By Nathan Weber
Daily headlines warn of a coming recession. Government agencies report that economic growth has slowed to a standstill, with joblessness rising.
So what accounts for the optimism in the casual furniture market? Aren’t furnishings sales driven by a good housing market and a robust economy?
Ironically, the very woes now besetting the country may be a contributing factor to the vitality of patio products, long a stepchild in the world of residential furniture.
“Our company has seen consistent sales growth over the past five years,” said Jamie Lowsky, chief executive officer of Pride Family Brands. “We are looking to see a continuation of this trend in 2008.”
Lowsky’s comment is not atypical in this category. Bill Herren, marketing services manager for Whitecraft, a licensee of Woolrich, said that the company’s sales “are up by a little over 10 percent from last year. We expect this trend to continue with the introduction of some new collections to the line this year.”
He mentioned Chatham Run, a new Woolrich-licensed group, for which sales “have far exceeded our initial expectations.”
And Henry Vanderminden IV, president of Telescope Casual, said the company has been “double-digiting for the past three years,” and expects growth to continue, although perhaps not at the same rapid pace.
Asked how the national economic blues were affecting their businesses, the patio executives focused on a proverbial silver lining. “The housing slump is actually a boon to us,” Whitecraft’s Herren said, “as more people are expanding their outdoor areas to create new living spaces. The trend for outdoor entertaining continues to grow, especially as people are spending more time at home.”
Again and again, vendors attributed at least part of the growing popularity of patio to a combination of economic downturn and cocooning, the term referring to people devoting more time and resources to their immediate habitats. Increasingly, home dwellers are expanding their daily living quarters to include the backyard.
“In uncertain times,” Pride’s Lowsky said, “people tend to stay home more, which translates to home-related purchases, such as those for the outdoor room [which is now] a very hot category.”
Furthermore, negative effects of the downturn have applied primarily to consumers at lower and middle economic levels. Vendors of products catering to a wealthier sector are not too worried.
“Economic issues such as a recession, housing slump and tightening of credit have less of an impact on our business overall,” said Mike Echolds, chief executive officer of Tropitone, “since our customers, for the most part, are more affluent consumers with a high level of disposable income.”
While it is possible that some of the larger, better established makers of casual furniture reflect the more successful players in the field, patio in general appears to be doing well. Last year, for example, it was the only area of household furniture to show sales growth, according to HFN research. This trend may well continue throughout the current year.
Macro conditions aside, part of the success may reflect a contrarian attitude within the patio industry. While economic downturns often motivate manufacturers to cut back on production, or at least restrict their product offerings, vendors said they are taking another direction. They are pouring onto the market a plethora of products sporting new colors, designs and materials, as well as an increase in the number of items.
Telescope Casual, for example, attributes much of its success “to many changes in our product lines—fashion, color, style,” Vanderminden said. He went on to note that the company has introduced a brown pewter frame finish, one of nine that the firm currently employs. “Color evokes the emotions of the consumer,” he said. “Color has a tremendous amount to do with our success.”
For Tropitone as well, color is key. “We refresh our color palette every year,” Echolds said, “replacing about 25 percent of our fabric offerings.”
Pride Family Brands will continue with its hand-painted finishes on cast aluminum, which reportedly has been well received by the market. According to Lowsky, the labor-intensive finish is a result of a three-step hand-painting process.
Beyond color, recent innovations among manufacturers include stretch fabric for swing chairs, and softer fabrics for the new deep seating chairs, which render them suitable for indoor use as well. Telescope has been adding more textured fabrics over the past few years, especially for its deep seating items. Tropitone’s Lakeside collection, offering woven seating, comes with the trademarked fabric TropiKane, “which has the look of leather, although it is a synthetic material suitable for the outdoors.” Woolrich will be introducing five fabrics at the April High Point Market.
Product innovations for 2008 also entail styling changes and larger-sized products. Whitecraft’s Woolrich collection will incorporate considerably more European styling, Herren said, and the company is also bringing to market new pieces for its Chatham Run collection, including a double rocker, a bench and a new cocktail table. Pride is expanding its seating arrangements “to accommodate outdoor entertaining of a large group.”
The rapidly expanding public consciousness of environmental degradation has not escaped manufacturers of outdoor furniture, who focus on both materials and construction procedures. Last year, Tropitone introduced its Cabana Club collection, featuring a stainless-steel frame that requires no finish and is recyclable, and its Mobilis collection, utilizing a manufacturing process that generates little scrap, and molds polymer materials into the pieces itself, which renders the items recyclable as well. Woolrich is currently experimenting with recycled products such as plastic bottles. And Telescope Casual heats its plant and runs its wood drying kiln with wood scraps and shavings.