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Cinde W. Ingram

Casual Market starts on positive vibe

Big crowds expected

CHICAGO - The International Casual Furniture and Accessories Market got off to a strong start Tuesday as retail buyers and designers arrived ready to buy at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Retailer Debbie Stegman described the first day as fabulous and said it reminded her of past markets when the economy was booming. "It's starting out good," she said. "People have positive attitudes." Her family's attitudes were certainly upbeat as they confirmed their plans to open an Elegant Outdoor Living store next month in Naples, Fla.

Busy was the word Steve Riley of Nebraska Furniture Market chose when asked to describe the mood at the Casual Market. "We're seeing a lot more sectionals and a lot more contemporary furniture," he said.

"We're expecting big crowds," said Carl Loredo, Woodard, chief marketing officer. "The people who are here are writing (orders) better than last year, when there was a lot of looking. The mood seems to be positive. People here are coming in to buy. Looking's great; buying is better."

Randy Meeks, president of Oxford Garden, described traffic as excellent on the market's first day. "Buyers are in the mood to buy and they're writing business," he said.

Treasure Garden's expanded showroom stayed very busy with visits from specialty retailers and mass market visitors looking for ideas and trend directions during the market's first day. "A lo of important people came to see us," said Margaret Chang, chief operating officer.

Pride Family Brands' appointment list "has grown dramatically and customers are coming in with the intention of buying," said Steve Lowsky, executive vice president.

Fred Ilse, president of Outdoor Lifestyle, was among the manufacturers who said the buying began shortly after the Preview Show in July. "We've had a lot more early buys than normal," he said. "Aluminum prices are still up 20-25% higher than last year, but we stuck to our programs so our dealers don't have any shocks and surprises."

Kathy Juckett, CEO, Telescope Casual Furniture, said response was good to the company's showroom improvements as well as its many new products. "Our marine grade polymer has been hugely popular," she said. "We just added manufacturing space and equipment to handle demand. We're fortunate. Our product has been checking well."

Phenomenal was the word Mark Fillhower, COO Homecrest Outdoor Living, used to describe the mood of the market. "Our traffic is above what we expected," he said. "The overall mood has been very positive. Dealers' inventory is very clean. I talked with a couple of retailers who said they had had their best years ever and they were from areas you wouldn't expect - Michigan and California."

During his keynote speech, designer Roger Thomas spoke of using unexpected fabrics, colors and scale as he designed spaces at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore at Wynn Las Vegas. "I am seeing a complete blurring of the lines for furnishings appropriate for indoor and outdoor," Thomas said. He described how pool areas are designed for dual functions. "The big trend in making money in Las Vegas hotels are beach clubs/night clubs."

Terri Lee Rogers, co-president of O.W. Lee, said her showroom was booked solid with appointments all day Tuesday and most of the day today. "I'm happy with our traffic, and I heard the eighth floor was busy, too," she said. "We've gotten more early buys right after the premarket, and I think we'll get a second turn on early buys after this show."

Near the end of day one of the Casual Market, Cole Mehlman was asked for his business card. The managing partner at Flexx Market Umbrellas fished in his badge holder and kept pulling out cards from buyers. "Well, I guess that's a good sign that we're busy," he said. "I can't find any of my cards."

It was one of several positive signs at the market yesterday. Chad Yordy, director of marketing at Poly-Wood, said his company's pre-set appointments were at an all-time high. "The last few markets turned out to be good for us, but there weren't as many commitments as there are this year," he said.

Carrie Morales, marketing and sales director at Windward Design Group, said she noticed positive buzz for the market at its company open house in Sarasota last month.

"Last year, our business increased 40 percent and we're looking at that kind of growth this year, if not more," Morales said. "Based on the appointments we've made here and our early buys, I'd be surprised if it wasn't more."

Yordy, however, stopped short of declaring that happy days are here again for the casual industry. Major order writing hadn't happened yet. The buying habits of consumers had changed so drastically during the recession, he said, those habits will take a few years to change.

That means an ongoing effort on the part of vendors to help retailers give consumers more value. Case in point is a new compact floor display Sunbrella is showing off in its booth on the eighth floor. The company had been offering it on a trial basis, but is using the Casual Market to market the display as an everyday solution for dealers.

"Most people know Sunbrella and see this merchandiser as an opportunity to sell their customers on fabrics they can use to make pillows, tablecloths and outdoor draperies," said Paige Mullis, decorative fabrics resource manager at Sunbrella.

Another good example is the cushion program at Two Palms, which allows dealers to mix and match different cushion fabrics from Outdura on a single piece of furniture, at no extra charge.

"We started doing that at the High Point Market a year ago," said Alex Boyer, vice president of sales and marketing. "It allows dealers to offer diverse looks without it being too complicated."

Napoleon, known for its grills and hearth products, is also diversifying its look. The Canadian manufacturer debuted a line of furniture to offer buyers even more variety.. E.J. Scott, Napoleon national sales manager, said the company carefully considered the move.

"We needed to understand who our customer is," said Scott. "We also needed to provide more than just a ‘me too' product.

So vendors are trying. The question on everyone's mind is, will dealers be buying?

"I would say we're here to buy," said Chris Stover of Stover Hearth & Patio in Frederick, Md.
"We're looking for direction, but we're ready. We're looking for the usual -- what's new and exciting." Stover said he hadn't found that new and exciting thing yet, but he was optimistic he would before leaving Chicago on Thursday.

Tammy Newton, sales manager for Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics, said the positive mood on day one is just what the industry needs.

"I think everyone is tired of hearing all the dismal news," she said. "That's why you're seeing a lot of color and fun from the manufacturers. Everyone just wants to lift up."

Newton and other vendors hope order volume at the Casual Market follows suit.


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