Big Pieces, Better Fabrics in for the Outdoor Room
By Jessica Goldbogen Harlan
The lines continue to blur between indoor and outdoor when it comes to trends in casual furniture. Manufacturers gearing up for the summer season report that improved fabrics, comfier seating and more substantial pieces are among the elements that consumers will see as they're shopping for their so-called "outdoor rooms."
"The outdoor room continues to be the third most desirable space to furnish for homeowners, so we must continue to offer top designs, color trends and varieties of looks that range from traditional sling to more contemporary designs," said Doug Peppler, vice president of sales of Agio.
Fabrics in particular are generating excitement in the casual furniture category, even if they're just attention-getting looks to lure consumers.
"The wealth of outdoor fabrics available now offers consumers so many more decorating options for their outdoor spaces than even five years ago," said Joe Logan, executive director for the International Casual Furnishings Association. "It's hard to distinguish now between an indoor and an outdoor fabric because of the colors, patterns and the feel."
Peppler concurs that weather-resistant fabrics are on customers' wish lists. "In response, Agio has added new looks materials and textures of these fabrics that will resist moisture, mildew and fading," he said.
But some manufacturers claim that even with a plethora of colorful options at their fingertips, many consumers still play it safe when it comes to the fabrics they choose for their outdoor pieces.
"I know that at Showtime they'll show me the hot color," said Bill Herren, director of sales and marketing for Whitecraft. "But truthfully, everyone wants brown frames and beige cushions. They might dress it up with throw pillows, but neutrals is still what sells."
Meanwhile, Logan sees a continued interest in deep seating and fire pits, signaling a shift away from consumer investment in straightforward dining pieces and into seating areas and conversation-type arrangements.
Herren at Whitecraft sells "a ton" of sectionals, and said sectionals account for half or more of sales in many of his company's deep-seating groups.
"We're working on more sectional pieces, because you can do so much with a sectional--make it as big or as small as you want, and put it anywhere," he said.
Herren and Bob Gaylord, president of Agio, both are seeing more of a demand for deep seating than for dining pieces. Said Gaylord, "Many consumers bought dining sets almost by default, but many are finding chat groups, gathering sets and deep seating sets much more useful across the board as they enjoy their outdoor space."
Whether it's dining sets or other pieces, bigger, heavier and more substantial looks are gaining in popularity, and metals and other materials other than lightweight aluminum are spurring this look.
"We have had a phenomenal reaction to our new wrought aluminum collections," said Rory Rehmert, vice president, sales and marketing for Pride Family Brands.
Similarly, Christopher A. Carmicle, president, national accounts and direct imports division for BJI, Inc., reports that wrought iron is one of the hottest materials at the moment, inspired both by vintage and industrial-chic looks. "It makes sense," he said. "it's a very heavy item, and people associate weight with quality."
At Whitecraft, one of its collections under the Woolrich brand, River Run, is designed to look like birch trees, while Jason Toth, owner and creative director of Sokul Outdoor Living, said that stainless steel is becoming increasingly popular as a material for outdoor furniture.
Both Carmicle and Peppler said they're seeing a demand for larger dining pieces, such as table and chair sets that can accommodate as many as eight to 10 people. But at the other end of the spectrum, Carmicle said smaller space collections are also growing in demand. "There's a huge number of downsizing baby boomers who need a little less," he said. "They're looking for tables and chairs for smaller spaces, and pieces that allow them to expand for entertaining, but then take it back down to the original size [when it's just the two of them]." Carmicle expects to see more offerings of modular or expanding tables that can fit this need.
Further indicating that consumers truly do think of their yards and patios as another room of their homes is the growth in decorative accessories intended for outdoor use. Logan said he's seen retailers incorporating a larger number of outdoor accessories into their merchandise mix and displays, particularly decorative pillows. "These will change from season to season, which gives the consumers a good chance to go back into the stores and at minimum refresh their look with different decorative accents and pillows," he said.
Carmicle of BJI agrees. "Accessories are huge, from tabletop to trash receptacles to storage," he said. "As the outdoor room really does become thought of as a room, some of those same needs [that consumers have with their indoor spaces] are incorporated."
In this vein, Agio has been working on tabletop options, said Peppler, "improving on quality and perfecting new and elegant alternatives to glass."