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President, Laneventure Art Thompson

Selling aspirations, ambience

Lauded by many as the industry's foremost visionary, Art Thompson spent 40 years nurturing innovations that have transformed the outdoor furniture industry. His enduring philosophy can be summed up in just a few words: It's not about the furniture.

Art Thompson, President, Laneventure“Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, had a great remark: 'We don't sell cosmetics, we sell hope,'” Thompson said. “Revson knew what business he was in and why he was in it. I think that in outdoor furniture, it is the exact same thing. We are not selling tables and chairs or a place to sit down. We are selling a lifestyle. We are selling romance. We are selling peace of mind ... the furniture is just the medium.”

It's a medium he's always been interested in.

Thompson wanted to get into the furniture business right out of college, but his first employer, J.C.Penney, started him in toys instead. He took another detour when he was drafted by Uncle Sam and sent to Vietnam. On his return to Penney's in 1968, Thompson was right where he wanted to be — in New York City working as a patio furniture buyer.

Ten years later, Thompson joined Lane, and was named president of Laneventure when it was launched in 1989. Given that he has led the company since day one, Laneventure and Art Thompson are one in the same in many respects. His belief in aspirational rather than commodity selling defines Laneventure, as is evident in a walk through of one of its showrooms.

“We go all out to sell the environment,” he said. “When we introduced Tuscany in Chicago, we put in the bocce ball court. Yes, we were selling the bocce balls, I think we sold three or four sets, but the court wasn't there to sell bocce balls. It was there as part of the lifestyle we are selling, the romance, the ambiance.”

Retailers who go the commodity route are missing out, he said.

“If you are selling price points, you don't really need great displays ... [but if you] want to make better margins, you have to appeal to other factors that motivate consumers to buy,” Thompson said. “I think what really motivates a consumer to buy isn't 'I can save $100 if I buy right now,' but 'I can live this way and I should live this way.'”

Manufacturers and retailers can tap into that aspirational selling via sub-branding. For instance, Laneventure's Tuscany brand thoroughly leveraged the national interest in Frances Mayes book, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and the movie of the same name.

“That book was on the best-seller list for a long time and there's a message there. It was about ambiance,” Thompson said. “It touched a nerve, which is why it sold so many copies. Well, I think if we develop the right product, we can touch that same nerve. That's what we try to do at Laneventure and what I try to instill in our merchants — to understand what we are marketing towards, which brings us back to aspirations.”

His ideas for sub-branding often come from travels. The new Leeds Castle Collection, for example, stems from a visit he and his wife took to England to see their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. When the family joined other tourists at the castle, Thompson was awe-struck by its beauty and a new collection was born.

Looking back at his long career, Thompson points to several key innovations along the way that shaped Laneventure and, at times, the industry. For example, the company's patented draining cushion was revolutionary when first introduced and is still used today having been improved along the way. Laneventure was also the first to completely submerge its natural wicker in paint, providing a more durable finish.

There are more innovations to come.

“We are constantly looking for innovative products, and we are willing to take a risk,” he said. “We will be introducing a type of table top at High Point that has never been done before and that, in my opinion, is extremely innovative. We will have an exclusive on the process. It is very, very exciting.”

Thompson is frequently cited as an inspiration or mentor by his colleagues in the industry who appreciate his openness in sharing his vision. From his perspective, there's no question that what's good for one manufacturer is good for the whole industry.

“I don't consider any of the other outdoor manufacturers to be our competition,” he said. “The competition is the travel industry and all of the other competition for disposable income.”

His own inspiration comes from the industry and home furnishings in general.

“I'm a big believer in the industry,” Thompson said. “It has kept me inspired my whole career. I've never found it boring.”

With the current talk of recession, Thompson believes there is no better time for outdoor furniture manufacturers to push and be creative.

“I think that of all of the ways to spend disposable income, our industry is in a better position to surge ahead than any of our competitors,” he said.

In support of that, he believes the industry needs to better address service issues for consumers. For example, the industry could offer storage solutions for consumers in northern climates.

“That's a problem for consumers, and perhaps it is one of the reasons they don't spend as much as we'd like them to spend on our category,” Thompson said. “Look at what the dry cleaning industry does for fur coats and heavy wool garments — they clean and store them. We can charge a fee and make it a profit center. That hasn't been done and it is the kind of service issue that I think will be important to consumers.”

Thompson is confident the industry is up to the challenge. “We are a somewhat small industry, but one with wonderful, creative people,” he said. “I think the industry is big enough to keep the innovation moving, and I see innovation at all levels.”

For his part, he won't be slowing down any time soon.

“I don't believe that you can ever be satisfied,” Thompson said. “Contentment is the last step before disaster. You always have to be reaching out for more.”

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