Cross Cultivating

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Look alive: golf cart inbound on your left. Awwww, check out the border collie clowning around over there, and the German shepherd taking his person for a walk over here! Anybody up for a little putting.

And hey, where'd you get that Popsicle?

Welcome to the Greenhouse Mall just outside Austin, Texas, a 32-acre site where you can pack away your preconceived notions about retail shopping and pack a lunch instead. Karen and Paul Galindo preside over a family business in a kid-friendly, parklike setting that buries the image of the robotic salesperson looking at the clock while asking, "Can I help you."

Originally intended as solely a greenhouse dealership, the mall is thriving as a leader in high-end outdoor furniture. Sales have tripled since 1994 — the result of an environment that emphasizes fun and customer comfort; top-quality merchandise and staff who are experts in their field; and an out-of-the-box mentality when it comes to new ideas and opportunities. Further encouraged by her first AQUA Show this year, Karen Galindo is networking in an effort to sell patio furniture for pool companies' displays.

"Taking chances is how you grow," she says. "If you think you know everything, you're probably hitting a ceiling in terms of what you can accomplish. My parents taught me that there are always new ideas out there if you're open to them."

Being a visionary runs in the family. Galindo's parents, Matt and Muriel Wiggers, opened the store in 1977 on the northwest edge of Austin. "Everyone said we were out in the boonies," says Muriel, who still does the books. "But it had the potential to be part of a growing area."

A generation later, the road chosen for the Greenhouse Mall site — the 620 North — is a major thoroughfare, within minutes of residents in the af.uent Lake Travis area, and convenient to fast-growing Winston County. To buy land on that site now would be impossibly expensive.

Location was but one of many major business decisions. "We started out with two greenhouses," Muriel says. "Eventually we bought other companies out and had a lot more. But greenhouses are a fall/winteronly business, and we wanted something that could be sold year-round — so we came up with patio furniture."

Much has changed since the Wiggerses opened the Greenhouse Mall, but a commitment to quality has not. The Galindos and buyer Tracy Wolfrom are convinced high-end is the only way to sit: "As long as the consumer can justify the expense, they will buy the higher-quality merchandise," Karen says. "You'll pay more, but your furniture will last — and in this harsh climate, you have to have furniture that lasts." Wrought iron is a top seller, with O.W. Lee its No. 1 supplier.

"A total commitment to quality is where knowledgeable staff becomes so important," says Karen, who started helping out at the store when she was 8. "It's crucial to educate the salespeople to pass this knowledge on to the customer. I'd prefer not to bore customers with my knowledge of the product, but I have to be able to share that knowledge, and confidence in my knowledge of the product.

"People want someone who they know will take care of them. They entrust us to their disposable income. It's a big responsibility."

Muriel notes: "People who live across the road still have furniture they bought from us 27 years ago." Her husband, Matt, now retired, came up with the idea to display furniture outside to showcase that durability. Selection is also second to none; the 32-acre property includes 12 acres of outdoor furniture — thus the need for on-site golf carts for the customers — and an 8,000-square-foot showroom.

It's a lot to take in at once, but the casual environment offsets that. "We just wanted a different atmosphere that would cater to couples and families," Karen says of the concept that won an Apollo Award from the Casual Furniture Retailers Association last year. "We want the area to simulate their backyards. We've also been doing some landscaping, with plans for decks, flagstone patios, brick patios and English gardens. We even have a built-in grill that we cook on during the holidays.

"It's all part of making the customer feel at home" — figuratively and literally — "and not making them feel like they're being processed."

The Galindos' openness to new approaches was underscored by their decision to attend the 2003 AQUA Show. Karen and Paul, overwhelmed by the quality of the seminars, made some important discoveries.

"We actually have similar demographics with the pool and spa people," says Karen, who is on the board of the of Casual Furniture Retailers Association. "We also target families with incomes of $100,000 and up, so we can share our successes with pool suppliers and retailers. We're not competing with them. In fact, we ought to be in alliance with them."

Karen recognizes the importance of cultivating new relationships. Many of the Greenhouse Mall's customers have their own designers, who bring varying levels of input on the perfect fit for the home. Instead of regarding designers as interference, she makes every effort to work with them because they are an extension of the customer.

Karen notes that her business and the pool and spa industry also have similar "psychographics" — customers' shared preferences in terms of recreation and comfort. "Both of us are targeting the consumer who wants to make the home a vacation-style setting," she says, adding that this trend has become even more pervasive since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Paul Galindo, who handles accounts payable for Greenhouse Mall, got a lot out of the AQUA Show seminars — especially those that focused on the nuts and bolts of cutting expenses and increasing profits. "Many of these concepts were universal ones that would be helpful for any business," he says.

He notes that the trend toward the vacation ambience at home is "going to force pool people to be more all-encompassing with what they sell. More and more people want the whole package — grills, grill islands, patio furniture, etc. — all at once. It's the outdoor living room concept, and it's here to stay."

That's where the Galindos feel they can help their business — and help others' businesses, too. Not surprisingly, Karen Galindo says she's going to the next AQUA Show as well: "We want to increase our networking with pool people and take this to the next step. It makes a lot of sense. And I've encouraged all the people in my industry to do this."

So there is much to do, but the present is a very nice place to be. Each morning, the Galindos say hi to Karen's mom, who takes her dog for a walk in what she calls "the Greenhouse Mall and Patio Park."

"I get there at 7 a.m., before the mosquitoes and the heat do," Muriel says.

Still thinking ahead — a trait that has obviously been passed along. And she gets first dibs on the Popsicles, too.

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