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  • Susan Dickenson

Retail Profile: 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

Web site:

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