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Deep seating demand, innovative fabrics, key growth in cushion industry

Carter Grandle's Chapter 11 filing in January was a sign of the company's struggles, but it didn't indicate the health of one of its core product categories. The cushion business continues to be strong for manufacturers nationwide.

Suncoast Furniture, in fact, responded quickly to the Carter Grandle news by offering to produce replacement cushions for any dealers who were left in the lurch. Suncoast understood the demand for cushions is growing thanks to more consumers who are setting up elaborate outdoor spaces on their decks and patios. Plain wood or cast iron chairs and benches won't do anymore. Deep seating is the buzz.

"Deep seating started growing for us two years ago and it just keeps growing every year," said Gerry Auclair, president of Custom Craft. "Our business is up probably 30 to 35 percent this year thanks to that. A lot of retailers are buying furniture without cushions and having me make the cushions."

"From everything I've read, [deep seating] is something that's constantly growing because so many people's outdoor spaces are becoming just as important as their living room spaces," added Tracy Robin, vice president of sales and marketing at New Harbour, Inc. "It's huge right now for us, and we're trying to separate ourselves by being able to do custom work."

Companies like New Harbour can get into custom work, because the consumers who are buying deep seating furniture are willing to pay for the extra cost.

"The recurring theme with specialty retailers is there are fewer people walking through the door, but the tickets are bigger," said Al Arad, president of Cast Classics. "A retailer who would've had 10 people walk in and spend $1,000 every day now sees seven customers, each spending $1,500."

For some retailers, the tickets are even larger than that.

"In the week I spent helping one specialty retailer, we didn't touch anything under $3,000," said Laurie Bell founder and designer Laurie Jenkins. "Most of the sales were in the $7,000 to $12,000 range. The customers wanted cushions, pillows — everything."

Dovetailing with consumers' increasingly sophisticated tastes with their outdoor furniture is an explosion in innovative fabrics produced with new technology. Given where the market is headed, many manufacturers are sparing no expense in this area.

"I'm buying higher-priced fabrics like outdoor chenilles," said Mike Siesel, vice president of Casual Cushion. "I'm buying things like acrylic jacquards because I have more of a pool and patio shop clientèle. I'm getting feedback from them that their customers want higher-end fabrics like that."

"When you sit on acrylic chenille fabric after coming out of the pool, it feels almost like a terry cloth," Arad said. "Trimmings have come a long way, too. Fabric manufacturers have done a fantastic job of pushing the envelope in terms of technology."

The added luxury doesn't stop with the fabrics. Arad said the most obvious change he has noticed in deep seating cushions is scale.

"Ten years ago, you would see cushions that were sort of standard sized," he said. "Now the goods we're producing are larger, more comfortable and more plush. Cushions are deeper, softer and more luxuriously tailored. There are more bells and whistles now."

Retailers are seeing more cushions with contrasting piping, for instance, and tie-backs fashioned from tassels.

"From A to Z, the cushion has gone up several notches," Arad said.

Everyone has noticed, including the mass and catalog retailers that bombard consumers with direct mail marketing and advertising. Even warehouse clubs are beginning to offer outdoor furniture with plump cushions. Many manufacturers insist there is plenty of business still out there for specialty retailers; they just have to work harder to get it.

"I try to tell the specialty retailers I talk to that if they try to compete against the Home Depots and Wal-Marts, they might as well put a Chapter 11 sign on their front door," Siesel said. "You have to appear to be higher end and go in a different direction. With the trend in deep seating, I think that helps the specialty market because it gives them more unique product to sell."

Jenkins beckons specialty retailers to follow the lead of the manufacturers that are innovating with new fabrics and cushion constructions.

"I think the specialty retailers who are doing well are being rewarded for pushing the envelope," Jenkins said. "It's understanding how to put the story together in their store, mixing three to five fabrics in one setting. I tend to use a texture on the biggest piece and jacquards and stripes on the smaller pieces I bring in as accessories. My retailers are following that and they're seeing success. And what they're finding out is if you show the customer the right fabric and color on a cushion, they don't care what it costs."

Manufacturers are benefiting from the popularity of deep seating groups. New Harbour is one such company, and is separating itself from competitors with the ability to do custom work.

Cast Classics' Magnum Club Chair features extra deep cushions.

High-end fabrics, like Astrup's Marquesa fabric, above, help to boost sales in the casual industry.

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