New England Patio & Hearth finds success with quality, service and reasonable values

New England Patio & Hearth finds success with quality, service and reasonable values

When one door closes, another door opens, which was literally how New England Patio & Hearth got its start.

Owner Kurt Wabrek had worked for a patio store in Wethersfield, Connecticut, for 18 years and it ended up going under. When that store closed in 2006, the high-end patio furniture lines it sold became available for that area, so he and a partner lost no time in opening up their own shop — and several years later, Wabrek bought out his partner’s interest.

This season, he says, lead times are important but are just one piece of the puzzle.

“With the pandemic, the lead times got crazy, but now, it’s the whole mix,” says Walbrek. “You have to have good selection and you have to watch the customer and the inventory. Some will not wait and some don’t mind waiting for six to eight weeks, but much past that and it will kill the deal.”

Wabrek is not fearing a slowdown but does say he went into this season more cautious.

“It’s been surprisingly good, and I think we will keep going and see what happens,” he says. “Our recent challenges have been price increases, whether it’s the product itself, the operating expenses, the fuel for the trucks. Everything is going up, and we’ve been dealing with it.”

The positive side is that most of the vendors have been relatively stable in pricing, unlike how price lists were moving targets during the pandemic.

“It’s really steady as we go, keeping a handle on all the costs and at the end of the day, we make a profit,” says Wabrek. “We try to show customers the best value we can and try to be as competitive as the market demands, but no real gimmicks or special promotions.”

To get the word out, he decided some time back to turn it all over to a marketing company, which has found success in a mix of television and digital. As far as what to sell, he says he depends on more than four decades of his own experience.

“The better manufacturers that I prefer to align with — it’s their past performance, their sales, their company itself and how they are to deal with,” says Wabrek. “Those are all factors, but it’s the salability of the product, the company that stands behind the product and the company who treats us the way we would want to be treated. We have some good relationships and that helps. We also pay our bills very quickly — it’s a two-way street with manufacturers and most of them appreciate it and they know they are going to get their money.”

And to set his store apart from the competition, Wabrek outworks ’em.

“We have more inventory and a bigger selection, and we do try to treat people correctly,” he says. “We have taken over a fabric store and integrated that into our store — we can do custom cushions and custom drapes for indoor and outdoor, and upholstery for indoor furniture. If they come in with an older piece of furniture, we can make a cushion for it.”

Wabrek says he knows that full-line retailers are bringing in customers who are buying patio furniture, but the quality level and selection won’t match a good high-end patio store. He says that with online, most online retailers follow the minimum advertised price, which is the minimum amount a manufacturer allows resellers to advertise their products for without consequence from the manufacturer.

“Most play by the rules and as a rule, it’s not a big issue for us, as a lot of online deliveries are curb delivery — 10 boxes on the curb and the customer has to unload it, unpack it, dispose of packing and boxes and assemble it,” says Wabrek. “I can’t imagine anyone buying a chair without sitting in it. I don’t know why anyone would do that.”

Wabrek counters the online world through constant analysis and re-setting that has prompted him to keep patio furniture on the floor for 12 months, when many will add in pool tables and Christmas décor to make it past the slow parts of the season. Wabrek says that he has found that many will buy floor samples as early as January.

“The early customer is a very good customer — one that will buy six months in advance so they are sure that they will have it. We have people who place orders in November for a May delivery and then call from their home in Florida to set the delivery date,” he says.

Any advice for struggling casual retailers?

“Analyze why you are struggling,” says Wabrek. “Are you paying too much rent? Are you paying the help too much? Do you have the right mix of furniture on the floor? There are a lot of reasons why one would be struggling. Fortunately for us, we have been quite fortunate and things have been very good. But you need to figure out what is going wrong — is it the wrong sales staff, the wrong product mix, expenses too high?”

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