Hitting the highlights of a Casual Show preview
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, August 15, 2006
The casual furniture buying season got a jumpstart during the July 10–13 premarket in Chicago's Merchandise Mart.
It was difficult to tell whether attendance was up or down, but permanent showrooms were at times as busy as during the September market and the temporary floor was busier than last year, which was the first premarket sanctioned by the Summer & Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association. Dealers generally followed the days and hours set by SCFMA. The traditional pattern of manufacturers paying to bring key dealers into their plants or showrooms early has been largely replaced by the more official premarket, which allows dealers to visit as many vendors as they can.
"It is no longer a premarket; it is a July market," said Tropitone CEO Mike Echolds. "To the extent the focus on the outdoor room is expanding — even in the northern market with sets around the firepits and outdoor fireplaces — we're trying to give them product that works in these large outdoor spaces."
As a whole, participating manufacturers said dealers' attitudes reflected their good selling seasons. Buyers were serious about shopping and could take time to ask questions.
Both manufacturers and retailers noted better communication, and as a result, product offerings to more closely meet dealers' needs.
"You can tell the manufacturers are listening and taking cues from the best designers," said Brent Severson, Patio & Hearth, general sales manager. "The looks are clean, youthful, more modern and up-to-date. It's a good reflection of how we're living today."
"The designs are more inspired and less cautious than ever," said Jed Stillman, president, Seasonal Concepts. "The vendors are much more in the minds of specialty retailers than I've seen in this industry."
Expanded manufacturer showrooms, like those of Agio and Carter Grandle, provided more floorspace for an amazing number of new products and gave retailers something to talk about. Windham Castings also made good use of its new permanent showroom.
Gary Ecoff, president of Carls Patio, said the premarket has become such an established event, he cannot understand why some retailers do not take the time to attend. "It's a must-do, at least it is for us," he said. "There's a lot of good quality product here and it seems like some companies are pushing the price point issue."
Cautious attitudes driven by high costs of materials, fuel and worries about rising interest rates were present but not predominant. More common were expressions of excitement about the new styles, which ranged from retro-chic to modern while including transitional, soft contemporary and not forgetting traditional.
Alternative tabletops, deep seating and modular groups were widespread, continuing the trend of moving indoor looks to the outdoors. Laneventure's Spinnaker Collection took the modular concept to a new extreme, allowing the multiple pieces to fit in a variety of configurations. Cast aluminum and outdoor wicker choices abounded while wood also made appearances in new styles, including the Charleston Outdoor Kitchen by New River Furniture combining Brazilian cherry with granite and R.H. Peterson gas grill. Good designs and other innovative products, such as the outdoor shower from Alfresco Home, drew attention.
Neutrals were evident along with fun shades of light green and brown that follow runway fashions more closely than ever. The sunset palette with orange and deep reds couldn't be ignored nor could the purple velvet, featured on a Landgrave group in the Woodard showroom.
Because fabric plays a leading role in the changing casual furniture market, some manufacturers made the choices easier for dealers. For example, Lloyd/Flanders arranged times for dealers to meet with and ask questions of fabric suppliers. Homecrest held seminars to explain its bright color story.
Size also mattered, with many chat groups including chair-and-a-half sizes and wide buckets.
Eighteen new collections inside the huge Cast Classics showroom, which occupied the largest temporary space on the 8th floor, stirred reactions from retailers like Dean Luckino, president/CEO of Georgia Backyard and American Backyard.
"Those looks are absolutely the way the industry needs to go," he said. "Change is happening and you have to adapt to be successful."
Salt Lake City retailer Marc McDonald said the July premarket allows him more time to prepare for the next season while finishing out the current season. "If I come here and see a homerun, it gives me time to get aggressive about what I need to clear out to make room for it," McDonald said.
During the premarket, McDonald said he saw three winners. "When I come here, it helps me to identify some weaknesses and to see where the strengths are," he said.
Anna Papp of Outdoor Living Center in Covington, La., said this was her first time attending premarket so she hadn't known exactly what to expect. "It's nice to not have to rush with the crowd," she said. "We're in the hurricane area and have had people moving from New Orleans so this is one reason why we needed to get orders in early to service new residents."
Some manufacturers said they were disappointed more retailers did not attend, but most exhibitors spoke of high quality traffic and busy showrooms.
"The buyers who come to the show don't seem so rushed," said Ward Usmer, TUCCI. "They have a little more time to ask questions. And we like to find out what they're doing with quality shade equipment."
"I think it's a wonderful way to get a preview and to set your mind for the next season," said Bill Kennedy, president of Casa Casual.