by Tom Lassiter
HEARTH & HOME MARCH 2015 issue.
Born in boom times, the company blossomed during the downturn; Sunset West has found its niche.
It’s counter intuitive to think that the soul-crushing climate of a devastating recession actually helped a start-up casual furniture manufacturer. But that’s exactly how Wes Stewart, founder of Sunset West, views the Great Recession. Stewart launched his California-based company in 2005, and for three years it struggled to gain traction. He had a small line of wicker and aluminum furniture designed to sell appreciably above Big Box store prices but well below the prices commanded by premium casual brands. Stewart believed the line offered quality and value, and he ran the company with the sensibility of a hands-on, third generation furniture professional. Even so, casual furniture retailers usually were reluctant to give his line a try. Now, as Sunset West celebrates its 10th anniversary and looks forward to its first Casual Market in a permanent showroom, Stewart understands why things were so difficult in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Retailers didn’t want to mess with success.“If you’re making money hand over fist,” he asks, “why change it up? I certainly wouldn’t risk making a move, or try to change my floor, if each month is better than the last.” That scenario changed quickly after the real estate and banking collapse of late 2008 and the subsequent recession. Casual stores saw showroom traffic slow to a trickle. Sales all but evaporated. Shoppers who did buy focused on value, often turning their backs on the same premium-priced sets that had been wildly popular in the flush years of the early 2000’s.
What worked for retailers in 2005“ was not working in 2008,” Stewart says. “It’s not about the color; it’s not about the finish. People just weren’t having the same results they had in 2005. Retrospectively, that allowed me to get in the door and have a conversation about a different price point, or a different type of product that they might not have been carrying before.“Whether they bought or not, it started the conversation about Sunset West.”
Wes Stewart called on Brett Freiberg, owner of American Leisure in Nanuet, New York, for four years before he landed his products on the retailer’s floor.“ I can buy wicker from 50 different places,” Freiberg says. “I had no space for a new wicker vendor. But I reallyl iked Wes. Wes makes sense. For me, relationship is everything. Relationship and service.”Freiberg has been pleased with his decision to floor Sunset West. His showroom is located about 25 miles due north of Manhattan on the west side of the Hudson River.“ The quality is great,” he says. “Our customers don’t have any problem with the pricing. His stuff has all the appearances of the upper-end.” Freiberg particularly likes the company’s quick-ship program. Sunset West makes its cushions in California. The companystocks cushions in one Sunbrella fabric for each of its cushioned-seating collections. Sets ordered with the readymade cushions ship out the same week.“Quick turn-around is one of the keys with Sunset West,” Freiberg says. Bob Verdon is president of The PatioPlace, with stores in Fresco and PalmDesert, California. Sunset West products, he says, “are not crazy in price,” and he likes that he can order frames only. Most important to Verdon, however, is that “they take every order personally.They assign certain people to handlethe account, and as the orders come in, they are pretty much on it. You call, and they know about it.”
Brought Up in the Business
Lots of second- and third-generation furniture people claim to have had early starts in the business. Stewart says his furniture experience began when he was in diapers. His grandmother had started in the upholstery trade about 45 years ago.“By the time I came along, she had her own company,” Stewart says. “My mom was sewing pillows, my dad was springing frames, and I was babysat on a cutting table.”The family had found its business niche. Stewart’s father went on to start a case goods company, while his mother gravitated toward a designer showroom. After college, Stewart became a rep for his father’s lines as well as for other manufacturers. Stewart brings all of that background to bear at Sunset West. “The most valuable experience from being a rep was really understanding the retailer and what they needed to succeed on their showroom floors,” he says, “not only in product and value, but in sales materials.” If catalogs and other sales materials aren’t easy to follow, he says, sales people may stumble and falter as they work with a customer. That doesn’t breed confidence among shoppers. “Once the buyer feels that thesales person isn’t confident in the product,”he says, “that just becomes a big, big turnoff on the retail floor.” With that in mind, Stewart says of sales materials, “We try to keep it as simple as possible.” Clarity reinforces confidence, “and that to me is key in the sales process.”
An Outdoor Opportunity
Stewart was a sales rep for a California manufacturer of game sets and bar stools in the early 2000’s, and doing well. He was feeling pretty good for having been named Rep of the Year after generating the largest percentage sales increase when another sales rep deflated his bubble. The other rep consistently did four times as much business in his territory, the upper Midwest, than Stewart did all year in Southern California and Nevada. What gives? Stewart thought. The populations of the territories were roughly the same. Why were game furniture and bar stools so much more popular in the heartland? The answer, the other rep explained,had to do with basements and long winters. Basements are common place in the upper Midwest, and the trend in those days was to outfit basements as recreationand play rooms to make the long winters tolerable. Basements, Stewart realized, are rare in California homes. And California lifestyles dictate that a home with extraspace probably will see a gym constructed long before a game room. That limits the possibilities for selling gameroom furniture and bar stools. What sort of furniture did the California lifestyle suggest? “I thought, we’ve got weather in Southern California. We’ve got nice weather year-round,” Stewart recalls. “And at that point, I knew what I needed to do to get into the outdoor world.” Stewart tried to become a sales rep for some of the better-known casual furniture companies.“As a young rep with no experience in the category, you can imagine how well that went over,” he says. Stewart eventually became a rep for arelatively new outdoor company, but the relationship deteriorated after acouple of years.“And here we are,” he says. “If nobody is going to hire you, you’ve got to start it yourself.” The year was 2005. That’s when Sunset West was born.
Stewart drew upon his network of furniture industry friends and personal contacts to launch the company. Contacts led him to furniture producers in China, and a friend with access to warehouse space took on responsibilities for order entry, shipping and receiving. “That way,” Stewart explains, “I could spend time developing the sales side.”Stewart remained a rep for some indoor lines and tried to convince his traditional furniture store customers to get into casual furniture. “Some of them gave me a shot, others didn’t. It’s like that with all sales,” he says. He also called on specialty dealers, but the flush economy and record-breaking sales with existing brands made his fledgling product line a hard sell. Sunset West inched forward, but the company’s big break didn’t come until the economy went south. Retailers, some of whom had not found the line compelling in previous years, gave Sunset West a second look.The company managed to expand its retail channel, Stewart says, “by sheer fact that the old wasn’t working anymore.” As the economy began to improve in 2010 and 2011, “people voted with their dollars and bought our product. ”Retailers who had been starved for sales in the depths of the recession recognized that Sunset West products filled a need. The collections offered competitive, mostly transitional designs at prices that didn’t turn shoppers off. The line, Stewart says, began “making people money. When retailers start making money, they buy more of your product. And that’s how the snowball rolls. ”Stewart is quick to say that pricepoints alone were not responsible for the company gaining traction at a time when many specialty retailers foundered. Families watching budgets looked to improve their homes rather than take expensive vacations. “The Outdoor Room just kind of percolated at that point,” Stewart says, “and that’s what allowed us to weather the storm. I knowit is. We caught a tremendous tailwind from the staycation. We were fortunate enough to be in the right place at theright time, and we rode those coattails.”
Designing a Look
Many of Sunset West’s early collections developed from sketches made by Stewart. Designs were refined at the factories in China, and selected prototypes followed. The company’s gradual success allowed Stewart to bring in design expertise. He hired Marcia Blake, then an independent casual furniture consultant, to work with him on a woven designfor the 2012 season. That collection –Coronado – proved to be a hit. Some dealers, however, found the weave color a little too forward and asked for something more traditional. The result, also designed with Blake, was Montecito, introduced in 2013. Both collections remain big sellers. (Marcia Blake has since joined GlenRaven as Custom Fabrics merchandising manager for Sunbrella products.) Eric Brenner of AuthenTEAK in Atlanta carries the Coronado and Montecito collections. The furniture has a distinctive color and comfort story, he says, that sets it apart. Instead of cannibalizing sales of other groups, he says, Sunset West’s designs stand on their own and “fill some holes in our arsenal.” Brenner compliments the cushion fabrics Sunset West matches to its frames. “Coronado has one color combo, and Montecito has another. We sell it the way we display it on more than 90 percent of our orders,” Brenner says. He says Stewart “has the pulse on the styles of today.” The furniture “seems to have broad appeal.” Frank Bandera of California Patio took on Sunset West as a supplier in the early days. He’s a fan of the company’s woven products.“The colors of the weave are great,” he says. “They look genuine. They feel good. They put out a good product for a good price, and we’ve done well with it.” Bandera likes the flexibility Sunset West offers for his nine retail locations.
California Patio is a container customer, buying product without cushions. Bandera has cushions custom-made, offering his customers additional choices in firmness and upholstery detailing. Sunset West also makes custom collections for California Patio. “They are exclusive for our stores, and those collections are doing very well,” Bandera says. Stewart says Sunset West gives retailers an option for shoppers who come in after pricing similar-looking productsat Big Box stores. “There’s a problem when a customer goes to Costco and sees a $1,699 deepseating set, and then walks into a specialty shop and they don’t have anything starting before four grand. There’s a world of difference between those two sets,”he says, “but if you don’t start the conversation with that Costco shopper at a closer price point, I don’t think they are going to give you an opportunity to discus sthe better value and better quality.” Sunset West does not sell to mass merchants or Big Box stores, but it does sell through catalog and on-line retailers. One such merchant sells the product unbranded, charging appreciably more than most specialty stores for the exact same item. “Good for them,” Stewart says. “They’respending the money on the catalogs and making it look good in their presentation.” He uses the catalog sales example to reinforce to retailers that the products represent a good value, for retailers as well as consumers. “When you tell a retailer that you can buy this product for $400 and can sell it on your floor for $800, but there’s a catalog company out there selling it for $1,000, you gain their attention real quick,” Stewart says.
Stewart took on two partners in 2012,Heath Malone and Martin Jamroz, allowing the company to grow at a critical time. “They immediately brought in the capital that allowed us to swell our inventory and meet the demand of our sales,” Stewart says. “They also own a majority share in a resin wicker outdoor factory in China. It has been a very good partnership as we all handle different aspects of the business.” For a small company, Sunset West offers retailers some big company perks. The company offers dealers an iPad app that lets salespeople check warehouse product inventories. That kind of instant feedback offers customers assurance and can help make a sale. Ten years in, Sunset West still has far to go before it can claim coast-to-coast coverage. Stewart says that many of the best casual furniture reps are not in a position to take on a line that might be a direct competitor to an existing client, and the company has struggled to build a solid corps of sales reps. Sunset West only recently contracted with a rep to service Florida, and it has no rep or dealers in the Mid-Atlantic region. The company currently has about 100 specialty retailer accounts, Stewart says.
Some accounts, of course, have multiple stores. For instance, Today’s Patio has seven stores in Arizona and Southern California. Stewart prefers to nurture long-term relationships with specialty retailers, knowing that the numbers eventually will come.“At the end of the day, you’ve gotto take care of your customers,” he says. “That really has been our focus in growing the company. One of the reasons that we’ve been successful is that we take care of our customers. ”That apparently isn’t an empty claim. Bob Verdon of The Patio Place is a believer. “They really take care of the dealer’s needs,” he says. “They will never let you down.”