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Cindy Hodnett

Outdoor sales heat up with spring fever

Outdoor dining groupsOutdoor dining groups like Lane Venture’s Kelsey collection feature popular indoor characteristics like comfortable upholstered seating and distinctive tabletop materials.
The peak season for swimming pools, barbecues and outdoor entertaining is just a few weeks away, and forecasts suggest that sales of outdoor furniture will rise along with the temperature.
     With a 5.6% increase in sales from 2011 to 2012, the outdoor furniture category has captured a healthy portion of the discretionary income pie, and manufacturers are expecting future positive growth as consumers respond to expanded product lines that take indoor styles outside.
     "Consumers are trending towards a more casual lifestyle in their home décor - both indoors and outdoors," said Phil Haney, president of Lexington Home Brands, manufacturer of the Tommy Bahama brand of indoor and outdoor furniture. "In fact, the primary driver behind the proliferation in outdoor living designs has been the consumer's desire to maintain continuity in quality and look as they make the outdoor living area an extension of their indoor space."
     Andy Sokol, vice president of sales at outdoor furniture source Agio, said many large furniture stores have added outdoor furnishings to their product lines, offering easy delivery and finance options. He said he believes that along with lifestyle factors, this will position the category for continued growth.
     "The recession has made it more difficult to travel as energy prices have dramatically increased, and unfortunately, many people are either afraid of flying or do not want to go through the hassle of an airport experience," Sokol said. "So the ‘staycation' has become a reality and necessity for many, and people are investing in their backyards to create their own island getaway or backyard oasis.
     "The backyard space is just as important on many HGTV shows as the size of the kitchen," Sokol added. "As households keep getting bigger - when the kids move back in or never move out, and the grandparents move in - everyone wants more space. The backyard is a great place to keep expanding."
     Gloster Furniture has experienced double-digit growth in each of the past three seasons, according to President Eric Parsons.
Shade is an importantShade is an important consideration when creating an outdoor living area, and products like Treasure Garden’s Bradbury cantilever provide stylish, userfriendly solutions.

     "We recognize and celebrate the true luxury and freedom of time," Parsons said. "It's the chance to seize the moment, relax more, live more, connect more. Our job is to capitalize on the little time that people truly have and provide them with furniture that maximizes their enjoyment of that time.
     "We are in a fashion business and our consumer seeks unique design that is cutting edge, inviting to ‘live' in, enables them to enjoy their home from the outdoors and requires little maintenance, i.e. use it when you want, leave it just as quickly."
     The lifestyle factors that drive the outdoor category also influence product development at Gloster. Parsons said that some of the innovations include variable-depth modular seating to allow for traditional and lounging depth within the same sectional, the Outdoor Lounge collection of weatherproof upholstery seating that allows consumers to leave cushions outside, and lightweight seating blocks that can be easily moved and reconfigured.
     "As a category, Outdoor Lounge represents 15% of our U.S. business after only two years and nearly 30% of our European business after three years in the marketplace," Parsons said. "It incorporates the design influence of fully upholstered indoor lounge seating with technically advanced weatherproof fabric and frame materials that withstand severe weather elements."
     Treasure Garden has experienced double-digit growth in the past decade, and Jeff B. Dorough, VP of sales and marketing, expects similar results in the future. The company's large outdoor umbrellas fill a niche in the marketplace and address the often overlooked shade factor, he said.
     "We see continued growth for the outdoor category as more homeowners grow in the ability to ‘dress' outdoor spaces and create outdoor rooms with furnishings, accessories and shade products," Dorough said. "Homeowners will be looking for innovative products and custom design options that specialty retailers can offer.
     "Staycations and cocooning continue to be backyard lifestyle trends. The opportunities for investing in outdoor décor are exploding with the numerous outdoor living products that are available today."
     Some of those products go beyond the outdoor furniture options of seasons past. Outdoor sectionals rival their indoor counterparts in comfort comparisons. Dining sets can be adjusted to accommodate various group sizes. Shade products, grills and fire pits allow consumers to create an outdoor dining space to complement upholstered settings.
Gloster’s Cloud ivory lineGloster’s Cloud ivory line showcases a simple profi le with deep seating.

     "The outdoor space around the home continues to rank at the top of the lists of most desired home enhancements," said Gary McCray, president of Lane Venture. "The increased options being built or renovated into the outdoor areas of today's homes offer more and better space for consumers to utilize outdoor furnishings."
     Lane Venture has had "steady, solid growth each year" since 2009, McCray said. The company introduced a successful line of outdoor upholstery in 2010 that features "weather resistant frames, drainable cushions and slipcover upholstery," he added.
     "While we also make indoor upholstery, this product is built from the ground up to be used outdoors," McCray said.
     "Anything for outdoor has to be something that holds up to the elements, and whether fully upholstered or cushions, the products that Ms. Jones wants for outdoor are the same type of look she has in her indoor living and dining rooms," said Suzie Roberts, VP at Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the manufacturer of Sunbrella. "A lot of the traditional residential furniture stores are looking at the outdoor category now, and it makes sense to broaden the reach to consumers. Outdoor space is an additional living area of the home, and people want to be as comfortable outside as they are inside."
     The correlation between indoor styles and outdoor settings could represent a boon for traditional furniture retailers. Since outdoor rooms are a relatively young architectural consideration, many consumers are starting from scratch to outfit their outdoor areas.
Lloyd Flanders’ Luna collectionLloyd Flanders’ Luna collection blends contemporary design and outdoor durability.

     "The compounded growth rate for quality outdoor products for the next several years may exceed that of the indoor category," Lexington's Haney said. "If you look at model homes today, the outdoor living area is clearly the featured element of the home, and many new homes have multiple outdoor living areas. That is why many traditional indoor retailers are finding the need to expand their offering and services to include the outdoor living space. It represents an exceptional opportunity."
     Palm Springs Rattan is a nationally trademarked brand of outdoor furniture sold by Leader's Casual Furniture. Sales Manager Tami Newton agreed that the partnership between traditional furniture retailers and outdoor manufacturers is a natural fit.
     "Our full-line dealers have become some of our top performers in outdoor furnishings sales," Newton said. "It is another category to increase their dollars per square foot that is an easy add-on to their indoor sale."
     And while the potential for continued growth in outdoor furniture remains strong in conjunction with an improving economy, there is still ground to be regained after the recession, according to Dudley Flanders, president of Lloyd Flanders.
     "Most people in the casual industry are trying to get back to their pre-2008 levels," Flanders said. "We lost a lot of dealers during the recession, and it is important that we rebuild the traditional casual dealer network. There are a lot of areas in the country where the casual market is underserved."

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