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Cinde W. Ingram

Outdoor living takes center stage

Have you noticed? They're talking about us. Innovative and stylish outdoor furnishings, shade, grills, home spa, pool and resort products are grabbing consumers' attention like never before. It's no secret the national media is paying attention.

Television home decorating shows venture outside the house more often these days. For example, the Discovery Channel's home make-over show Monster House devoted several summer episodes to grill islands, hot tubs and other outdoor products. Cal Spas' home resort products showed up there and on Good Morning America, CNBC, The Dennis Miller Show and The Robb Report. In all, Cal Spas was featured on eight national TV shows and four national magazines plus local-market coverage, resulting in more than 620 million media impressions in one month alone.

Independent retail stores also are making lasting impressions in their markets across the nation. Although many were puzzled by the lull in June sales, most retailers I have talked with reported selling seasons that started strong and kept going later than expected. A few vented about shipping delays, but their comments were tempered by their survival aplomb. Not to say every store survived. I heard tales of a few casualties of Florida's "patio wars."

Enthusiastic attitudes of casual furniture retail survivors were evident during premarkets, which appear more like formal trade shows every year. Nearly all exhibiting manufacturers were prepared with a range of new products, many had fresh catalogs and few were fishing for suggested changes. Next month's market promises surprises both in product innovation and showroom expansions.

Ron Ball, Brown Jordan International, vice president, specialty sales, reflected on more than 25 years of industry experience when he told me he's witnessed drastic changes in the product mix over the last five years. The trend back to cushions has been boosted by technology so performance fabrics really do bring the inside out and vice versa. No single product dominates, Ball said, and the word "partnership" repeats more and more.

Choosing the right partners and products is vital as we head into the September Casual Market, seeking what consumers will want for their decks, patios and in other outdoor living rooms.

Let's give 'em something to talk about.

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