Deep seating lifts wrought iron sales
Thomas Russell -- Casual Living, March 15, 2005
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of wrought iron have been greatly exaggerated.
Clearly the low end of the category belongs to the mass merchants. And certainly, many specialty retailers have been cutting back their wrought iron displays as more and more of their showrooms are devoted to cast aluminum. But for many other dealers, not only is wrought iron still in demand, it is the hottest thing going.
"We continue to see a huge demand for it," said Carl Vice, owner of Casual Living & Patio Center, Lexington, Ky. "It has a tremendous perceived value with consumers because it is nowhere near the price of cast but it still has the eye appeal."
Joe Primcock agrees. Broadway Furniture in Denver still displays 5,000 square feet of wrought iron. Despite that city's soft economy, "we still expect our wrought iron sales to be very strong this season," Primcock said.
Vice estimates that wrought iron commands 25% of his furniture sales. And while the category has never leveled off, it is especially strong now.
"The designs are excellent, the fabrics are fantastic, and with the better suppliers, consumers can get it almost instantly — three weeks and it's on their doorstep," Vice said.
As with other categories, deep seating is driving much of the current success. The conversational seating and sofa gliders, in particular, are drawing intense consumer interest.
"The wrought iron manufacturers have really recognized the opportunities in deep seating, more so than some of the cast aluminum manufacturers," said Jerry Stroupe, owner of Inside-Out Home Furnishings, Brentwood, Tenn.
Stroupe has seen some slippage in sales of the traditional mesh dining collections with the growing interest in deep seating but stresses that, especially in the Southeast, there will always be a demand for this traditional look.
Vice takes a stronger stance, calling Woodard's Briarwood the "king of the crop in wrought iron furniture. Nothing else touches it."
While wrought iron's appeal in part is its durability, its weakness has always been its tendency to rust. Today, the leading manufacturers use finishes that prevent rusting. Still, it can't be completely eliminated and that affects regional demand. In San Diego, for example, Hauser's Patio & Rattan Furniture offers the category but accepts that it will never be a big growth area.
"Wrought iron is a tough sell here in the coastal environment," said Doug Wheat, president of Hauser's. Ironically, when Hauser first opened its doors 40 years ago, it manufactured its own furniture, which was all wrought iron, Wheat added.
"If it is steel, it will rust, and we don't try to tell our customers differently," Wheat said. "But it can also last forever. If people will give it a good glance every year and touch it up before anything becomes too big a problem, the furniture will last generations."
Although the category tends to remain flat for Hauser's, Wheat is seeing growth in bistro sets as more and more condos are being built as part of San Diego's downtown renovation. "We'll put O.W. Lee chairs with KNF tabletops a lot of the time," he said.
"It's that traditional mesh look that many people think of when they think about outdoor furniture, so we will always have room on our floor for that," said Brent Severson, sales manager, Patio & Hearth Shoppe. "It's a staple."
New for this season are some of Meadowcraft's sofa gliders, bistro tables and tile top baker's racks. Overall the category offering at Patio & Hearth Shoppe has become more focused on deep seating and more upscale, but wrought iron remains a middle price point for the business.
"Wrought iron is a bread-and-butter look in the Midwest," Severson said. "We reserve our high end for cast aluminum."
In the arid climes of San Antonio, Texas, wrought iron is hot at both medium and high price points.
"Meadowcraft has been just phenomenal for us, and we've also been doing well with O.W. Lee," said Judy Kelley, one of the family owners of Home & Patio, San Antonio.
Here, too, wrought iron is viewed primarily as an alternative to cast aluminum, as Kelley reports a growing price consciousness among her customers.
"Last year, our medium sale was maybe $2,000 to $3,000, but this year people seem to be a little more price conscious," she said.
It's a different story at the Pool & Patio Center in New Orleans.
"We are doing four of O.W. Lee's Old World chairs with a real marble top table and selling it at $3,500. That isn't cheaper than cast aluminum," said Bruce Aronson, owner of the Pool & Patio Center. "It seems to be selling because it has great style. The classic spring chair done in the club or lounge version is by far the most comfortable chair in the store."
Because it is New Orleans, rust is a concern. Aronson and his sales people emphasize the quality of the furniture in tackling their customers' concerns, stressing that while they will have to touch up the furniture, they won't have to do it as often as they might should they purchase a lower-quality wrought iron set.
At one point, the Pool & Patio Center sold a tremendous amount of wrought iron given the decorative style of the French Quarter. But when rust became a bigger issue years ago after OSHA banned the chemicals used for prevention, Aronson replaced his wrought iron with Homecrest's aluminum Excalibur collection. He added O.W. Lee's higher end products about seven years ago.
Today he stays away from lower and mid-priced wrought iron with one exception. This year he is bringing in a container of Woodard's import line for his preseason sale and another for his postseason sale.
"I'm considering it as an advertising cost to drive people into the store," Aronson said. "We're going to take a full mark on it, but I know other retailers are taking 60 and 70 percent on this line. We aren't going to do that. We just want to be able to say that we have a $399 set of wrought iron."
Vice believes too many retailers miss the opportunity of add-on sales when they think about wrought iron.
"When you add four nice cushions and a matching umbrella and base, you've taken a $699 group well over $1,000," Vice said. "I think it is a great add-on product, maybe more so than what I've seen with the cast aluminum."
Although his customers are also concerned with rust, Vice said that they don't complain as much as they did in the past. In part, that is because they know if a problem should arise, the manufacturers Vice carries will take care of it.
Vice has nothing but praise for his wrought iron suppliers.
"We have three of the best manufacturers in the world producing wrought iron," Vice said. "Woodard is number one in the world, Meadowcraft is chasing right behind them with their beautiful designs, and then there is O.W. Lee with their spectacular style. These three manufacturers are really rocking and rolling right now."