Elegant Outdoor Living of Bonita Springs, Florida, was one of two stores that took top honors in the Apollo Awards, presented by the International Casual Furnishings Association earlier this summer.
For Stephanie Stegman, merchandise manager and buyer for the three-store retailer, the award means a lot, especially since the store has been nominated 11 times in the past. It means even more because the store’s founders, Tom and Debbie Stegman, were involved in the founding of the ICFA.
“This award is personal and a huge win for our family business,” Stegman says. “Being recognized as the country’s No. 1 multistore outdoor furniture retailer is an incredible feeling, and it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Elegant Outdoor Living family — all of our employees are part of the EOL family. We are proud to bring stylish, high-quality outdoor furniture and accessories to our customers at affordable prices, and we will continue to do our best to provide them with the best possible shopping experience.”
Moving down South
Elegant Outdoor Living has an interesting history. Now with three stores in Florida — Bonita Springs, Naples and Sarasota — it had an earlier life, in a way, as a chain of outdoor furnishings stores called the Patio & Hearth Shoppe in Indiana and Ohio.
After 30 years in the business, Tom and Debbie Stegman fell in love with Southwest Florida and planned to retire there, for the blue skies, the warm sunshine and the fact that tee times are almost never canceled on account of snow.
But they missed working. After some gentle arm-twisting, their son, Nate, who was general manager of the Patio & Hearth Shoppes, and his wife, Stephanie, who was a buyer at Frontgate, agreed to join them in opening Elegant Outdoor Living in 2010.
Florida is a very different market than the Midwest. While its climate is great year-round for outdoor furnishings, the unrelenting sunlight and the salt air in coastal areas can be harsh. The Stegmans talked to manufacturers and took other steps to learn what materials best survive in the climate and which architectural styles Florida homeowners favor.
Shifting inventory patterns
Elegant Outdoor Living usually has an annual meeting each October to kick off the main selling season, and the Stegmans are planning something special to celebrate their award and the retail team’s hard work.
Right now, the retailer is getting ready to receive its first round of new products for the 2022-23 season, while still waiting on orders from early buys from 2021. The retailer carries a wide range of brands, from Azzurro Living, Bernhardt and Brown Jordan to Lane Venture, Mamagreen and Oriental Weavers to Sunset West, Tucci and Vanguard.
That’s because its inventory planning has completely flipped, from a 75% custom order/25% stock ratio to a 75% stock/25% custom order mix. Stegman says that special orders are starting to trend upward again, but the store is still keeping stock on hand for those who need quick deliveries.
“For the past three years, we have seen our business model and consumer buying habits drastically change,” she says. “Customers want everything right now and are always asking if items are in stock. No one wants to wait 20-plus weeks. Our business has always catered to showing collections with a small quantity of stock in our warehouse because our clientele wanted to change frames, fabrics and configurations. Now we are buying products that consumers want right now. Instead of showing several collections from a manufacturer we now show fewer collections but back up those collections. We are buying into the collections we know sell well in our areas.”
“We have had a lot of success in balancing out the stock and backing up throughout the year so we are never out,” she continues. “We always have something to replace a spot on the floor. We will see what this year brings but we are ready with stock and look forward to welcoming our customers back to the area.”
And what will the future hold in the next year or two?
“Honestly, who knows?” Stegman says. “The past three years have been questionable for everyone. All we can do is be prepared without having too much or not enough. Knowing our customers and watching our area and market is key. Last year, we knew it would be a huge stock year because of what we saw the previous year and how our customers were purchasing. In the past couple of months, we have seen an uptick in custom orders but the lead times are still delayed, so I think stock will be important again through this year.”
“Price is also starting to come into play,” she adds. “Last year, no one asked for discounts. They just needed the furniture that was in stock. Now, we are seeing more negotiations on price. We have to listen to our customers and understand what they need. We always have, and I know that is why we have continued to be successful in this market.”