Indoor stores taking it outside
Marc Barnes -- Casual Living, April 1, 2010
Indoor furniture retailers are increasingly taking it outside to broaden their product offerings and build foot traffic. For many, their introduction to the casual furniture side has amounted to on-the-job training.
Kyle Johansen, the buyer for Minnesota-based HOM Furniture's newly acquired Seasonal Concepts brand, said he knows of many Top 50 indoor retailers that are either expanding their casual furniture lines or introducing them for the first time.
Some of the first-timers find there's a learning curve.
“Some called me in December last year and asked my advice,” Johansen said. “I told them that they were too late and they didn't believe me. I explained to them that they have to order the prior year to be ready for the next year.”
A spot check of conventional furniture retailers around the country shows the trend toward including outdoor furniture is strengthening because of customer demand, a good fit with existing merchandise and sales practices and vacancies in the marketplace prompted by store closings.
There's also the overall trend of consumers who are looking beyond their four walls to the outdoors beyond as a place to relax and socialize, which was the thinking behind the move by St. Louis-based Weekends Only Furniture. The retailer recently announced that its five locations would begin offering outdoor furniture for the first time this spring.
“We've found that backyards, decks and balconies have become an extension of indoor living spaces in warmer months,” said Michele Lynn, vice president of merchandising and marketing. “This is a great opportunity for Weekends Only to meet more of our customers' needs by stocking quality indoor and outdoor furniture at affordable prices.”
HOM Furniture is among the large retailers who are growing the business though acquisition. This season, HOM will open Seasonal Concepts Galleries in 13 HOM stores in Minnesota.
Geography and culture play big roles in the demand, Johansen said. Midwesterners don't take spring and summer recreation for granted, given the amount of time they spent outdoors shoveling snow the rest of the year.
“It drives traffic into stores, which is one advantage to this seasonal business,” he said. “In the summertime, everyone spends time outside instead of inside. We see a real slowdown (in purchases of indoor furniture) and then it picks up in the fall. Outdoor products offer us a good source of income and steady traffic throughout the summer months that we normally wouldn't see.”
Mark Panther, president of Brougham Interiors in Vancouver, British Columbia, said he has seen similar trends in terms of an increase in foot traffic. He noted the further advantage that customers might see an indoor piece and purchase it.
“It is because we have such a shorter season that makes it difficult to be in that category 12 months a year,” Panther said. “But it is something you can add on and take off. I think it has been a growing category and it has become more competitive as well.”
Florida doesn't have the kind of cold weather challenges as in Minnesota or the Pacific Northwest, but City Furniture – which has 24 City Furniture and Ashley HomeStore locations in south Florida – has decided to make wholesale changes to re-energize its outdoor lines this season.
“Outdoor really didn't generate the dollars per square foot,” said Keith Koenig, store president. “We went after it like casual dining, at popular price points. It wasn't generating the same return as indoor, so we tightened it up.”
City Furniture will start with entire collections of outdoor, in part by ordering frames in Asia and making the cushions in the store's own factory in Mississippi, Koenig said. City is planning on coupling that with more focused marketing and merchandising plan. A big sales point for the retailer in the past has been indoor furniture for living room, bedroom and dining that emphasizes the tropical island lifestyle. The strategy now will be to carry those same kinds of design influences into the outdoor furniture, he said.
“I am sure we will make a few mistakes but we will figure it out, and I am committed to it,” Koenig said. “I know we should be in the category, the customers are asking for us to be in the category.”
Bob Batt, executive vice president of Nebraska Furniture Mart, said his business's share of the outdoor segment reflects the wide variety of price points that are present in the rest of the 400,000-sq.-ft. store.
“We are always expanding and every year is different but we always do well,” Batt said. “Why we do well is that they come here for summer regular casual furniture and it's a destination store, not a boutique. We have several hundred pieces on the floor and our customers can find whatever they want for their homes in one location.”
Outdoor was well-received by customers last year at Jordan's, which has three locations in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island. Now in its second season of offering patio furniture, space will again be carved out in each store for seasonal offerings in mid- to upper-retail price points, said Josh Tatelman, vice president of merchandising at Jordan's. Like Nebraska Furniture, Jordan's large stores enable it to easily test-pilot a new category.
“We are always looking for opportunities to grow our business,” Tatelman said. “Adding this category to our stores will not take away from current business but only bring 'new' business. We attempt to be a one-stop shop for all home furnishing needs and this was just an extension of that strategy.”
Selden's Home Furnishings in Tacoma, Wash., started carrying outdoor furniture three years ago by carving out 4,500 square feet, right by the front door, in early March or whenever the weather breaks, said Velvet Lettner, merchandising and operations manager. Seldon's outdoor furnishings selections run to Tropitone and Brown Jordan as a complement to indoor furniture lines of Hooker and Stickley, she said. Design methods used to lay out a customer's deck are similar to designs for a den or living room.
“What has happened is that category is so important and has grown so much that all the outdoor stores are all advertising like crazy,” Lettner said. “When the weather gets great, everyone is outside.”
SUITE New York added more outdoor pieces both because of a steady customer demand from the Hamptons – and because within New York City, many new apartments include terraces, which are used three out of four seasons, said Allison Hupp, an assistant public relations representative the indoor furniture retailer on New York's Madison Avenue.
“Some people use outdoor pieces indoors, such as the Arper Leaf collection,” Hupp said. “Outdoor pieces are high design now, not clunky teak monsters.”
Bringing in outdoor furniture works much better than expected for retailers like Mark Weinberger, president of Weinberger's Furniture in Augusta, Ga. He put in outdoor furniture at both his Lake Oconee and Augusta locations.
Even though the Lake Oconee store is smaller, the outdoor sales were better there – and are strong year-round – because the area is more recreationally oriented, Weinberger said. He has discovered that the choice of merchandise, from offerings by Summer Classics and Laneventure to Big Green Egg grills, has everything to do with success
“We're staying away from the cheap stuff and staying away from the mass merchants,” Weinberger said. “It has been good for us.”