All Eyes Are On the Wall

The Lucca Villa collection from Burnes offers several wood looks.

The Lucca Villa collection from Burnes offers several wood looks.

By Allison Zisko

Though the year has not been without its challenges, the frame business has remained steady, held up by the home decor end of the business and, ironically, by the same shift in consumer photo practices that seemed to threaten it not that long ago.

“The fundamentals of the frame business are good,” said Richard Feldstein, president of Prinz. “The frame business continues to be a good business.”

Consumers armed with high-quality cameras on their phones and other portable media devices take more pictures than ever. In the past, they downloaded those pictures onto desktop computers, where they accumulated rapidly but never saw the light of day. A few years ago, this presented a challenge for the frame industry. Today, however, consumers post photos to Facebook and other social media and are more inclined to print some of those photos directly from the Internet and display them. Online retailers have made this business very easy, but even traditional brick-and-mortar retailers strategically place photo development kiosks in their stores to encourage additional sales. Consumers are framing these highly edited and enlarged images to make a home decor statement.

Thus the frame business today is driven by wall decor, while tabletop frame sales are flat at best, vendors said.

Wall frames now occupy the retail space once reserved for tabletop frames and are surpassing sales of their smaller cousins in both units and dollars because, according to Mike Wluka, vice president of Malden, “you get a better ring on it.” Wall frames also sell better online—now an important channel of distribution—than do tabletop frames, Wluka said, because the cost to ship a tabletop frame nearly equals the cost of the frame itself.

“If you look at multiple-openings and wall frames, you see growth,” said Nancy Babine Kucinski, president and CEO of Fetco Home Decor. “Most of the innovation is happening on the wall.”

Savvy consumers recognize and appreciate this, Babine Kucinski added. “They want to be intrigued, they want it to be different. The consumer is interested in decorating her way.”

Innovation and creativity are more important than ever, according to Feldstein. “The bar for ‘what is good’ has been raised significantly,” he said. “If you are to succeed in the frame business, what you present has to be better than ever.”

The most important trends include mixed materials (particularly metal and wood), pops of color, textile-like patterns and distressed finishes (much like the ones currently featured in catalogs like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn).

“People are looking to refresh their homes [instead of renovating on a larger scale],” said Karen Trueblood, vice president of marketing for Burnes of Boston. “They decorate in neutral tones and use things like picture frames to add pops of color.”

Chameleon colors—those that appear to shift and change in the light—are popular right now, Trueblood said, as are ikat patterns and vintage looks. Darker wood finishes are still important, but so are taupe washes and weathered grays, which go hand-in-hand with current interest in reclaimed woods.

“The whole recycled, reclaimed product is very much in the consumer’s mind,” Feldstein said.

Perceived value is very important, vendors agreed. The sweet spot in frames is the $20 price point, and consumers want to be sure they are getting what they pay for. “The quality has to be good,” Wluka said. “If people are going to buy something, it has to last. Or they go to the dollar store and get what they pay for.”

Babine Kucinski agreed. “Price-value is important, and I think that’s defined on the retail floor.” You can’t have two wood frames positioned side-by-side of different quality but the same price, she said. The consumer is smart and sees the difference. That same consumer will accept less-costly materials, such as plastic, but only if they are executed properly and not simply offered as cheap alternatives.

Retail floor space dedicated to frames has shrunk in recent years, and the allotted space is expected to be highly productive. As Feldstein put it, the mantra of the frame industry has become, “less space, but create more dollars.”

Retail channels of distribution for frames have not changed much. The top four players remain Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and Michaels, though Internet players like Amazon and others are growing significantly. Upscale department stores also play an important role. “Frames are a great category for tabletop and housewares,” said Michelle Israel, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for housewares at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s something we’ve gone aggressively after.”

The retailer’s Medinah Home store in Chicago currently has a prominent display of frames in the middle of its ground floor that includes offerings from Prinz and other manufacturers. The Medinah store has the biggest footprint for home, so you can do a lot more with a category in that location than you can in others, Israel said, but frames are an important business nonetheless. Bloomingdale’s separates its frame business into the tabletop (more precious, high-end materials) and housewares categories (featuring a variety of materials), and “both sides are working,” Israel said. “It’s a category we’re super excited about.”

When asked how the retailer inspires the frame customer, Israel replied, “It starts and ends with ‘What does it look like?’ We look at what’s new, what’s best, what’s innovative.” The trend is towards newer constructions and interesting materials such as leathers and skins, she said.

“We’re looking to have a good fourth quarter with it.”