Age of innovation
Tina Benitez-Eves -- Casual Living, February 7, 2013
Throughout its history, the casual industry has thrived on innovation - new ideas, new product categories, new materials, new business strategies. As times change and the industry continues to grow, a new generation of leaders is ensuring the outdoor marketplace has a bright future ahead.
In the third installment of Casual Living's series about the industry's rising stars, four leaders under age 40 reflect on lessons from the industry's past, the state of its present and its possibilities for the future.
KATE CARRET, SEASIDE CASUAL
Like many other outdoor industry rising stars, Kate Carret, part owner of Rhode Island-based Seaside Casual Furniture, grew up in the business. The outdoor furniture operation evolved from the family's lumber business, selling picnic tables, Adirondack chairs and other items produced in the mill shop to local garden centers.
Carret graduated from Boston College with a degree in finance and worked at a management consulting firm that sent her to South Africa for six months. During her world travels, she met her husband in France and operated a culinary school with him there.
After returning to Rhode Island about 12 years ago to raise a family of her own, Carret joined the Seaside Casual team.
"As the furniture side started to grow and become more a part of our core business, I started recognizing an opportunity for myself," Carret said. "I felt like I could make the largest impact where things are changing and evolving every day."
As part owner, Carret's day to- day responsibilities vary from organizing photo shoots and budgeting to product development and design. In particular, innovations in design have been key to the business' growth - Seaside Casual first introduced HDPE products in 1999, a core category that's been constantly evolving ever since.
"HDPE recycled plastic is fairly new to the market - not new, but new compared to wood or metal - so it's been kind of interesting for us because I feel like we're right in the middle of the evolution of the HDPE market," Carret said. "We were making things out of mahogany, and in the building industry we saw how decks and siding and house trims were evolving into lower maintenance. It seemed like a natural progression to watch furniture do that too."
Carret said she expects HDPE to remain a strong category as eco-friendly materials and manufacturing practices become more important to consumers. In addition to the sustainability trend, Carret sees indoor looks moving out as materials and color choices become more varied.
"The sophistication that you see indoors is starting to come out," she said. "I think that's evolving and trending when you look at things like the outdoor kitchen and outdoor living spaces... It used to be you'd find one single color. Now you're seeing intricate weaves and jacquards and embroidery in pillows and cushions."
Going forward, Carret said she feels a blend of innovative ideas, modern technology and traditional core values will contribute to the industry's success.
"We've moved in a different direction with materials, and I think we'll continue to move toward sustainable materials but continue using our core philosophies and traditional business practices to build a strong business," Carret said. "We rely a lot on our relationships. We really feel like the relationships we have with our vendors or with our customers or with our employees are really what's going to keep us strong."
Kate Carret and her family enjoy Seaside Casual’s HDPE furniture at their Rhode Island home.
|Brothers Stephen and Chris Schroeter have worked at Napoleon for 10 and 13
years respectively. Today, both are senior VPs.|
|Stephen and Chris Schroeter spent eight summers learning the ropes at
Napoleon before joining the family business.|
CHRIS AND STEPHEN SCHROETER, NAPOLEON
Like Carret, brothers Chris and Stephen Schroeter also grew up in a family business. Chris and Stephen's parents, Wolfgang and Ingrid Schroeter, founded Napoleon in the mid-1970s as Wolf Steel. The company first made a name for itself in wood stoves and gas fireplaces before expanding its product line to include a full range of outdoor living products such as patio heaters and grills.
Chris and Stephen have worked full time at Napoleon for 13 and 10 years respectively, and prior to that spent eight summers learning the ropes at the Barrie, Ontario-based company.
"We started with sweeping the floors and working our way up through all the different levels of production and assembly, and eventually in the final years of the summers we worked in the offices doing various jobs," Stephen said.
Today, Stephen and Chris are both senior VPs at the company - Stephen oversees sales, accounting, marketing and administration, while Chris manages operations including research and development.
"I try to spend about 50% or more of my time with research and development," Chris said.
"Customers are looking for new and improved products every year - we always try to raise the bar
" When Napoleon expanded into the grill market, Stephen said his father's goal was to make a barbecue that sold for a minimum of $1,000. Though some thought the idea was "a failure waiting to happen," customers wanted a premium, high-quality, long-lasting product, and the company found its niche.
The company's high-quality product has helped it grow during recent challenges such as the economic downturn.
"The disposable income that people had pre-recession, is a lot harder to come by," Chris said. "So we market our quality grills with lots of features and long-lasting durability to ensure we can get the extra $1,000 that they have to spend in the spring and summer."
Napoleon also faced an influx of overseas imports that hit the market, a trend Stephen said has reversed in recent years as the down economy prompted a push for North American-made products.
"A lot of barbecues came in in a very short time period, and it came at better pricing, because you can build a little cheaper over there, but that also meant lower quality grills coming in," he said. "Now we're seeing the opposite, kind of a strong push back toward Canadian and U.S.-made grills. I think customers are really looking for high quality and they can tell the difference easily between a good barbecue and a bad barbecue."
Stephen said the company's experiences in a competitive industry have kept it on its toes, creating an environment in which innovation thrives. Innovation, he said, piques consumers' interest and helps Napoleon stay ahead of the curve.
"Infrared grilling came out, and I believe it's still one of the best ways to make a steak today," Chris said. "It's something we educate the consumer on. The more innovations that we put into our grills that the salesperson can talk about, the more grills we sell."
As Napoleon continues to evolve, the company is looking toward the consumers of the future. Stephen said Napoleon will explore online marketing to reach the younger generation. The company also recently expanded its U.S. operations and will soon build a 300,000-sq.-ft . logistics center in Ontario.
"We're trying to have better customer service for our dealers," Stephen said. "The main goal is for faster turnaround with the X and Y generations' expectations. I'm that type of person who buys something and I expect it immediately... I can tell the younger generation can't even wait as long as I can. We're trying to do everything we can to cater to that market as it grows."
JACLYN KELLY, MMPI
Since 2006, Jaclyn Kelly has watched a bevy of casual furniture and accessories manufacturers evolve at Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. Now senior director of marketing for the casual furnishings industry at MMPI, she sees the latest innovations on display at the annual International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market in Chicago and in the Merchandise Mart's permanent casual showrooms.
She began her career at several public relations firms in Chicago, but the home furnishings industry was never far behind.
"At one of the PR agencies I worked at, the majority of my clients were focused on the home furnishings industry," Kelly said. "I loved the industry and knew that was where I wanted to end up."
In her current role, Kelly oversees the marketing for the Casual Market and handles day-to-day marketing initiatives for the 45-plus year-round outdoor furniture showrooms at the Merchandise Mart.
"During my time at MMPI, interest in the outdoor industry has increased dramatically," Kelly said. "More retail audiences, designers, consumers and media are interested in the industry, and we see them attending the show and events hosted in the building year-round. The Casual Market and the permanent outdoor showrooms at the Merchandise Mart have expanded as well."
In 2008, MMPI expanded the outdoor industry to the 15th floor, and now renovations to the Design Center will shift casual showrooms to the 15th and 16th floors for a cohesive, easy-to-navigate shopping experience.
Through her position at MMPI, Kelly said she sees the outdoor industry evolve every year. At September's market, she saw many exhibitors showcase simple, transitional styles that appeal to today's younger consumer. From a marketing standpoint, Kelly said social media is a crucial method for reaching those new consumers. "More manufacturers and retailers are getting involved in social media, and I believe it is expanding brand awareness of all the outdoor furnishings options available to consumers,"
she said. "The assortment, style and colors of outdoor furnishings are such an expansive market that social media has become an important outlet to showcase quality brands and styles to the eyes of today's consumers."
As businesses continue to create and innovate, Kelly said she thinks the outdoor industry will only expand further.
"Every year we see a wider array of attendees come to the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market that are looking to enter the market," she said. "New retailers and designers are interested in the industry and see it as a growth opportunity for their businesses. I think we will continue to see that interest expand."
Kelly with ICFA Executive Director Joe Logan and Casual Living Publisher Norman Hamilton and wife Dona Jo Hamilton at the Apollo Awards.