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Cinde W. Ingram

Wannabes crowd a growing market: Wicker Wars

Furnishings for indoor and outdoor are so intertwined it's little wonder the demand for wicker and weather-resistant woven products continues to climb.

"A few years ago, the consumer didn't really know there was a difference between the old wicker and rattan on Grandma's front porch and the new weather wicker, which was more durable and could be put outside," said Sabrina Ebel, general manager of Florida Backyard by Ebel, Inc. "Now, there's more product recognition; they're coming in looking for it and asking for it. It's our top-selling product category."

The combination of more comfortable natural wicker furniture with the trend toward homebuilders adding sunrooms, screened and covered porches will continue to drive growth within the category, said Jerry Stroupe of Inside-Out Home Furnishings, Nashville.

"Resin wicker will continue to grow simply because they've got so many action pieces in it," Stroupe said. "It's almost come full circle, consumers want those big, comfortable, deep seating glider pieces — sofa gliders, love seat gliders."

Jerry Newton, president of Leader's Casual Furniture, said he is "certain rattan, wicker and the casual lifestyle look are still in a growth mode. It's very popular, and we don't think it's going away anytime soon. We may see coloration changes, but we'll surely see continuing movement to outdoor."

In addition to his retail role with 15 Florida stores, Newton operates Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics, which he said had a surprising number of furniture stores ask about its outdoor lines during the October Furniture Market in High Point, N.C. For the first time this month, Palm Springs will exhibit at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market.

Designer Wicker by Tribor President Trifu Boronka has seen casual lifestyles evolve since his company started 20 years ago. During the 1990s, woven designs improved for porch and indoor use. Mixtures of woven materials with wood and metal joined better outdoor fabrics to bring designs to a higher level. After 2000, outdoor wicker brought still more changes for Designer Wicker, which now exhibits in two large permanent showrooms in Atlanta and a 2,400-sq.-ft. showroom in High Point.

"Having 100% acrylic fabric has really helped this industry to grow," Boronka said. "I'm seeing continual gain but more competition. A lot of people jump into this category, especially on the high end, because they see the opportunity."

Lloyd/Flanders marks its 100th year as a manufacturer in 2005 with reports of stable growth in all segments of its woven offerings, from traditional loom wicker to its newest woven polyvinyl chloride designs for poolside use. "We duplicated our paper strand in vinyl — same texture, same size, same feel — so people could use it at the pool with chlorine without any concerns," said Dale Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing. "Obviously people know, respect and trust the loom product we make but vinyl is what the market's demanding as an alternative for out at the pool. It has really become a category within itself."

Campbell agreed many manufacturers have jumped into the woven category while it's hot, but he expects simple attrition to narrow the field with the help of savvy retailers who recognize quality products, leading designs and good business practices. He shared the following analogy: "Dealers all tell us they love us, but none of them will tell us they're thinking about having an affair. They'll have these short little affairs and they come back to us, but it costs everybody business when they do that."

Although a few retailers and manufacturers spoke of the wicker/woven category becoming too crowded, all said they expect it to keep growing this year and beyond.

"I think woven products are just unlimited in terms of the type of product people want to see," said Bill Echols, Brown Jordan International, president, specialty retail and outdoor contract divisions. "We started out focused on dining, then went to deep seating. I think you're going to see a lot of different pieces come into the woven category that we haven't seen up to now because it's so well accepted. In my opinion, a huge percentage of what we sell is not actually going outdoors."

"We're going to see crossover with indoor as well as outdoor," BJI's Ron Ball agreed. "From a retailer's standpoint, that's good."

Woodard's South Port sectional collection received significant placement last fall, Executive Vice President Dean Engelage said. With five wicker/woven collections on the domestic side and another four in its specialty container import program, Engelage views woven as "a growing category for us, much as it is for the industry."

Whitecraft President Lou Rosebrock said he feels fortunate the woven category has long been the specialty of his company, which was consolidated in 2003 with the merger of Cebu Imports and Whitecraft Rattan. "There's a lot of innovation in materials so we're able to offer a lot more looks and coloration," Rosebrock said. "There are just wonderful selections of new fabrics with more detail and surface interest. Glen Raven's done a wonderful job; P. Kaufmann, Robert Allen and Portfolio have done some great things in offering fabrics for us to choose from.

"The wicker customer has been in the past very traditional, but we're seeing more interest in our transitional and contemporary looks," Rosebrock said, noting good orders of its soft contemporary Montecito, San Miguel and Lake Lure collections.

"In our area, the more contemporary styles are definitely doing better," Ebel said. "The more traditional styles with flared arms and traditional colors, like the greens, are gone. The more natural colors, the honey and into the java, seem to be doing well."

Both full-line furniture stores and casual specialty stores are carrying the outdoor woven category, said Stephen F. Morrison, vice president of sales, Acacia Home & Garden. "People are wanting their traditional, transitional wicker looks, but they want to take it outdoors so they need it in a synthetic mode," Morrison said.

During 2004, its fourth year of offering truly outdoor furniture, Acacia developed two materials designed to withstand ultraviolet, moisture and temperature extremes. "This is our fastest growing segment," Morrison said. "This past year, we introduced nine collections of all synthetic vinyl construction — so that category's on fire for us. We also introduced six groups with aluminum frames with Durapex, our trade name for the resin weave." He estimated consumers are using those outdoor products inside 80% of the time.

Allan Palecek said consumers are asking for more of his company's woven and rattan designs. "Because of the broad selection we have, a lot of the stores haven't tried everything we have for second home, coastal living or casual home," Palecek said. "The stores are asking for more of the same: Better design and value but not inexpensive product."

Environ CEO Richard Rennison said its San Francisco introduction of Golden Era, its first fully outdoor collection of resin wicker, proved so successful in 2004 that he plans to debut four more outdoor collections this year. "There's a big trend of people improving their outdoor areas," he said. "They have nicer backyards and want more comfortable furniture."

Padma's Plantation also introduced its first two collections of outdoor furniture in 2004. Vice President Kevin Sypolt described the debut as a new direction for the Batavia, Ill.-based company. "We have been begged and begged to get to the outdoors because our indoor furniture has been known to be on the edge of trend," said Renee Fanjon, president and director of design.

Janice Feldman, president of Janus et Cie, plans to convert some of its popular interior woven loom styles for outdoor use this year in response to requests from dealers and designers. Janus et Cie also is the national distributor of Dedon products, featuring Hularo resin weaving material. Feldman was among the vendors who expressed concerns about the large number of copycat fibers in the woven market.

"You always have leaders and bottom feeders," Feldman said. "What's happening is people see woven and think it's all the same. That's why we have been so explicit in teaching people about Hularo." She compared the situation to that of teak when there was a glut of cheap teak and consumers did not understand how it differed from premium teak. "Now most of those teak traders are out of business," Feldman said. "I think that will happen with woven; a lot of wannabes who are just competing on price will be gone."

Stroupe agreed with that assessment, drawing on his lengthy retail experience. "It is exceptionally crowded right now in the resin outdoor part," Stroupe said. "The problem with that is what's going on in our industry. Unless you're a major player overseas now, you're not going to be able to get deliveries. So that narrows the field down to probably a handful of major manufacturers."

Lloyd/Flanders' Campbell said it seemed as if everyone was offering woven products when he visited the temporary floors at the Casual Market in September. "But this will mature and simple attrition will take place," he predicted. "Our goal is to keep creating new exciting product so we keep the dealers' loyalty and keep this product in front of the consumer. We want to continue long after 100 years."

As another manufacturer with more than 100 years in the casual furniture industry, Woodard's Engelage shared the perspective the woven market "is getting somewhat cluttered from the standpoint of a lot of very similar designs." He added woven vendors are most successful by producing a quality product executed with fabric that complements the furniture well.

For the first time, Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics will exhibit its outdoor furniture line in Atlanta this month, like the Paradise dining group shown here.

Lloyd/Flanders' Cuddle Chair was just one of many innovative products the company introduced this year.

Padma's Plantation debuted two outdoor collections in 2004, including the Outdoor Plaid Four Place Table and Counter Stools, above.

Environ will add four additional outdoor collections this year after its initial launch into resin wicker proved successful.

Brown Jordan introduced Vineyard's all-weather wicker weave Malta Collection during last summer's premarket.

Woodard's South Port sectional line proved to the company wicker is a growing category in the industry.

Lou Rosebrock, president of Whitecraft, says a lot of innovation is available within the woven category, allowing designs to encapsulate many styles and looks.

Palecek's Laguna Chaise Lounge features a metal frame, fully upholstered under the rattan peel and accented with coiled rattan for an upscale chic design.

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