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Better designs, higher consumer desire drive evolving casual industry

As a kid I remember unloading rail cars of patio furniture for the family business. This would be brought to our store, unboxed and prepared for the sales floor. The style? Wrought iron and more wrought iron. This was some 25 years ago and, although wrought iron is still a large percentage of our sales, it is no longer the norm by any means.

Not only has the medium broadened, patio furniture of today has embraced the desires of the ever-demanding consumer. Where a table and four chairs was the main desire, now a more comfortable cushioned seating arrangement is the more craved furniture purchase. This tilt in consumer purchasing trends has not only been met by manufacturers, but has exceeded customers' perception of "what can be." I have told customers that even I am amazed at the advances of the industry. From fabrics and cushions to detailed designs from designers and manufactures, every year seems to be outdone by the prior one.

If my grandfather, Percy Guidry, were alive today and could see these changes, he would probably comment "jamais d' la vie!" (never in my life). As did many people in Southern Louisiana, my family grew up in a home where wrought iron chairs and gliders graced our patio. This morning I enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of coffee while reading the Sports section of the newspaper in a cushioned synthetic wicker/teak accented club spring chair, my feet propped on a marble mosaic cocktail table, while my wife sat next to me on a cushioned sofa of similar make reading the Accent section. Our son woke up and joined us by curling up in a thick cushioned wrought iron spring chair.

My point is: This isn't your grandmother's furniture any more. There are so many options available to us as retailers and to the end consumer. It has become more challenging to buy not only the correct amount of inventory dollar wise, but to interpret what has evolved into a fashion industry for the home. Now we determine which frame colors are popular and we pick fabrics that will accent the frame color. We wonder whether we should go traditional or a little eclectic? What about throw pillows? And the tabletops — synthetic stone, marble or granite? My father's buying decision consisted of dollar amount and color — back then it was pale yellow, white and black. Our challenges are really different from those of 25 years ago, but are exciting as well.

There are three categories of customers I perceive coming in to shop for patio furniture.

One is Bubba, who does not want to "refinance his home, just to have patio furniture." If it were not for his wife, he would be just as happy sitting on a five-gallon bucket. They look for something simple and easy. Low price and now.

Customer No. 2 is a little more savvy, has seen and probably purchased the lesser expensive stuff and is looking to replace it with better quality and a better warranty. They see the added benefits of paying a little more. They are looking for something other than a dining set and definitely don't want anything with glass. These customers want a seating group for enjoying evenings on the patio and, if they have room, maybe that matching dining group.

Customer No. 3 is not as concerned with price as with style. They not only don't mind special ordering and waiting, they expect it. They agonize over the fabrics and frame colors, spending hours shopping and purchasing just the right arrangement. They might even ask to take the samples home so a designer can help with their purchase. These customers used to be the exception and not the rule. Customer No. 2 was, and in large part, is the rule. But, more often, we are seeing customer No. 3 — and it is up to us as buyers and retailers to predict, purchase and display handsomely what we perceive this customer wants.

Equally important is the responsibility of manufacturers and designers to bring to market products that will continue to push the envelope of customer demand. Bringing a product to market is one thing, and being able to produce and ship this product before and during the season is another. We as retailers cannot sell what we cannot get. Recently we have seen manufacturers bog down in design to the point that the product cannot be made in a reasonable time frame. This seems to be an increasingly universal problem. I am confident manufacturers acknowledge this and have felt the strain. I also am confident things are underway to correct this problem. If they cannot get the product out, sales are not turning either. It seems to be a fine line between design and feasibility (profitability).

One thing is for sure, "This isn't your grandmother's furniture any more."

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