Kittle’s focuses on ‘best in class’ outdoor furniture lines

Kittle’s customers in Indiana knew what they wanted, so Kittle’s delivered.

After a 25-year-absence, the Indianapolis-based retailer brought back outdoor furnishings five years ago. Then the Covid-19 pandemic led to a reintroduction and a rethinking of virtually every area of the 90-year-old retailer’s business.

Kittle’s, which is privately owned, is known in the Indiana marketplace for offering the latest and largest selection of home furnishing styles — in prices for every budget — for the living room, dining room, bedroom and home office. It boasts of the largest design studio in the state, along with rug and outdoor patio galleries. More than 70% of its inventory is made or assembled in the United States, much of it in Indiana.

After a shutdown early in the pandemic, Kittle’s reopened with fewer vendors on its floor and more room for shoppers to maneuver.

But the effects of the pandemic led to some retail soul-searching.

 “A huge challenge was reinventing ourselves as we re-opened after the (initial pandemic shutdown),” says Chris Nordhoff, corporate visual director and senior buyer. “A companywide vision was to look at the performance and relationship of each vendor to determine, ‘How many vendors do we really need?’ The result was a reduced vendor floor slot count in all categories to help create a more open shopping environment. Criteria in making these decisions was based upon a review of sales, profit margins, lead times, quality, rep relationships and positioning within the marketplace. This, in turn, simplified the buying process and, more importantly, the consumer selling process, providing a better customer experience. “

Chris Nordoff

Outdoor producers that made the cut include Armen Living, Bernhardt, Castelle, Jensen Leisure, Lloyd Flanders, Polywood, Treasure Garden and Woodard.

“Each of these vendors was chosen as being the best of class within their specialty type of outdoor furniture,” Nordhoff says. “That and the retailer/vendor relationship are very important.”

The evaluation led the company to expand outdoor from its flagship store in Indianapolis to its five outlying stores in Indiana in Avon, Bloomington, Greenwood, Fort Wayne and Lafayette. (The retailer also has an outlet store in Fishers.) The biggest focus in outdoor is now on recycled plastic products, which represent half of all the retailer’s overall outdoor sales. Another quarter of its main outdoor gallery is woven and a quarter is aluminum and teak.

Supply chains and changing strategies

Like many retailers, Kittle’s has been dealing with long lead times from vendors, especially for special-ordered products.

The retailer, Nordhoff says, “has a long history of strong special-order sales (for all categories) — those in which customers choose the fabrics and finishes to best suit their needs. That business model had to pivot to accommodate the consumer wanting immediate delivery. We began to selectively stock product in most all categories, at all price points. With outdoor, up to 80% of our sales were special orders, but we didn’t want to walk any customers so we began stocking, minimally at the best price points and heavier with good and better goods. It’s proven to be quite successful.“ 

To market itself and highlight its products, Kittle’s uses TV, social media, email, direct mail, billboards and digital signage, in-store signage, vendor kiosks, configurators. Its website now offers e-commerce and is continually being updated. 

In outdoor, Kittle’s follows a product formula that works for other categories, too.

As a full-line furniture store, Kittle’s encourages shoppers looking for living room or bedroom furniture to shop for outdoor, too.

“Since Kittle’s has a good-better-best assortment in all categories, with a focus on better, I followed that philosophy in outdoor, too,” Nordhoff says. “Shown are a few opening price points, some best items and a lot of better product. Within the outdoor assortment, we offer several options of furniture — woven, aluminum, iron, teak, teak alternatives, fully upholstered and recycled plastic. This helps us over all bases as most competitors do not offer this broad of an assortment. Another very important differentiator is the implementation of the outdoor specialist, having senior selling consultants who spend the majority of their time in the outdoor gallery and are well-versed on the vendors, special-order process, trends and lead time availability.”

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Sell it on purpose

Kittle’s is intentional in its approach to sales. It merchandises outdoor by vendor, which makes it easier for the selling team to quickly reference special-order price books, fabric and finish sections — and which effectively tells a consistent features and benefits story for each vendor. The recycled plastic category is purposefully shown outside in a courtyard adjacent to the indoor gallery.   

To sell the product, Kittle’s gets weekly stock availability reports or researches them on dealers’ websites, so it can tell consumers what’s available, give them lead times and explain any delays.

To compete with casual specialty retailers, Kittle’s uses the rest of the store to help convince customers to buy outdoor.

“Since Kittle’s is a full-line furniture store, we seize the opportunity to convert those customers already shopping for living room, bedroom furniture, etc. … into outdoor customers, as well,” Nordhoff says. “Another difference maker is the fact that our customers can have peace of mind knowing we have in-house warehouse and delivery personnel. The entire shopping experience (selection, buying, follow-up, receiving, delivery) is handled and processed 100% by Kittle’s employees.”

Nordhoff’s advice for other full-line retailers who carry outdoor or who are considering it?

“Talk to other retailers across the country,” Nordhoff says. “Ask what categories and vendors they offer and why. Which are the most successful? Shop the competition, not just the big boxes and well-known places, but the independents, too. Know your marketplace and make decisions that will differentiate you from the rest. And schedule a meeting with the store manager and selling staff to get their perspective.”

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