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Jun 10, 2012 07:32 PM

The *New* Southern Season in Chapel Hill

I went back today for the first time since the change in ownership. It's disconcerting, to say the least. I'm sure I could get used to the new open layout, but the layout itself is not entirely logical. Cookware and utensils are grouped sometimes by manufacturer and only sometimes by function. That can make it difficult to search for a particular item. Spatulas are in at least 3 different places Only cheeses on sale have a price on the cheese tag. That means you have to pick up the wedges to find out the per pound price. There was only 1 person working the cheese counter and he was too preoccupied with something to notice that there were customers. It seems to me that the percentage of housewares and "lifestyle" items has risen distinctly, while there are fewer choices among the specialty foods. Oddly enough, a good number of the food products they carry can be found on the shelves of our regular grocery stores, frequently at much lower prices. There are many fewer employees than in the past, too. Unfortunate in a store that prides itself on customer service.

In general, it appears that the inventory is significantly reduced while the prices are much higher. I also spoke with someone at the kitchenware store in the mall and she said she had noticed an increase in her business since the changes at Southern Season. I'm not at all surprised.

I've always liked Southern Season and considered it a fun place to shop for items I couldn't find elsewhere. Not so much anymore, I'm sorry to say.

Oh, and when I got home I noticed that I had not been charged the sale price for one of the cheeses I bought. I had specifically asked about the price and was told that the register would charge the sale price. It didn't. To SS's credit, when I called the store they charged back the difference to my credit card without question. Still, it should not have happened in the first place.

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  1. I liked the new layout, but did not look closely enough to notice the quirks in organization of gadgets and tools. I am very disappointed in the sale - to go from at least a small discount on everything to only select merchandise on sale was a shock.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mpjmph

      So the annual sale no longer has everything reduced?

      That is disappointing...I did phenomenally well at last years sale and was looking forward to treasure hunting again this year.

    2. What what what.... OK - I am totally behind the times (& I worked at A Southern Season when I was a student)!!!

      Did they just reconfigure the present space or has it moved? I was just there a month or so ago.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Tehama

        Same space, new owners and new layout.

      2. I've been a handful of times since the change. I have noticed less depth to the categories. Definitely looks like a close look at frequency of turnover has happened and most of the slower items have been eliminated. The store is far enough away that I don't go frequently. It is the hard to find items which keep me coming back. If they disappear then I have much less motivation to devote half a day to visiting the store.

        Hopefully the new ptb will talk to customers and realize that numbers are only one part of the equation. For example, I generally go there when I need a hard to find extract or other ingredient. I'd rather have the fun of browsing and being able to obtain the item locally than to order it on-line. Once I'm there I always find a few more items that call to me and before you know it a modest sale becomes a decent sized sale. Get rid of the hard to find item and I have less of a reason to travel...

        I really hope the new ptb spend time on the floor to truly understand their customer base.

        8 Replies
        1. re: meatn3

          The new owners have indicated they intend to expand with stores in other markets, and the inventory reads like that. A lot of the interesting little niche-y products that won't scale well to a regional operation (I've noticed it particularly in chocolate and cheese departments) have been dropped.

          The streamlined, less cluttered flow of the store seemed an improvement. On a recent trip, though, they've added a cafe with a few small tables near the bakery department. The little cafe spot is not bad, and I think, not a bad idea. The tables kind of gunk up the flow, though, and feel a little strange. Worse yet is that the espresso I had at the cafe was pretty awful.

          It feels overall like they have prioritized regional expansion over serving locals/regulars well, which is disappointing.

          1. re: emazzone

            I had a similar experience at the new coffee bar. The coffee I got was expensive and not very good.

            1. re: emazzone

              But I can tell you that it is much more profitable than it used to be, so from an investment perspective, the new owners are very pleased.

              Not surprised that folks around here don't see it the same way, however.

              1. re: brentk

                That's to be expected; anyone making an investment - particularly the amount they did - would want to see a return as soon as possible.

                Sadly, however it seems they want to make it all back at once.

                I've shopped there two or three times since the sellout and have found it quite different that it was before, and in a less customer friendly way. Can't say that I'll go back unless it's to check out their annual sale - and then I don't know that I'll go back.

                1. re: goodeatsinadive

                  There is no way that investors in a buyout can expect to see their return all at once, so that statement doesn't make sense. You make changes that you anticipate will build value over time.

                  I think most of us around here like the local, quirky and unique to the mass merchants. Ultimately, however, Southern Season is a business and the time had come for the founders to realize the value they had built in their brand and for new investors to provide that liquidity and instill their own vision. The new management team has a lot of experience in running multi-location specialty retail chains and I suspect they will do well, though they may not. Time will tell.

                  1. re: brentk

                    You totally misinterpreted what I posted. I KNOW they won't make it back all at once. I posted that they would like to receive a return as soon as possible, and it's clear that at least an attempt at significant debt service is being made. Anyone with a multi-million dollar investment would expect that. I certainly know I would.

                    I'm quite familiar with a business model that expects a total ROI within 7 years after acquisition - regardless of whether it's raising prices, gaining market share or both. Sadly, their concept will make their return regardless, however the business suffers ultimately in the long run. Whether this happens at SS remains to be seen, but if their customer service now is what one can expect from here out, in addition to significantly higher prices with more streamlined selections to choose from, then both the business and it's customers will suffer.

                    Based on my experiences there since the sellout, I will gladly take my business to local, independently run business that thrive on excellent customer service and quality products at a fair price.

                2. re: brentk

                  I think there are times when a nice profit statement doesn't translate into long term health for a business. Tightening up the inventory, reducing staff, etc. may create a pleasing bottom line - this year.

                  If those measures turn it into a Fresh Market with housewares then the aspects which made it special will be gone. People will no longer go out of their way to shop there and it will draw from a significantly smaller pool of folks for whom it is convenient.

                  Some businesses are able to transition into a new model. Imo there often is a lack of appreciation for the intangibles that an established business has built over the years.

                3. re: emazzone

                  Hi emazzone,
                  Glad to hear that you enjoy the new layout of our store. It was designed to create a more enjoyable shopping experience for our customers.

                  We appreciate your feedback on the coffee & tea bar. I'm sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy your espresso. I do hope you will come back in and give it another try. The baristas are always happy to give you a sample or make you a new drink if you aren't satisfied.

              2. Thank you all for your feedback regarding the recent changes made in Southern Season. As long term customers of our store, we greatly appreciate your continued support of the store.

                We are in the midst of making a number of changes to the store and it is valuable for us to hear our customers feedback on the recent changes. We have taken your comments into account and will use your feedback as we continue to grow & evolve Southern Season into a store with a diverse product mix that is focused on creating a lifestyle experience for all of our valued customers.

                Should you have any specific requests for products that you are looking for, we are always happy to place orders, so feel free to contact us. For any additional feedback, please email or call 866-253-5317.

                2 Replies
                1. re: southerseason

                  I have to say, in the years that I've been on this board, this is the most reasonable response I've seen from a proprietor.

                  I love the idea of the coffee bar; I can't tell you how many times, when browsing the store, I've wanted a cup of coffee and never got one at the Weathervane bar because it felt weird. I haven't gotten coffee in the times I've been since it opened, but applaud the idea (assuming the coffee is good and fairly priced).

                  So, was the sale that just ended this year's annual sale? Or will there be an annual sale like in years past with everything discounted?

                  1. re: brokegradstudent

                    Thanks for your feedback on the coffee bar, it's been a big hit with all of our customers so far and all of the coffee & tea sold at the coffee bar is also available for purchase in our store.

                    The Spring Sale is taking the place of the annual inventory sale. The sale date was recently extended to June 17th, so there is still time to shop if you haven't had a chance to make it into the store.

                2. I understand that. I don't usually shop at SS unless there is something I'm almost certain that no one else carries and I can't wait for it to come from online. The prices are marked up (i.e. a pasta maker I can get for $69 at W-S is listed for $110 at SS). The remodeling, to me, took away some of the whimsical feeling of the store and made it seem sterile, but may be that is just me. Products that I once could get their normally were taken off without any due warning to the customers and didn't show up in the sale either so either they've taken a loss in sales or they just let them run out as they were being sold. Had I known I'd have stocked up. I am glad they still have the class spaces going. My thoughts on the coffee bar are that it will last but so long though I hope it succeeds. I have only gotten grounds from their coffee wall and sips from the tester (not a big coffee drinker), but I did enjoy the demo station there and being able to go to a water fountain without having to go all the way upstairs. Though as many others have echoed through the grapevine there is really nothing there that I can't find at surrounding stores.

                  My only other gripe is that I have found the help to be less than stellar. On two occasions, I've waited for 30 mins for someone to return with an answer to the question I posted and never came back. It's fun to browse but that is just for me.