It’s not everyday someone ventures into the patio furniture business from the nuclear power industry, but that is exactly the career path of Terri Key, co-owner, Wicker & More Home Furnishings (Shallotte, North Carolina). Key had been technician for over 20 years, traveling to the various nuclear power reactors located across the United States to work outages—an extended period of time when a plant shuts down so specialists can perform routine maintenance, replace parts or refuel the reactor.
In 2009, a tenant (who ran an outdoor wicker store) located in a building on Haddock’s property, went out of business due to the Great Recession which began in 2007. “I was cleaning the building out and had a fire sale of items that were left there. At that same time, I was also getting ready to leave to work a three-month outage and I just decided I was tired of traveling and wanted to stay home,” Key says.
Consequently, she and her fiancé, David Haddock, decided to open a furniture store in their vacant building. Overnight Wicker & More Home Furnishings was founded and Key had an entirely new career. “I had no plans whatsoever to open a furniture store but I am so glad we did. I have had a good time and I am really enjoying it,” she says. “Every day is different and there is always something to do.” Haddock, who also has a background in nuclear power, works part-time in the business and primarily serves as a silent partner.
Since 2009, the partners have experienced tremendous growth and success in the business. Wicker & More first opened in a 6000-square-foot showroom in Shallotte—a small town which is part of metropolitan Myrtle Beach. In 2011, they opened a second 3000-square-foot store 30 miles away in the coastal town of Southport. “With only one furniture store in Southport, there was a need for another one so we found a good space and we turned it into a nice little store that basically has become a billboard for us.”
In 2013, Key and Haddock relocated their original store two buildings over to take advantage of a larger 15,000 square-foot location. “And now we are currently expanding our Shallotte store another 6,000 square feet,” Key says. There is also a 6,000-square-foot warehouse.
Key attributes Wicker & More’s phenomenal growth to the foundation of any successful retail operation— merchandising and service. Beyond offering indoor and outdoor furniture, Key’s showrooms are an abundant showcase for accessories, from artwork and lamps to floral and cushions. “We offer everything and try to make ourselves a one-stop shop, Key says. “We are not a traditional furniture store but gear our merchandise toward a coastal and causal line of decor; we focus on that beach and tropical environment.”
Some of the major outdoor manufacturers that fit perfectly into Key’s coastal-living demographic include: North Cape International, Anancara; and Patio Renaissance. “Our biggest seller right now is furniture made from recycled plastic from Berlin Gardens and C.R. Plastic Products,” Key says. “Poly wood and poly vinyl furniture are good quality, low-maintenance and they last forever,” she adds.”
Key says customers have been very positive about her merchandise. “They seem to love everything we have.” That fondness is reciprocated by Key in the feelings she has for her clientele. “I love all my customers—they are all just really good people and have become our best friends. We treat them as family when they come in our door. We actually have a plaque on our wall that says, ‘Welcome, come in as guests leave as a friends’.”
Key extends more than hospitality to everyone that walks in her store. In the area of customer service, she says, “We go above and beyond what most other retailers do.” Key and her staff spend time with customers in-store helping each to choose the best furniture for their space, whether it is indoors or outside. She pulls accessories and helps with fabric selection to coordinate the entire design for her client’s space. Key also makes house calls, offering complimentary design service on-site. “I have done a porch, one room or an entire house. I do whatever I can to help a customer out and meet their needs—whatever they happen to be.” Delivery and set-up is free to surrounding areas up to 50 miles.
Key has decorated model homes for new developments as well as the area’s local Parade of Homes. She also provided the patio furniture for the ABC television show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “It was very hectic day but a good one because we were able to help a deserving family,” she says.
TAPPING THE DESTINATION MARKET
With a beautiful climate, and an overall lower cost of living, North Carolina is one of the most popular retirement destinations and second home markets in the country. The location is especially sought-after by people from the Northeast and Midwest. “People are moving here everyday from the North and they love it here,” Key says. “We have several communities that are growing rapidly and that has a lot to do with the growth of our business,” she adds.
Word-of-mouth is Wicker & More’s best form of advertising. “The word has spread that we have the best selection and service around and that brings a lot of visitors to our stores,” Key says. Beyond that, she relies on billboards, radio advertising, internet marketing and to a lesser degree print advertising. In the spring she places an entire month of ad space on radio to promote her outdoor lines and in the fall she does the same to promote her indoor season.
Key’s business formula of offering both indoor and outdoor furniture keeps her busy with traffic coming through her showroom’s doors all year long. “Between the two segments, we are about 50/50 in our sales,” she says.
It’s an unfortunate fact that thousands of businesses, small and large, went under as a result of the Great Recession but for others, like Key and Haddock, the events presented them with the perfect opportunity to start something new. “People could not believe we decided to open a furniture store in 2009 when everybody else was going out of business,” Key says. “We took little inventory and grew it from there.” Today when customers walk into Wicker & More Home Furnishings, they are often astounded by all the merchandise available to them. Key comments, “They can’t believe everything that is in here. All our customers seem to really love what we have.”