The only constant in business is change — and Erik Mueller, CEO of Watson’s and founder and CEO of Plank & Hide Co., will be in a unique position this year to both see and effect change throughout the casual furnishings industry.
Mueller is board chair of the International Casual Furnishings Association this year, which marks both the Casual Market’s move to Atlanta from Chicago and the group’s 65th anniversary.
“I see nothing but opportunity for the association this year,” Mueller says. “This year, more than ever, it benefits retailers, manufacturers and reps to join the ICFA. The cost of entry is ridiculously small, considering all of the ICFA’s tremendous programs, seminars and the group of colleagues you get an opportunity to collaborate with. I promise after joining, you will leave any event you participate in with multiple action items that will have a positive impact on your business. (Executive Director) Jackie (Hirschhaut) and her team really do a wonderful job.”
In a prepared statement from ICFA, Mueller says that his objectives during the coming year are to increase awareness, drive interest and heighten the value of membership, especially given both the anniversary and the move to Atlanta.
“These events highlight the significance of our industry’s legacy and create excitement about its future,” Mueller says in the statement. “This anniversary compels us to reflect on the fine folks that put so many years into building up, investing in and giving back to the ICFA. The move to AmericasMart in Atlanta allows us to showcase every manufacturer in a new light, with innovative and exciting ways for retailers to shop.”
Mueller is well-versed in the casual industry, given that he is the son of a casual furnishings veteran. His father, Jim Kathmann, and partner Doe Oeters bought Watson’s from its original owner in 1985.
Now, the company, which like Watson’s is based in Cincinnati, has grown into 28 corporate and franchise stores. Nine years ago, Mueller started Plank & Hide, a lifestyle outdoor and entertainment furniture design and distribution company with 250 retail customers.
Mueller acknowledges that business has been a challenge, with Covid, supply chain problems, labor difficulties and inflation. The key to progress, he says, is to find ways to grow.
“Expansion of our base requires energetic outreach to younger people, under-represented regions of the country and any other business that makes, sources, sells, buys and supports our industry,” Mueller says in the statement. “These include direct-to-consumer, digital and catalog marketers, mass merchandisers and full-line retailers.
“Through this diversification of effort — creating awareness of the benefits of membership across new sectors through strategic, targeted outreach — we can expand our perspective and influence for every individual, company and the entire casual and outdoor industry.”
For retailers right now, the main thing that is needed doesn’t so much rest with marketing, or product assortment, or lead times. The main thing, first and last, is to get back to selling merchandise, instead of merely taking orders, while at the same time keeping an eye on what’s to come.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think overall that foot traffic could decline in 2023,” Mueller says. “The focus should be on sales training, close rates and merchandising.”
At the same time, the best way to compete with online competitors is to come up with a way to make your own store experience unique.
As far as recent challenges, Mueller says his stores have been like so many others.
“Labor really has been almost everyone’s challenge,” he says. “You should invest in your people; create a great culture and they stay with you.”
Another challenge has been manufacturers, which Mueller says he has met by having high expectations.
“We want long-term relationships that are win-win,” he says. “We want consistent quality and consistent service.”
Mueller says that the increase in full-line retailers crossing over to outdoor hasn’t affected his business, but overall, he sees their participation as a positive.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “There is more awareness for the industry, which creates nationwide market expansion for the entire category. What we don’t want to see is for the industry to become commoditized over time. The specialty retailers have done a tremendous job bringing high-quality products with great value to the consumer — products that aren’t falling apart in the consumer’s backyard after three years. Think about all of the low-end patios in people’s backyards 25 years ago and think of all the tremendous products in their backyards today. Consumers realize that great-quality outdoor furniture is worth the investment today. Let’s not change that.”
Any advice for struggling casual retailers?
“Make sure the user experience you are delivering to the consumer is unique and works within your financial model,” Mueller says.