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Atlanta market brings mixed start for 2008 

Retailers, manufacturers share viewpoints

Moods of buyers and exhibitors were mixed as the Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market cranked into motion last week. By the time the temporary exhibits opened on Friday, AmericasMart was buzzing with buyers. 
Traffic built slowly as the week progressed in The Gardens, AmericasMart’s Casual Living and Home Décor floors. Casual furniture dealers, garden centers and designers stepped off the meandering pathways for closer looks at new and best-selling products. When asked about their 2007 season results, retailers’ answers varied from great to horrendous. Manufacturers were equally split as they shared their outlooks for 2008-09.
While bright colors abounded on garden accessories, the eco-friendly green trend continued to prompt attention as did concerns about the housing market slump and speculation about how this election year will impact the home furnishings industry.
“I think, at least in our business, the outlook is good,” said Randy Meek, Oxford Garden. “We’ve been on double-digit growth for a long time. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we just focus on good value product and keeping it in stock. I don’t think you can ask a customer to wait two months” to get an order filled.  
“This year is going to be a little bit challenging,” said Steve Tsai, president, Design Décor. “We’re seeing a hesitation to commit to orders, but come spring I think sales will be solid.”
“I didn’t have high hopes, but its been good,” said Barbara Simeon, Jewels of Java.
Although Uwharrie Chair experienced a 25% increase in contract sales last year, Sales and Marketing Manager Rebecca Price was unsure of what to expect going into the Atlanta market because she knew many retailers had experienced a sales slump in November. The day before the Atlanta market opened though, she wrote an order for a New York-based furniture retailer that restored her confidence.
“We’ve had an exceptionally good market with 15 introductions,” said Jeannie Bethel, national sales manager, Two Palms Casual division of Furniture Classics. “Martinique and Key Largo have been clear winners. We will be adding new items to those collections in April at the High Point Market.”
Homestyle Express President Eric Blum said designers often place orders for his upscale all-weather wicker furniture during the market rather than waiting until later.  “I think the high end is buying so I’m upbeat,” Blum said.
Alfresco Home was among the vendors responding to its customers’ requests by adding a Petite Bistro Collection, with six mosaic patterns on 24-inch tables, as well as a Terre Fresca line of stylish large urns and containers for the garden. Although the company has offered indoor containers for a couple of years, customers were asking for outdoor ones. “We wanted to do it but with an Alfresco Home appeal, original fresh and creative designs with nice quality,” Joseph Cilio said. “Our business is providing outdoor living solutions, it’s not about pottery. It’s about completing the look.”  
Open Air Designs showed its outdoor WeatherPrints, including exclusive paintings by artist Natasha Wescoat, in an expanded showroom. “We’re showcasing product on the main side of a traffic aisle,” Jason Kubach said. “It gives us a lot more wall space than we had before.”     
The Padma’s Plantation showroom drew retail customers Kevin Sypolt doesn’t see at markets in Las Vegas or High Point, N.C. “We’re looking forward to ’08 being a better year than ’07,” Sypolt said.
“This market is always strong for designers,” said Trifu Boronka of Designer Wicker by Tribor. “We’ve also seen retailers visiting from Canada and Maine to Florida and Mississippi.” While designers have wanted the cottage look for some time, Boronka saw it attract more interest from retailers. Rustic lodge looks were gaining attention.   
“We’ve seen a lot of designers we don’t see in Chicago,” said Debbie Young, CEO of Windham, which was among the number of first-time exhibitors at the Atlanta market. Key retailers also were visiting her booth.
Ciera, Three Birds Casual’s deep seating sectional, was soliciting sighs as people rested their necks on its high back. “For the majority of people, deep seating is what they are looking for,” said Tad Vargo, Three Birds Casual. “They want something more than dining; they want comfort.”
Sales rep Happy Land added customers “know what they’re looking for; they’re looking for flexibility.” 
Griffin Creek founder Ellen Burton was testing the response to soft acrylic fabrics and slipcovers for her high-back wrought iron chairs, designed for use in covered areas. The slipcovers add flexibility for homeowners who want a warmer look for their chairs during winter months. Also debuting was a herb garden stand that allows water to flow through four small planters and an asymmetrical bench of berry wood from Egypt. Lightweight concrete planters and dining tables with wrought iron base and Norwegian pine tops also were displayed by the Leeds, Ala.-based manufacturer, which is celebrating its 10th year in 2008.
Jeff Amon of Deco Breeze welcomed buyers with a new outdoor collection of fans, all constructed wit design in mind. “People were asking for them,” Amon said. 
H. Potter’s Seat of Authority, a mini-gazebo with cushioned bench and galvanized steel frame and brown powder-coated finish, captured attention with style and a 10-year warranty against rusting. President and CEO Jerry Peed was optimistic about the season ahead and the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based company’s migration toward supplying more large gazebos and outdoor lighting products to patio shops as well as its traditional customers at garden centers and birding stores. “We booked more numbers coming into ’09 than we ever had,” Peed said.
“The Atlanta market sets the pace for the year,” said Susan Regert, owner of Z Garden Party. “I find people come back and buy things they have sold before. They’re sticking with what they know will sell.” Her hottest selling items were Life Is Good garden stakes and a Rock Solid Heart garden accessory, she said. 
“It’s going to be a great year, especially for the companies with a strong dot-com connection,” said Guillermo D’Ambrosio, International Home Imports & Exports. “We are presenting teak and eucalyptus lines for 2008 and also are developing a line of affordable all-weather wicker. As soon as you tell your customers the product is FSC certified, meaning it comes from well-managed forests, it’s very good as a selling speech.” 
Recalling her background in investment banking, KC Cunningham of Napa Home and Garden described her outlook as bullish. She said she sees confidence in attitudes of her customers, who were seeking out white, yellow and green garden accents. She also hears more comments about environmental awareness but thinks it will take a couple more years before standards are set for eco-friendly products. “Napa’s constantly looking for green products,” she said. Cunningham also commented on the market’s traffic. “During the summer, everyone was cautiously buying,” she said. “Now, they are open to buy.”
“The whole recycled thing is becoming huge,” said Amy Kimmich of Mariachi Imports. The company’s Mad Mats, made of recycled plastic, were displayed with brightly colored Adirondacks by Canadian Recycled Plastic Products. When CRP Products began 15 years ago, consumers didn’t care whether the product was recycled, but “in the last two years that has really changed,” Trudie Wiseman said. 
Others were more cautious in their outlooks, saying 2007 was a tough year in many markets. Some commented about an election year’s potential negative impact on retail sales. Red Carpet Studios poked fun at election year anxieties with a display of famous faces of politicians and candidates. Beneath the eye-catching display were colorful mosaic birdbaths on wrought iron stands. Greg Garrison said wind chimes still sell well for the Cincinnati-based company.
Wind chimes were featured in many other booths, including Clinton-Wash.-based Asli Arts, which reported increased interest for its eco-friendly wind chimes made of capiz shells or bamboo with coconut shell caps. Stained birdhouses also were added.
“We’re always about color, whimsy and motion – anything windblown,” said Paul Sheffield, director of sales, Exhart.  
Woodstock Percussion took several of its best-sellers and revamped them, but also made new introductions in existing collections. Earth bells were a hit as smaller, more natural looking wind chimes. In addition, the company also debuted a line of lightweight granite garden sculptures in four designs, plus smaller fountains.
Colorful new product appeared at Achla Designs’ booth as a pink flamingo and great egret joined more neutral cranes as yard art. Its Chippendale Tree Bench debuted in dusty rose along with a Camelback Bench in sweet pea green. Made of eucalyptus with polyurethane finish, Achla clearly showed its products were grown in managed forests or were FSC certified.
“Our Eco-glass Gazing Balls have been one of our No. 1 sellers,” said Karen Greene, account manager of Yosilanti, Mich.-based Bird Brain. Glow-in-the-dark garden accessories are another strong trend, she said. More birdfeeder products debuted, including the Happy Hummer window feeders for hummingbirds. Also in the booth were Adirondacks with pierced graphic themes. “Our furniture has had fantastic response from the retail community,” Greene said, adding it is made of sustainable balou wood.    
The green trend was evident in plenty of showrooms. Earth Accents displayed planters made of coconut husks as well as handmade plant stands and animals formed from the roots of bajuca. “We’ve done very well with more of a natural look,” said Darren Anderson, sales manager and designer. “People want earth tones,” he said. Despite that, he expected flower pots with hand-painted rims to garner good response from high-end garden centers.
Garden centers, gift shops and florists continue to have success selling memorial stones, urns, inspirational plaques and other Kay Berry products so Chuck Wasson expects its new personalized garden benches to be a hit. “Our market is growing,” he said. “We think the 2008 season will be terrific for us.”
Inspirational products are still strong sellers, agreed Eileen Power, New Creative vice president of sales. The Milford, Ohio-based company added four Nativity scenes to its Seeds of Faith collection. New Creative’s extension of its National Geographic line presented larger scaled statuary, ceramic urns and a fountain in classic Greco-Roman style. 

Look for more winter show coverage in the February issue of Casual Living and Spring issue of Garden Decor.

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