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Woven weaves a stronger hold in 2008

Wicker and woven is off to a robust start in 2008. Increased competition from lower-priced product, emerging design trends, and a revolution in fabrics are shaking things up. Even the "green" environmental movement has taken root. Taking the pulse of this dynamic outdoor segment, we consulted with a few industry leaders on how they are meeting challenges and staying on top this year.

Tami Newton, sales and marketing director, Palm Springs Rattan& Garden Classics

Competition. We have stayed competitive for 36 years by understanding what the consumer needs and what the reseller needs to attract them. We address this by offering lines in three price points: our Olivia line, which we classify as 'good;' our Empire line, which is 'better,' and our Bali line, which is our 'best.' Although our largest customer base is in the middle, we offer quality at each price point that to holds up to the most extreme climates.

Our starting price points help our retailers get customers in the door and for each line, we increase the sale through the completeness of the collection. Our retailers know that our products are good quality, value-priced fast-sellers.

Trends. Today's consumer wants to create the outdoor great room by transitioning indoor styles for outside use. They want thick, comfortable cushioning, chairs with motion (swivel, rock, glide), and they want a complete collection, including dining, barstools, seating and occasional tables, where family and friends can gather.

Acrylic and other durable fabrics are also important this year. We have aggressively priced pillow programs offering the consumer coordinating fabrics, while also benefiting the retailer with add-on sales. We have over 100 fabrics at one price and we allow multiple fabrics on one piece with no up-charge.

We don't sell licensed products, but we do see a trend toward brand loyalty. Customers look for our brand and although many want to buy it direct, we choose not to sell that way. We are loyal to our retailers and so we want to continue passing the business along to them.

Inor Kuo, operations manager, South Sea Rattan & Wicker

Competition. We consider pricing an important factor for our customers. We offer our products at very reasonable prices and with a high level of quality and service. Our goal is to focus on all of these aspects to the best of our ability in order to remain competitive. We also place great importance on style and as such, our professional designers are always coming up with fresh, new ideas to keep our product lines up to date.

Trends. In the past, we have been mostly a traditional-style furniture maker, but with the 'Generation-X' segment aging into a significant consumer group, we're adding more transitional and contemporary designs to our lineup, in furnishing design and fabrics. We have added many more striped and solid prints to our line.

To supplement our current rattan and wicker furniture line, we are also introducing a new outdoor line featuring 100% recyclable, high-density polyethylene, which is strong and durable — as well as environmentally friendly. Overall, we are becoming more and more aware of environmental sustainability issues. Our products are made of vines with very rapid growing cycles. Over a 14-year period, rattan vines can reach 600 feet in length and two inches in diameter. The "going green" trend is something our company — and in fact, our niche as a whole — would do well to take advantage of.

Bill Herren, marketing director and customer service manager, Whitecraft

Competition. With the more expensive furnishings we sell, it's really all about style and design. Whatever bells and whistles, such as better construction and better design, we place great emphasis on so people who can afford the higher-end can differentiate. At first glance, products may look somewhat the same, but a second look confirms they are not.

Trends. Until the last markets (Chicago Casual Show, High Point Market), our whole focus was on traditional. We have now rolled out more contemporary and transitional lines, as well as an all-new lodge look that has simply taken off.

To maximize this trend, we entered the growing licensed products arena with Woolrich, a long-established lifestyle brand. We thought the line would do well in the Northeast, but had no idea how big it would be in other areas of the country.

We have 99 fabrics in our line, but 10 fabrics, including some solids, stripes and two plaids, are most popular. To accessorize, we've added custom fabrics, such as a reversible moose pattern. Originally for throw pillows, we are finding that customers are putting it on whole ottomans and chairs. It has sold so well, we are looking at introducing a bear in the near future!

The "green" movement is already a part of our business, with wicker and rattan's raw materials being a renewable resource. Our filler companies are looking into replacing blown fiber with recycled materials — possibly even recycled plastic bottles.

Tom Murray, president, NorthCape International

Competition. The more our sales people know about better goods versus weaker goods, the better able they are to present the value of our products. We achieve this by educating our sales force and giving them tools — printed materials and market test results — to use effectively when selling to customers.

Primarily, we illustrate our quality on three points. First, is the construction of the frame. Is it commercial grade or residential, steel or aluminum? Aluminum is preferred because it doesn't rust; even powder-coated steel can still rust from the inside out. We show this to customers and they can relate. Second, woven is about the quality of the strands in the weave itself. Weather-accelerated testing shows that polyethylene is longer lasting than PVC. Third, regarding material content, we can show the customer how competitors cut costs by reducing material. We can take a chair and turn it 360 degrees and it looks like it's unfinished, like something's missing — and it is!

Trends. Younger buyers today are not as accepting of fully traditional looks; yet the majority of our customers are not attracted to lines that are too urban, either. We are seeing a growing trend across the board for cleaner lines and for mixed media groupings, like a wood table with a stone-finish top.

There is a big surge in coordinating fabrics with colors and patterns — and lots of throw pillows. We're seeing less floral and more textured solids and stripes. Bright greens with shades of brown are really big this year and custom pillow fabrics are a growing part of our business. Consumers are also demanding durable, easy care performance fabrics, such as solution-dyed acrylic.

With regards to the "green" movement, we are seeing a higher demand for domestically created product. People seem to have greater confidence in products produced in this country. Our custom cushions are created here in the U.S. and we are looking into other parts of our business that we can source domestically because we know that it adds higher value to the consumer.

We are also seeing an environmental push at the materials testing phase, where our suppliers are being more careful about the safety of what goes into the final product. The "green" movement hasn't had a huge impact on our industry, but it's started.

The Olivia Collection by Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics

The Kingston Bay Collection from South Sea Rattan & Wicker

Swivel chair from Woolrich's Chatham Run Collection by Whitecraft

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