Cushioning the bad economy
David Perry -- Casual Living, September 1, 2009
If there is one place retailers and manufacturers should consider investing money right now, it's in the replacement cushion business. The category is one of the few in the casual furniture market in which manufacturers are reporting sales gains.
Casual furniture maker Outdoor Lifestyle has received a surge of orders for its own replacement cushions, vice president Kathy Haney said. The same goes for NorthCape International, which made a huge investment in cushions two years ago with the launch of its cushion manufacturing facility and national network of warehouses (see July 2009 issue).
"We probably have more potential demand than capacity right now," said NorthCape president Tom Murray. "We're seeing more retailers who want to exploit the replacement cushion business because they may not be getting the [furniture] sales anymore."
Pamela Hiers-Butz agreed. The president of Classic Cushions and Umbrellas by Roger's Cushions, which began manufacturing cushions and umbrellas in 1980, said this is the first time in company history sales have decreased. While its replacement cushion business has been stable, its original equipment manufacturer business is "way down," she said.
Frank Carrasquilla, vice president of sales and marketing for Shelly's Cushions, has noticed the same trend. At the same time, he noted an increased demand for cushions that fit cast aluminum furniture and deep seating. Going forward, he said anticipating replacement cushion sales trends will be easy for those who monitor what's selling in outdoor furniture.
"It takes about five years for the replacement market to take hold," Carrasquilla said. "If something is new in furniture now, we don't get that business right away because something has to happen for the customer to need to replace the cushions. It's been long enough now for the cast business to pick up for us."
Continued growth in cushions will depend on more than just sharp forecasting, however. Innovation and marketing, both of which are linked together, will also drive cushion sales. Manufacturers must continue to provide innovations in a category that consumers are expecting more from. Meanwhile, they and their retailers must prove the merits of those innovations and justify the higher retail price.
Already, consumers appear more willing to shell out money for better fabrics.
"Up to this point, Sunbrella has dominated the field, but Outdura has come into the market strong," Carrasquilla said. "Those two vendors have improved the product in color and fashion drastically. It's very difficult now to determine whether a fabric is for the indoors or outdoors, and consumers have a lot more choices."
That movement has encouraged high-end consumers, in particular, to replace their cushions before they wear out. For instance, Haney recently dealt with a woman in Texas who had a yard full of Outdoor Lifestyle furniture she wanted new cushions for. Her old cushions were fine. She simply wanted a new look.
Windward Design Group also has launched a replacement cushion program encompassing several casual furnishings categories, including wicker, aluminum and wrought iron. The program offers an array of decorative pillows finished with gimps, chenille fringes and tassels.
The cushion itself is beginning to catch up to the fabric and trims. And it's about time, said Joe Cooper, president of Florida-based cushion manufacturer Over And Under Advanced Sewing.
"Cushions have always been an afterthought in this market," Cooper said. "But they're growing up, going from just being a piece of foam with fabric wrapped around it to being something people want better performance from."
Consumers also want green cushions. Murray said the material in the foam it uses is up to 20% soy-based. Pacific Coast Feather Cushion Corp. has created a soy-based foam cushion that companies such as Outdoor Lifestyle and Rock Wood Furniture will bring to the Casual Market.
There is still plenty of marketing potential for these cushions, Pacific Coast president and founder Neil Puro said. Most vendors and retailers who sell the cushions now haven't fully exploited the green angle, he said.
"So far, the key selling points have been comfort, design and style," Puro said. "[The cushion] also gives a more rounded and softer appearance, which is what consumers are looking for, particularly in the transitional business where you have outdoor manufacturers trying to get their product indoors or under an awning."
Outdoor Lifestyle began shipping its soy-based cushions in April, and every piece of furniture it will display at the Casual Market this month contains the foam. Haney said the company started to push the green angle in Chicago.
"Producing these cushions reduces the environmental impact by 75% compared to petroleum-based foams and requires 61% less non-renewable energy," Haney said. "And they last just as well as any other cushion that's out there."
Moving forward, a big question in the cushion business is whether consumers will pay more for innovation. Cooper is banking on it. After buying Over And Under four years ago, he began innovating and testing to develop high performance outdoor cushions. Its combination of features, including Sunbrella Next Generation fabric and no-slip guards, quickly gained traction in the hospitality market. Because Cooper creates the cushions for manufacturers such as Skyline Design, he spent time explaining the new functions to buyers at the Skyline Design booth during the Hospitality Design Expo in May. Skyline also will show off its cushion innovations this month at the HD Boutique in Miami.
"Consumers are starting to want more from their cushions and not realizing it drives the cost up quite a bit," Cooper said. "People who are more knowledgeable are realizing this. They have realized they want higher performance by experiencing lower performance."
Those knowledgeable people Cooper speaks of are generally buyers for hotels and restaurants. Prompting a paradigm shift among the general consumer will take a consistent and persistent marketing effort by both manufacturers and retailers. Right now, Outdoor Lifestyle is telling its eco-friendly story through its sales reps.
"What we are finding is that the sales reps in our industry are doing a great job at getting the message out and doing sales training," Haney said. "For us it's a process of getting the message out to the people on the retail sales floor who are interacting with the general public because we know the general public is concerned about the environment."
Consumers also are concerned about quality, a message Sunbrella in particular has effectively conveyed in marketing via a number of home and lifestyle magazines.
"I think the mills have done a terrific job educating outdoor retailers with their ad campaigns, literature and POP brochures," Hiers-Butz said. "I've seen Waverly, Glen Raven and other mills advertise in publications like Good Housekeeping. It's important that they continue to do that."
Ultimately, the most important marketing effort is at the store level, where consumers can feel the cushions themselves and hear from retailers why they should spend more than they may have imagined on a cushion. The upside of those efforts is potentially huge for retailers.
"Mass merchants are not offering a replacement cushion program for their deep seating," Murray said. "It's a small-volume, niche business that mass merchants can never do, but it requires dealers to develop good relationships with cushion manufacturers. The opportunity is there, it just takes work."