Exec Suite: Bernie Sensale, Fortunoff Backyard Store

Bernie Sensale, chief executive of the Fortunoff Backyard

Bernie Sensale, chief executive of the Fortunoff Backyard Store chain, in his Garden City office. (June 26, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

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Bernie Sensale and Marty Merkur launched the Fortunoff Backyard Store chain of outdoor furniture stores in the tough economic environment of 2010, choosing to do what many companies weren't: hire a staff with decades of experience.

Sensale, Fortunoff Backyard's chief executive, said they recruited heavily among former colleagues who, like they, had worked at the old Fortunoff chain. Customer service, "white-glove delivery" and a wide assortment distinguish the Fortunoff brand, Sensale said, and delivering that formula takes the right employees. All but a handful of the company's 175 employees worked at the original Fortunoff chain, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Why did you make a point of recruiting veterans from the old Fortunoff?

Customer service is important because the sales associate needs to understand the assortment and what the customer wants. Our sales associate has seen every problem in every way for the past 30 years, anticipates problems the customer may not have anticipated and works to create a great solution.

How are your customers using your website? Do they buy furniture or use it for research?

This is the first year we had the e-commerce part of the site up and running. Some people are buying online. Others are doing research online and then going into stores with an edited view of what they want to look at. Others will look around in the store, make a decision and consummate that decision online.

What are the challenges of selling online?

For us, the white-glove delivery service is part of the value proposition. What we mean by that is making sure the merchandise is beautiful, shined and spiffed up -- the internal word we use is "deluxed." And we manage the delivery time. As a result of that, we constrain deliveries out of the website to our existing trade area, because that's what we can control.

What are the main hurdles presented by the current economy?

Having launched when we did was a blessing in disguise, in that we have learned as a group to do more with less. That's a requirement to be in the retail business today. We would prefer to be in an environment where the economy was growing at a 4 percent rate rather than a 1.5 or 2 percent rate. The general uncertainty doesn't help, but these are all things we cannot control. We control what we can, and we try to keep ourselves positioned so we can be flexible.

How do you solve the issue of showrooming -- the practice of viewing products in a store and then buying the item from an online retailer?

We have a breadth of assortment, which is exclusive to [us] . . . [so] to a large degree our product is not available elsewhere. Our assortment of sizes also makes showrooming significantly less likely to be a problem for us.

CORPORATE SNAPSHOT

Name. Bernie Sensale, chief executive of the Fortunoff Backyard Store chain

What it does. Provide a broad assortment of backyard furniture with an emphasis on customer service. The chain also has seasonal businesses, offering Halloween costumes and decor and Christmas decorations.

Employees. 175 total, 55 on Long Island

Revenue.  $40 million to $60 million in annual sales

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