Day in the Sun
Carole Sloan -- Casual Living, May 1, 2008
The shade category is a hot one these days as manufacturers concentrate on the high-end and expand their horizons beyond the familiar. Those companies that have primarily focused on the retail side are now turning focus to the contract market and vice versa. Despite the predicted economic downturn this year, attitudes are overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s still too early to be certain, but early indications are all very positive,” said Oliver Ma, president and CEO of Treasure Garden. “I believe that being a shade supplier puts us in a different position than many furniture manufacturers who might not be feeling the same indications.”
TUUCI experienced one of its best years ever in 2007, according to CEO Dougan Clarke. The retail segment was its fastest growing as the company spread its roots from the contract world outward, so much so the company increased its staff by 30% overall.
“We’re not just dabbling, but have authority,” Clarke said.
That focus, combined with TUUCI’s ability to produce not only custom canopies but custom structures — “hardware plus software” — resulted in a very strong year. The company’s center post parasols continue to be the “meat and potatoes of what we do,” Clarke said, “while the daybeds and pavilions define who we are … we’re bold about the future.”
“Business was very good for us in 2007, we experienced double-digit growth once again,” said Jeff Leisen, national sales manager, Galtech. In 2008, “so far we are pleased with our numbers,” he added. “We look forward to experiencing another double-digit growth year.”
Leisen attributes the continuing success of the shade category to two factors. First, the dangers of excessive sun exposure are well-known and people avoid spending so much time in the sun, he said. Secondly, homeowners who may be cautious about decorating their entire outdoor space are leaning more toward updating umbrellas and cushions as a start.
“In slower or uncertain economic times, customers will look to the shade and replacement cushion categories as a way of sprucing up their current set, as an alternative to buying a new expensive set,” Ma said.
“An umbrella is not as big a purchase as a dining set, and if you want to freshen up a patio, it’s an easy way to go about it,” added Paul Knapp, founder, president and CEO of FiberBuilt Umbrellas.
FiberBuilt also experienced a very successful 2007, with sales up 35-40%, especially in the contract market, Knapp said. Like TUUCI, the company has turned its focus this year to increasing its market share on the retail side.
“We’re having an unseasonably warm winter and it’s going to translate into sales in 2008,” added Amy Forseth, national sales manager, FiberBuilt.
After receiving not only the Design Excellence Award, but also the Lillian B. Winchester Best of Show Award for its 16-ft. Pavilion in 2006, also the brand’s first year of existence, Bungalow by E-Z Up (a division of 25-year-old International E-Z Up) has been a quick success story. Last year marked the second complete shipment season for Bungalow.
“We are very pleased with the growth we are experiencing,” said Audrey Martinez, specialty leisure sales manager, Bungalow by E-Z Up. “We expect strong growth this year, particularly in the contract market.”
Specialty market commits
In the midst of low quality imports and increasing sales at discount department stores, mass merchants and the like, many wonder how the shade category can continue to sell well at the specialty level.
“More and more, there is competition at the lower end,” Forseth said. “Everyone wants to get the best deal they possibly can; they are looking for bargains.”
Retailers must take a strong position, committing to quality shade products, creating a shade gallery within stores and having fun with the category.
“The umbrella is such a large piece of what we see in an outdoor area … and it’s important what that states,” Clarke said. “An umbrella is a living, breathing part of an outdoor living ensemble.”
Like Clarke, Martinez suggests displaying as many shade structures on the retail floor as possible to define space, help the customer envision the entire outdoor package and freshen up older furniture. “There are some very attractive umbrellas and pavilions out there at very low, enticing prices,” Martinez said. “Well-trained and attentive sales people on the (retail) floor are critical.”
She added, “I came out of the home textiles world, and one of my favorite mentors used to say, 'We don’t sell towels, we sell bathrooms.’ Same concept.”
Ma stressed that retailers shouldn’t be afraid “to price your shade products, and accessory products in general, at a higher margin than your main line furniture products. The shade and accessory category is not nearly as cross-shopped as the main furniture collection, and customers will generally give the business to whoever earns it on the furniture set.”
Galtech International recently expanded its warehouse operations in order to accommodate the needs of the specialty retailer. The additional space allows for more inventory and variety, as well as quick shipment, Leisen said.
FiberBuilt Umbrellas is banking on its Prestige Collection to be a hit at the retail level. Already proven a success within the contract market, the line is affordable and features the company’s patented fiberglass rib. The collection’s warranty also has been extended from three years for the rib and one year on the parts and fabric, to a five-year warranty covering the entire umbrella. FiberBuilt launched its largest product debut last fall during the Casual Market. In addition to Prestige, FiberBuilt introduced an umbrella highlighted with a simulated bamboo finish; a new teak finish debuted as well as cantilever umbrellas.
The evolution of performance fabrics factor into success of the shade category as well. Companies such as Sunbrella and their partnerships with umbrella manufacturers play an important role in the specialty sector.
“The consumer … is willing to spend a little more to purchase an umbrella that doesn’t fade right away as the cheaper, mass umbrellas do,” Leisen said. “The (shade) category will remain strong as long as the fabric suppliers continue to design cutting-edge styles and refrain from selling those styles to the mass merchant.”
Bolder colors and textures have grown in popularity among retailers and consumers. Though beige, pacific blue and forest green continue to reign, Forseth said, “the trend continues to be a little more expressive in color,” with dupiones, special orders and custom fabrics important.
“The color trends haven’t changed that much — still mostly bronze, beige, terra cotta — although we have noticed that consumers will typically be a little more creative with the color choices of an umbrella,” Ma said.
Cords, tassels, buttons and embroidery are coming into play as well, Martinez said.
“Retailers need to offer a variety in color and shape, showcase their special order capability and highlight the creativity that an umbrella can provide in accenting a set of furniture,” Leisen said.
TUUCI is using a range of technical fabrics for its canopies, such as Twitchell’s wicker weaves, Richard Frinier’s Sail Collection from Sunbrella, Silver State, Perennials and Sunbury. Each helps convey a certain ambiance, which Clarke admits for TUUCI leans more toward contemporary and modern (though traditional styling is admittingly hanging on strong). However important fabrics are, Clarke points out the construction of the umbrella is paramount.
“What I see out there are a lot of frames that have a one-year warranty topped with a Sunbrella canopy with a five-year warranty,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We need to educate retailers that it’s what is under the cover that matters.”
Bigger is better
Many noteworthy trends in the shade category stem from trends happening in outdoor furniture. In response to the popularity of larger-sized dining tables and more extensive seating areas, a trend toward larger umbrellas, awnings, pavilions and more has resulted.
“Oversized, deep seating and multiple piece furniture collections have created a need for a larger shade profile that cannot be addressed with a traditional umbrella,” Martinez said. “The consumer is looking for shade structures to use in conjunction with the furniture they are buying today.”
“The cantilever umbrellas are doing very well for this very reason,” Leisen added.
Galtech’s top-selling products combine everyday style with the exotic. Leisen said its deluxe 9-ft. auto-tilt umbrella as well as faux bamboo and thatch umbrellas continues to sell at a high rate.
|Due to the product’s success, Treasure Garden has doubled its offerings of cantilever umbrellas. Pictured here is the company’s 11-ft. octagon cantilever umbrella.|
Treasure Garden doubled its offering of cantilevers due to the product’s immense growth and success. Its 10-ft. x 13-ft. rectangular Easy Track umbrella is a top-seller, as Ma described it as “virtually the only umbrella in the world that will appropriately shade all those 8-10 person dining groups out there.”
Technological innovations propel the category upward as well. Operating systems and new functions such as iPod docking systems and integrated lighting are changing the face of the shade industry and will keep it fresh and interesting in the months ahead.