Guest Editorial

A Change in Direction Can Lead to Urban Diversions

Today, many people are falling off their career paths due to tough economic times. Although it was my choice, my career path, too, got diverted, and that has been the best thing that could have happened. I spent years working on the manufacturing side of the patio/casual-furniture industry, first with Grosfillex (a manufacturer of commercial resin furniture) as regional sales manager on the East Coast before transferring to the West Coast.

Later, I worked as a co-manager of a store specializing in outdoor furniture and indoor casual furniture. After that, I got a job with Lloyd/Flanders, where I spent 12 years, working first as a sales manager before holding the positions of vice president of sales and vice president of sales and marketing. It was there that I started designing furniture.

Taking the Plunge

Today, I’m back in retail, after opening Urban Diversions in Traverse City, Mich., in August 2008 with my wife, Teresa. Here, I design my own furniture and am able to turn my visions into reality.

When I left Lloyd/Flanders in 2007, the economy was a little shaky, but we had made the commitment to the new business, so it was a little late to turn back then. Our first few months were great. Today, while traffic has slowed, it is holding up despite the downturn. I attribute our success to our products, service, and unique marketing approach.

On-air Urban Diversions

We have our own radio station through our Web site. We recruit various notable industry guests to visit our talk show to discuss a topic. The interview is recorded and broadcast on our Web site. Visitors to the site can listen to the broadcast or read a transcript. They send their comments and questions back to us, from which we start a dialog. This tells us where the trends are and what they are. In short, we have created a social network via Internet—a live talk format to share ideas and provoke discussion.

Through our radio show, we found that homeowners are looking for two things from us: green products and products made in the United States. Urban Diversions can deliver on both counts. I design both indoor and outdoor furniture using only reclaimed wood. I recently designed a contemporary Adirondack chair using the redwood rain gutters that came off a greenhouse that was torn down locally.

Communicating the Green Message
Promoting your sustainable products can be tricky. Our product line is a mixture of antiques, custom upholstery, and outdoor furniture. When talking sustainability, with the likes of Brown Jordan or Lloyd/Flanders, we tell customers that we carry the best. If you buy the best, you won’t be throwing it in a landfill in a few years.

At present, my own designs represent about five percent of our sales. My goal is to get them to 50 percent of sales, and I’m working on 12 new designs right now. All designs are unique unto themselves. Designs are limited by how much lumber is available.

Getting Out the Word

We market ourselves via electronic, out-of-the-box tactics. The Web has the ability to introduce your company’s products and services to customers around the world. In fact, we use it for our press releases. We posted a press release on PRWeb and received 45,000 hits from editors worldwide. They link to our site and post an article about the product, which ultimately drives consumers to us.

What print advertising we do is limited to high-end magazines. We don’t talk price. Our Web site, because it is akin to a brick-and-mortar store, is the only place we list prices. We have run color, full-page ads in the front of Traverse: Northern Michigan’s Magazine, a regional high-end publication, and have received responses from seven states. You can’t beat those kinds of results, which is why we do not advertise in traditional newsprint. We’re taking our advertising dollars to another level, which we’ve found is very productive.

Sell Value, Not Price

Judging from consumers’ reactions to Urban Diversions since its opening, we’re doing something right, as a specialty retailer. As time goes on, the gap between specialty stores and big-box stores will only continue to widen. To distance yourself from the big-box stores, I recommend promoting value and avoiding price as your primary selling tool.

Many retailers think that they can compete with the big-box stores on price. They can’t. I have Lloyd/Flanders on the floor because of its quality. The weave is very detailed. You don’t get the neat, tailored look with the larger strands. Point that out, and you can steer the conversation away from price. If specialty retailers are to survive in this economy, their one challenge is to become better at selling value versus advertising price.

Prepping for the Upturn

Fortunately, we’ve had few challenges since opening the business; the one we’ve had has been big—the economy. With the economy as it is, it has been a scary time to be in a brand-new business. The reaction we’ve received, however, has been self-rewarding and encouraging. Now, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

People are postponing purchases now, but in three to four months, people will want to start living their lives again. I base that prediction on how much traffic we’re getting. Customers revisit our store three or four times. That tells me that they enjoy what we are doing; they just need a confidence boost to spend money. When that happens, we will be ready for it. Already, we’re bringing in more stock so that we can move forward rapidly when the tide turns.

In the meantime, I would advise anyone to keep on track. We are not doing anything differently based on the economy. We’re doing things differently because we are different, not based upon what the stock market is doing on any given day.

I’ve talked to several retailers who are down in the dumps, and I say, “Hey, we’ve got nowhere to go but up now.” Present yourself as optimistic. People who look downtrodden and beaten up rarely afford themselves optimal results. Be positive, be patient, and prosper.


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