High Point's Garden Party
By Jessica Goldbogen Harlan
Outdoor furniture vendors looked to extend their distribution to traditional furniture stores by exhibiting at the recent High Point Market.
Agio is just one of many casual furniture vendors that beefed up its presence at this mainly indoor-only furniture market, hoping to scoop up a piece of the furniture-retailer pie.
Agio made the decision based on the increasing number of indoor retailers who are leading the way in expanding into outdoor casual furniture. Andy Sokol, Agio's vice president of sales, furniture store division, said retailers were receptive to their offerings at the show.
"The furniture stores are much more open to discussing adding furniture to their stores," said Sokol, who was previously with outdoor powerhouse Fortunoff. "Casual furniture is all 'plus business' for them. And as you know, it's one of the only categories that's growing right now."
Sokol said that furniture retailers entering the outdoor business need to start with a significant mix of offerings. "You need dining, chat sets, firepits--a decent assortment," he said. "If it looks like an afterthought, the consumer's going to know you're not being serious. You can't just dip your toe in the water."
Gloster Furniture was in its fourth year at High Point market, after a longtime hiatus. The company chose to exhibit in Interhall, since it's a mecca for high-end, design-forward brands.
"We've seen quite a few outdoor furniture manufacturers coming to High Point," said Eric Parsons, president of Gloster. "For the most part, it's been the more elite brands, that target residential designers."
Brown Jordan is another outdoor manufacturer that recognizes the importance of exhibiting at High Point. The company has been exhibiting for many years, and Stephen Elton, chief brand officer, said it's the company's most important market.
"Back in the mid- to later '90s, everybody [in the outdoor furniture business] jumped out of High Point," Elton recalled. "For us, that was great because then we were the only source." But now, he says, outdoor vendors are taking another look at the market and are pursuing traditional furniture retailers once again. Last year, the company did a complete remodel of the showroom to give it a fresher look that Elton described as "more hip and cool."
To lure the traditional furniture retailers, Brown Jordan showcased a collection with a 90-day exclusive for the furniture retail segment. "They'll see it before anyone else, so they can get some placement."
Kingsley-Bate has exhibited at High Point for 10 years, but in recent years expanded into a permanent space at InterHall that is about 70 percent larger than what it had previously. "High Point is the best venue for us to meet traditional furniture retailers, interior designers, and other members of the trade," said Brian Blakeney, director, sales and marketing.
Palm Springs Rattan has also been showing at High Point for about a decade, relocating and expanding over the years to its 2,000-plus-square-foot spot in the Showplace building. Tami Newton, who oversees sales and marketing for the company, said that she sees Showplace as evolving to be the "casual furnishings mecca" of the market, particularly with Agio's appearance at the most recent market.
The increased presence of outdoor furniture at High Point Market offered a glimpse of what the near future might hold for the traditional furniture retail industry as these players look to shore up their flagging businesses.
Furniture retailers are eyeing the outdoor segment in part because they're seeking new sources of revenue to offset the slow economic recovery, or they're feeling pressure from online and catalog retailers who offer both categories, Blakeney said. Other factors: "The increasingly blurred lines between indoor and outdoor rooms and styles, and requests from their regular customers who can't find outdoor furniture in their markets, due to the shrinking base of patio furniture retailers," Blakeney said. He also pointed out that a number of indoor furniture manufacturers have themselves added outdoor pieces to their collection, further spurring the trend.
Adds Newton of Palm Spring Rattan, "It is a natural addition and expansion. For most people, it's not a good time to sell, so expanding your home into the backyard increases your square feet of living space without the property taxes. For a traditional furniture retailer to add the category seems like a no-brainer to me--they already do everything for the inside, why not outside too?"
Outdoor players note that getting into their category can be a learning curve and an adjustment for traditional furniture retailers, but the payoff can be well worth the effort.
"There's a whole different education that goes into [outdoor furniture]," said Elton of Brown Jordan. "We work on educating traditional furniture retailers on why it's a benefit for them, why it's not a commodity, and how the product goes away for half the year." Brown Jordan has a sizeaable training manual for retailers, and regularly holds meetings for traditional furniture retailers to help them succeed in the category.
"It's a different model than they're used to," Parsons said. "It's a seasonal business, so you have to make that decision to change your floor and move product out of the way to make space. You have to train your people. But the opportunities are huge--[the outdoor furniture selling season] is a time of year when the indoor furniture selling cycle has taken a big dip."--With additional reporting by Duke Ratliff