination, something that will spice up their Outdoor Room or freshen their garden, and they buy.
Sullivan remembers a comment posted on his company’s website. “Sometimes,” the person wrote, “when I’m having a bad day, I just come over and walk around.”
Sullivan savors the memory.
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to capture.”
Store Name: Sullivan Hardware & Garden
Locations: 6955 N. Keystone Ave, Indianapolis, IN
Owner: Pat Sullivan
Year Established: 1954
Phone: (317) 255-9230
Number of Stores: Three
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: $13.5 million
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 2.8%
Advertising: Radio 30%, TV 50%, Other 20%