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A Sound Business Strategy

Nestled in the hills of Southern California’s west San Fernando Valley (just 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles) is Woodland Casual, a family-owned casual-furniture store that has been serving residents in and around its hometown of Woodland Hills, Calif., for 40 years.

As owners of this picture-perfect neighborhood retail store, Michael and Mary Simon have worked hard to build its reputation. They are content to keep their upscale outdoor-furniture business small and focused on meeting the needs of their longtime customers. While this may sound less than ambitious to some, especially in retail-rich Los Angeles, it is this very fact that has helped Woodland Casual remain strong in today’s uncertain marketplace.

The store’s beginning dates to the mid-1960s, when shop owner Dave Belsky ran a popular patio store in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Called the Cottage Shop, it specialized in patio and unfinished furniture. Business was booming, so Belsky opened a second location in Woodland Hills in 1967. After two years, Belsky decided to sell the Woodland Hills store to Michael Simon, who was the manager of the original Cottage Shop at the time.

Michael and his wife, Mary, were thrilled at the opportunity and jumped into their new venture with enthusiasm. They changed the name of the store to Woodland Casual and began to transform it into the store of their dreams. The Simons’ initial challenge was to build up clientele in an area that was not what one would call a bustling retail center: It was primarily orange groves and a few affluent neighborhoods.

One established fact was that local residents had money; most owned sprawling homes worth well over $1 million. To appeal to their customer base, the Simons methodically began to revamp the store’s image and inventory, upgrading its lower-quality furniture to better quality. Eventually, they began stocking only products from high-end manufacturers. By the 1980s, Woodland Casual stopped selling unfinished and indoor furniture so it could focus on the patio business.

One of the Simons’ sons, Curtis, now manages the business with his brother, David. He says, “In Southern California, outdoor furniture is a year-round business. My parents knew that if they treated people right and sold good-quality furniture, the store would thrive.”

The Simons’ plans paid off; as the area grew, so did the store’s reputation and profits. Woodland Casual is now the place that locals consider to be their one-stop shop for outdoor-living accessories and furniture. The rise in the popularity of the outdoor room didn’t hurt business, either. “Most of the homes around here have beautiful, spacious backyards, and people can afford to put in full kitchens, televisions, fireplaces, and pools, and to outfit them with gorgeous furniture,” Simon reports.

Being a single-store operation, Wood­land Casual has flexibility to provide personal service that includes same-day delivery, a service that the company’s customers value. “It is not uncommon for people to pick out furniture the morning of a big party. We’ll deliver it before their guests arrive that evening. It’s something we are more than happy to do because we can,” Simon explains.

Over the past two years, the Simons (like most retailers across the country) have seen a slowdown in their business. “In 2005 and 2006, people were throwing their credit cards at us, but now, they are much more price conscious,” Simon recalls. One of his constant challenges has been people who come into the store trying to negotiate on price. “I think the news media told people that retailers are desperate to make a sale, so they should try to bargain on everything. It’s so bad that I’ve even had people ask for better prices on clearance items,” he adds.

The Simons admit that it’s been increasingly difficult to get foot traffic into the store as well. They’ve begun to investigate inventive new ways to generate business, including Internet advertising.

With all that’s going on with the economy, the Simons are thankful that the company remained a single-store, family operation during the good years, as they’ve seen many of their multistore competitors closing locations and, in many cases, shutting their doors altogether. “We are in a good situation operationally because we own our property; we don’t have high lease payments, and we’ve always kept our overhead and expenses low,” Simon explains.

In an effort to make their operation still leaner, the Simons have cut their vendors to the few who have given them consistently good service and value over the years. Surprisingly, they’ve even begun to feel the pinch of increased competition from big-box retailers, and they have been forced to start offering a few products at low-end price points. “Many people just want basic patio furniture to ride out the recession, so in that respect, we are competing against the Costcos and Home Depots—something we haven’t dealt with before. Unfortunately, it’s a reality for us right now,” Simon notes.

The Simons admit that the biggest challenge that they face is staying focused on what has kept them successful over the years: providing good products and personal service. They have sold furniture to three generations of customers who have come to trust and respect Woodland Casual as a member of their community.

Although the Simons still yearn for the days when housing prices were soaring and people were refinancing to buy backyard furniture and other home furnishings, they remain optimistic. Simon adds, “We have always done business smart and stayed


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