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Cinde W. Ingram

Merchandise Mart makes room for industry growth

Over the last seven years, the casual furniture industry has increased its permanent showroom presence at Chicago's Merchandise Mart by 55%. Outdoor furniture and accessories vendors exhibiting on the recently upgraded temporary floors also require more space.

Carter Grandle (1777) and Ebel (1794), former eighth floor temporary space anchors, are opening permanent showrooms on the 17th floor this month along with Veneman Collections (1783). ScanCom, which exhibited in temporary spaces at the past two International Casual Furniture & Accessories markets, recently signed a long-term lease for its first North American showroom (1646), also set to open for the July 13–15 premarket.

In addition to those new permanent showrooms, Agio and Brown Jordan International continue to expand their already massive permanent showroom spaces on the 16th and 17th floors. BJI and Lloyd/Flanders plan to start their premarkets on July 11, while Agio will open on July 12. Pride Family Brands, a long-standing tenant in Chicago's Merchandise Mart, also added 50% more space to its showroom (1754).

"The casual industry as a whole is expanding, and I think that has to do with lifestyles today," said John H. Brennen III, executive vice president, MMPI. "It also is a broadening of the industry and product because some of these guys are not only going outdoor; they're going indoor.

"Consumers today are looking at casual in a different way than they did 15 or 10 years ago," Brennen said. "I think the product level is much more sophisticated and more fashionable. So now you're seeing it in a lot more shelter magazines. There's a very strong push in the casual area."

Retailers also view the category in broader terms, observed Jack Shelburne, vice president, MMPI. "It's still considered seasonal, but the season seems to be growing," Shelburne said. "They continue to carry the products on their floors a little longer; they give it a longer shot and people will continue to buy the product almost on a year-round basis now. While it's still concentrated toward springtime and early summer as the main selling season, the retailers aren't looking at it as a purely three- or four-month product category any longer."

Retailers at this month's premarket will get a preview of the revamped temporary spaces on the Merchandise Mart's eighth floor, which will be connected directly with the seventh floor by the time the September Casual Market arrives so attendees won't have to fight for elevators, said Elizabeth Cooley, MMPI marketing director, casual furniture industry.

"Both seven and eight have been totally redone so it's all top-notch temporary space now," Shelburne said. "And there's a lot more of it."

As the first premarket sanctioned by the Summer & Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association, temporary exhibit spaces in the Merchandise Mart were made available exclusively to SCFMA members. Other manufacturers may exhibit nearby in Chicago, such as Woodard in its headquarters/showroom building.

The more official premarket will help retailers consolidate their summer travel schedules. Some had complained earlier about the need to attend premarkets in various spots across the nation.

"I'm hearing some very good reports from people that their business is up from the past, weather conditions aside," Brennen said. "They feel pretty good about the direction of the industry and the direction of the retail and design trade.

"In the designer area today, when you do a house, the outside now is becoming part of that design — 10 years ago that wasn't the case," he said. "We feel the casual industry as a whole is a growth industry. We have evidence by the people coming into the building and the expansion of temporary space."

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