The Boys of Summer are Heading into the Home Stretch

“The Boys of Summer are Heading into the Home Stretch” article by Martin Roberts was recently posted on Patio & Hearth Blog:

Imagine all that would have to change if baseball became a year-round sport across the country. For one thing, peanuts, hotdogs and Cracker Jacks wouldn’t sound particularly appealing in December in any stadium located beyond the South. For another, players would probably have plenty to say about lost down-time, and increased risk of injury caused by continual play. Clearly, for such a game-plan to work, plenty about America’s pastime would need to be rethought.

It’s the kind of conundrum currently faced by our industry’s own boys of summer: Patio stores. Once a purely seasonal business, with retailers either closed half the year or morphing into purveyors of holiday trees and decorations, the outdoor market has been radically changing into a year-round undertaking. Not because of anything the players have done, but because of the fans.

Stressed-out, over-worked consumers today seek the lifestyles they experience on vacation (on the off-chance they can actually take one), or the relaxed environments they see in the movies or on TV, or even while surfing their iPads and magazines while awaiting a doctor’s appointment. They long to escape from sitting behind a screen all day, to literally stop and smell the roses. They want to experience the mouthwatering aromas they remember from childhood cook-outs, to squeeze toasted marshmallows between chocolate and graham crackers, to remember the sweet-tart zing of ice-cold tea and lemonade on a hot day.

Striking Out

Frankly, we’re failing them. When it comes to the outdoor category, retailers have not been keeping pace with consumers’ needs and desires. “She” loves the idea of gathering family and friends together in a manageable and healthy way, whether by the pool, in the sunroom, or around the outdoor kitchen on the patio. “He” enjoys assuming the role of bartender and barbeque chef, but seeks more recognition and creative ways to perform with his peers. But, nowhere can they find all they need to make their ideal outdoor space a reality.

Certainly, garden centers offer some products, but are typically populated by diminishing numbers of older consumers and are closing at alarming rates. Big box operations mainly focus on cheap imports, and the local furniture retailer doesn’t understand how to offer something different from the mass merchants. Meanwhile, the appliance store can only fulfill part of the need. No one yet knows how to compete with the Internet, and astoundingly, many patio stores are still closed for half the year. So what’s a shopper to do?

This opportunity to rethink and reshape an entire category of consumer products is similar to the challenge my team faced in the early ‘90s, when book stores were not providing consumers with the experiences they desired. We changed the game at Barnes & Noble back then by adding seating areas and cafés, essentially creating “a third place,” that wasn’t home or work, but a relaxing escape. It’s a form of retail that has worked well for more than 25 years.

As I see it, we’re standing at much the same place in the indoor/outdoor category now. The solution is to create a branded web and retail store that provides a seamless shopping, browsing and entertaining environment that provides consumers with products, services, a fulfilling visit in a year-round “greenhouse.”

Knocking it out of the Park

Visualize, if you will, a building retrofit from a distressed retail space or converted industrial space. Even a ground-up steel pre-fab building would work with minimal finishes and concrete floors, and roller shutters for transition space. Picture a stimulating environment with salvaged architectural pieces, repurposed woods and metal objects with innovatively displayed products. Add an indoor/outdoor café or coffee house to encourage morning and lunch traffic, and longer “dwell time” in-store, with offerings that speak to the specific season (all of them!).

Inside, merchandise ranges from indoor/outdoor furniture to appliances and outdoor kitchens with built-in wall ovens for year round use along with products for sale from key luxury brands. Gift items could include spa products, planters and pots with terrariums and appropriate tools. And oh, the services! Shoppers may choose from interior and exterior design, garden planning, outdoor kitchen design and consulting, project management and certified suppliers, and a host of classes and exciting events aimed at all age groups and demographics. All are continually touted via the online blog and social media. Can you already see the post focused on teaching kids how to build terrariums? How about the class on setting outdoor pavers or cooking the Thanksgiving turkey outside, or the garden tea supporting a local charity?

It’s a vision for a new kind of outdoor store, an innovative place offering everything under one roof, year-round. In many ways it will require changing the way we look at the outdoor category and it will take committed management to implement. It’s also an idea whose time is come that could change the way the game is played entirely. All I can say is, “Swing, batter, batter, swing!”