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Accentuate accessories

Add-on sales gain strength in soft economy

Elaine Smith Marrakech Finesse Gate House rug from Capel White planter from Napa Home & Garden

With price still holding as the bottom line for many outdoor living customers across the country, retailers and manufacturers are seeing outdoor accessories replace furniture as growth categories for their businesses.

There is a catch, however. Successfully selling accessories such as lamps, rugs and pillows require the same kind of effort in merchandising and salesmanship as outdoor furniture.

That has been the secret for Bucks Country Gardens in Doylestown, Pa., where outdoor accessories sales are better than they have been in several years, according to owner Tom Hebel. Hebel said he has noticed many of his customers are now sprucing up the outdoor spaces they have instead of replacing their furniture.

“I'm seeing a strong trend of people buying more less-expensive items,” Hebel said. “Even if they spend the same amount of money as they did before the economy hit the wall, they're putting more things in their cart this time.”

When it comes to accessories, Hebel said he isn't relying solely on price point to make the sale. He said Bucks Country Gardens has boosted sales of outdoor rugs, for instance, because he added more racks, inventory and selection in 2009. A similar thing has happened with replacement cushions. Hebel said the store moved its cushions display to a more prominent spot on the showroom floor.

“We didn't want replacement cushions to look like an afterthought,” he said.

Hebel said he also fostered an attitude change among his salespeople.

“I wanted our salespeople to treat [replacement cushions] as an important category,” he said. “We didn't have a whole lot of formal training on selling replacement cushions. It was more about changing their mindsets and getting them to present cushions as an alternative to buying a cheaper set of patio furniture.”

Bucks Country Gardens not only increased replacement cushion sales in 2009, it fostered customer loyalty at a time when loyalty is scarce.

“Because we present replacement cushions as an option to buying new furniture, our customers are convinced we weren't out to get every penny from them,” Hebel said.

In the 14 Summer Classics stores in the Southeast and Midwest, accessory sales have been relatively stable compared to outdoor furniture, said Evan Dorman, head of the Summer Classics retail division. Dorman noted particularly strong sales of outdoor rugs and lighting.

“The problem we have is convincing people they can leave it outside,” Dorman said. “We used to have hangtags that read, 'Yes, I go outside.'”

Now, however, Dorman uses the sales force to do the convincing.

“I want my salespeople to present to the customer the entire outdoor lifestyle,” Dorman said. “If a customer wants a sofa and chair for the porch, I want our salespeople to introduce outdoor rugs, additional throw pillows, cushions, space heaters, fans and other accessories. We're training our salespeople to train the customer that a variety of products for the outdoors is there for them.”

Customers, he said, are already buying accessories for the indoors. Summer Classics stores have added indoor furniture and accessories, and Dorman said he's noticed a pattern. Customers are coming in for one thing and leaving with much more in accessories. He said he expects that trend to continue this spring and summer with outdoor accessory product.

All the activity at retail is prompting accessory manufacturers to develop new items for 2010. Surya, for instance, already has a line of outdoor rugs. Recently, it added 20 coordinating outdoor pillows and plans to launch a line of wall art for outdoor rooms.

“The wall art we have now is already approved for outdoor use,” said Seth King, Surya's vice president of sales and marketing. “The stretch canvas can go outside and last 15 to 20 years. But the wood the canvas is stretched around needs to be treated properly. That's what we're working on now.”

Surya's outdoor wall art should be available in mid- to late 2010, King said.

Patio Living Concepts, meanwhile, is developing private label programs while it continues to launch new lamps, umbrella bases and other accessories specifically for independent online and brick-and-mortar retailers. Company president Dale Klaus said the accessories business hasn't been immune to the down economy, but overall business has been remarkably steady.

“We've had a lot of growth with umbrella bases, and the lamps that have wicker are pretty strong,” he said.

In the six years Capel Rugs has been exhibiting at the Chicago International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market, it has seen sales of its outdoor rug line climb 15% to 20% annually. Capel Vice President Bud Young said interest has been peaking for the last few years, while more furniture buyers at the semi-annual High Point Market are adding outdoor rugs to bring something new to their selection.

“Outdoor rugs are becoming a bigger part of our mix,” Young said. “We have one factory committed to making just outdoor rugs, and we're trying to build our marketshare in that category.”

One of Capel's more interesting moves at the 2009 Casual Market was expanding its Customer's Own Material (COM) program, which allows customers to individualize an indoor-outdoor rug with a border of their choice. The company's Dalton, Ga., factory creates custom rugs to client specifications, changing up the look of a rug with single, double or triple borders. The program gives outdoor retailers one more way to stand apart from home improvement centers.

Elaine Smith said she also will focus more on customization of her pillow line in 2010.

“The greatest success stories we have are when we work together with retailers and become a team,” Smith said. “They know their stores, we know our pillows. We love to talk to the store merchandiser and put together programs that work. We advise them on ways to display merchandise, and we have found the retailers who take the category seriously and make a statement with product are the ones that seem to have the most success.”

That is true of every kind of outdoor accessory. Devote the proper resources, and outdoor accessories could be one business segment that actually grows in 2010.

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