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Cinde W. Ingram

The Changing Face of Casual

Anyone who has worked in the casual industry for any length of time has witnessed its ongoing evolution.

Opinions differ widely on the maturity level of the casual furniture and accessories market. Some say it's still in its infancy while others describe it as adolescent or young adult. Even players who have been around the longest don't think of the casual industry as being fully grown, at middle age or in its sunset years.

All seem to agree there are plenty of opportunities in this growing category.

"I'd say we're a teen-ager going through puberty," Agio President Bob Gaylord said. "People are spending more and more money renovating and fixing up the areas at the back of their houses but (as for) what they spend on furniture, it's just a pimple."

   Improved fabrics and cushions make outdoor styles more like indoor.  

All-weather wicker and alternative tabletop sales just continue to grow for Agio, Gaylord said. "I think deep seating is going to literally overwhelm this industry within the next two to three years, and dining is going to be only an accessory," he said. "What put it over the top for us was really the chat groups, which ultimately bring back cushions."

"We're still in infancy," Merv Conn of Mallin Casual Furniture said matter-of-factly. "It's growing from indoor to outdoor; 70% of our business now is cushion groups. I think the size of merchandise has changed considerably; the trend really is oversize. Some color is back and there are better-looking stripes. Our whole philosophy is the style, size and color. It's a lot of fun work."

Lou Rosebrock of Whitecraft was just as certain the industry is beyond its infancy. That said, he recognizes "there's definitely a learning curve we have to go through" to meet the consumer demand he expects to result from record homebuilding numbers tallied over the past few months.

Jim Urch, advertising director of Telescope Casual, said he thinks the industry is beyond adolescence. "It's amazing the changes I've seen in 10 years with more designs and more choices," he said. "Our fabric selection has gone up a third. I remember when everything was sling, sling and sling. We have evolved tremendously and we keep up-scaling ourselves."

Casual furniture has evolved from resin seating to include a variety of materials from teak and jatoba to Hularo, wrought iron and more.  

Between adolescence and early adulthood is how Joe Logan, SCFMA executive director, described the casual industry's maturity level. "The industry has grown dramatically in the last few years, with so much attention focused on the Outdoor Room and the wonderful potential for our industry," Logan said.

The number of changes in leadership and addition of new players has been amazing to watch over the past five years, Logan said. "I just see many good years ahead," he said. "It's an ever evolving, ever changing industry. There's much, much more competition and different distribution channels. It's really a whole new face on the industry on that front."

Dudley Flanders of Lloyd/Flanders said he thinks the industry has reached its early adult stage, maturing through use of a variety of materials. "I remember when redwood was huge, and that lasted until the late '70s," Flanders said. "We've been through resin and now cast aluminum, but I would say the woven material category is every bit as big now as cast. Still, we have a long way to go to get everybody who has a patio to have nice patio furniture — we're not about to saturate the market."

Because of its wicker, loom and outdoor woven focus, Lloyd/Flanders is among the manufacturers who blur the lines between indoor and outdoor use. Improved outdoor fabrics represent one of the biggest changes in being able to erase boundaries of the home.

"It took many years to get people to realize the patio was an extension of the home," said Bill Scully, a sales rep who has been involved in the casual industry nearly 50 years. With his brother, Larry, a long-time sales rep for Ficks Reed and Meadowcraft, who died early this year, Scully witnessed the industry changing from its former all family-owned structure. "Once we started getting goods in from China, retailers had to grade up if they had any hope to succeed," Bill Scully said.

Gary McCray of Laneventure also noted the continued blending and blurring of the line separating indoor and outdoor products and styles. "It's hard to characterize," McCray said. "It's certainly an industry in a state of flux."

Although Acacia has long been known for its high-end indoor wicker and woven styles, Steve Morrison said plainly, "Outdoor is our fastest growing division." Acacia will add six seating and three dining collections for outdoor use during 2006 and will also introduce more faux stone, fossil stone and cast tile tabletops, he said.

"I think it's starting to mature into a very significant part of home furnishings," said Bill Brown, president, retail division, Pride Family Brands.

Outdoor Lifestyle President Fred Isle said he sees the growing importance of outdoor home furnishings as a result of lifestyles changes. Homeowners traded their interest in living rooms in favor of family rooms, he said, then home offices drew their attention but homeowners now show interest in outdoor areas.

"It's hard to say whether it's in infancy, adolescence, adulthood or its prime of life," said Kathy Haney, vice president, Outdoor Lifestyle. "I think it's driven by the consumer and retailer."

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