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Design Surroundings Featured

“I think that the design businesses have survived some
of the low points that large retailers have not.”

Surroundings
Iowa City, Iowa

The holiday season is big business at Surroundings, an Iowa City
shop owned and operated by Jean Phipps, ASID, since 1987. It kicks
off with a three-day open house in early November, and involves
closing the store in the week prior for a total re-do.

Surroundings started out as a functional showroom for interior
designer Jean Phipps and eventually grew into a successful retail
operation. Fortunately, the numbers from this year’s event bettered
last year’s and, according to Phipps, equaled the numbers from
the 2007 open house. “We’re hopeful this is an indication
of a good holiday season for us,” she said.

Prior to opening Surroundings, Phipps spent about two decades
working in the interior design trade. Her retail showroom began
as a way to display the lines she was using in her work, and eventually
blossomed into a viable operation.

Today, business remains steady to strong at the store, which
enjoys a good reputation among a loyal clientele, many of whom
prefer to look to professionals for help when purchasing large-ticket
items for the home. Phipps is even beginning to see some “second
generation” clients.

“I think that the design businesses have survived some of
the low points that large retailers have not, and so (vendors)
are more confident in doing business with us,” Phipps said. “Surroundings
itself is now an old established business and our reputation and
credit rating enable us to buy the lines we want.”

Surroundings offers traditional, high-quality pieces its customers
can add to for years. Phipps accessorizes her furniture vignettes
with lamps, accessories and gifts. Design fees are charged only
if the project does not involve the purchase of interior products
from the store. “The profit from our sales is our fee, and
my staff designers work on a commission basis. We also issue Reward
Point cards to our clients. They acquire loyalty points with in-stock
merchandise purchases and receive a $25 gift card for every $500
spent.”

Phipps said she and her senior designer have had long careers,
which have included putting in all the weekend and evening hours
they care to. So, with the exception of the Saturdays that fall
between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Surroundings is open only
on weekdays, from 9 to 5.”Of course, we do design work by appointment at the convenience
of the client,” Phipps said. “This (schedule) has worked
for us and is what we want for our own quality of life. It definitely
gives us more family time.”Surroundings operates in 2,000 square feet, offers upper-middle
price points and employs three designers, one retail manager and
one warehouse manager. The store was named to Home Accents Today’s
Retail Stars list in May 2009.Describe your store: We have a retail
showroom with items from all of the furniture companies we use
in our design business. We generally have three to four small
vignettes that are accessorized with lamps, accessories and gift
items.

How’s business? We’ve remained strong
through this recession. Our community is small, buoyed by the
fact that it’s home to the University of Iowa and its hospitals
and clinics, relatively stable employers. Our clients have remained
loyal and seem to be continuing to keep their homes up to date.

What makes you different? Our business is traditional, classic
interior design. We are not largely influenced by trends, but
encourage our clients to buy high-quality timeless pieces to
build on throughout the years. Another aspect of our business
is kitchen design. We are a Wood-Mode cabinet dealer and are
very busy with the remodeling aspect of the business.

How do you reach your customers? Direct
mail and newspaper advertising for two sale events and the holiday
open house. We run a few other newspaper campaigns to highlight
our Wood-Mode cabinet business during the Parade of Homes and
Remodelers’ Parade sponsored by the local homebuilders association,
of which we are members. Our Web site has been up and running
for about a year and is generating some traffic. We try to be
generous in giving to and supporting community causes such as
United Way, University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, local theaters
and other worthy groups.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your
job?
The most enjoyable aspect of the business is, overwhelmingly,
the people. Many of our clients are very long term, so they
have become friends. And those friends send more friends to
us. I’m also fortunate to have a staff that has been with me
for a long time so it’s like a family.

Annual sales: $1 million

Home accent categories: Accent furniture,
lamps, wall decor, decorative pillows, throws, permanent botanicals,
area rugs, tabletop, garden accessories and other decorative accessories.

Tradeshows/markets you shop: High
Point, Atlanta, Chicago. We’re just 3.5 hours from Chicago, so
we also use it as an extended sample room for the design business.

Key vendors: Accents Beyond,
Austin, Currey & Company, Global Views, K&K, Sid Dickens,
Sedgefield by Adams, Shadow Catchers