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Showroom Showcase

Growing in a Slow Economy

In the 1950s, Elvis fans were shaking to “Jailhouse Rock,” canned soup reigned supreme and pastel metal patio furniture was all the rage. The decade also marked the Williams family’s entrance into Chicago’s patio-furniture market, during a time when backyard furniture was not much more than a set of table and chairs sitting on a patio or deck. Today, over 50 years later, Williams Patio Furniture has evolved into one of the top Chicago-area retailers, with the most comprehensive service and the biggest selection of outdoor furniture and accessories.

Third-generation owner Mark Williams and his family have been in the retail business most of their lives. In the early days, Williams’ grandfather sold canvas products and awnings. Williams’ father added patio furniture in the 1950s and then expanded into ski products in the 1960s.

The ski-and-patio combination is what the store still offers today. Williams also owns a year-round indoor-furniture business, Bernhardt Home Furnishings, which is in the same building as the patio/ski shop. “We try to cross sell whenever it makes sense,” Williams says. “It all works well together.”

A Store for All Seasons

Williams Patio Furniture is located in Highland Park, an upscale suburb 25 miles outside downtown Chicago. Its impressive two-level, 22,000–square-foot showroom has everything needed to create the ideal backyard for relaxing, dining and entertaining during the summer, spring and fall, from midrange to high-end patio furniture and from umbrellas to cushions, hammocks, grills and patio heaters.

“We are known for our large selection of quality products,” Williams says. He explains that customers shop at Williams Patio Furniture because they know that every product that they buy is built to last. Williams only works with manufacturers that use the best materials and manufacturing processes. “Chicago winters bring freezing temperatures, and anything that’s not made to a certain standard will not survive,” he says.

He adds that the store’s product selection is second to none, and that it’s all displayed on the showroom floor. “People like to touch and sit in furniture before they buy it—they don’t want to shop from catalogs,” Williams says.

He notes that while Williams Patio Furniture specializes in high-end products, it also carries midlevel products that appeal to customers who are transitioning and moving up from mass-merchants’ furniture. “We like to show them that for just a little bit more money, they can have more durable furniture and a lot more selection, in terms of styles and colors,” he says.

While the patio business is big for most of the year, when the weather turns cold, Williams transforms the store into a full-blown ski shop, with everything from skis to snowboards and clothing. “People who don’t know we do ski are shocked when they walk into the store during the winter,” Williams says. He explains that the ski business has been the perfect supplement during the off season.

Keeping It Fresh

Over the years, the Williams family has remodeled the inside of its current building (where the business has been since 1969) to keep the two-level showroom fresh and relevant. Both levels have airy outdoor decks that Williams has updated over the past eight years to incorporate the look and feel of outdoor rooms. At the end of 2006, the company completed a much-needed exterior remodeling project that has increased the appeal of the vintage building.

A major part of the renovation was the addition of a three-story tower and an eye-catching new sign. “Our store is located on a major highway, and the new sign makes us more visible to traffic,” Williams says. The addition of the new tower increased the square footage of the store’s showroom as well, particularly on the second level, which serves as both a showroom and a clearance center. “The extra space gives us more room to create furniture vignettes that help our sales,” he adds.

Spoil Your Customers

While product selection, seasonal offerings and a beautiful store are all part of Williams Patio Furniture’s success, Williams says that service is the thread that pulls it all together. “We want to spoil our customers,” he says. Williams’ experienced sales staff can answer questions and give design advice.

Customers can get immediate delivery from Williams’ 35,000–square-foot warehouse, or they can order custom furniture and cushions in their favorite styles and colors. If something needs repair or replacement, it’s not a problem. “From our sales people to our delivery team, our number-one goal is to make our customers happy,” he adds.

Predicting what the future holds, Williams says that he plans to continue focusing on what his family has been doing best for the past five decades: serving the needs of its customers. “I know it’s simple,” he says, “but it’s worked for us.”

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