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Wood furniture a mixed bag for retailers

Poor sales, distribution disagreements plague stores, while others report growth

Casual wood furniture is proving to be a mixed bag for retailers nationwide. Some have found success, while others have eliminated teak dining and living sets from their floors altogether, due to poor sales, distribution disagreements and shipment problems.

Those who have had success moving the product, like Keith Guidry at Percy Guidry's Hearth and Patio, Lafayette, La. (see the Retail Profile, page 12), credit growth to manufacturers who have paid attention to trends, spent smart money advertising in shelter magazines and have embraced the outdoor living trend.

"It's a category that surpasses what I think it'll do every year," Guidry said. "People are digging the uniqueness, the comfort and the styling."

Though he may currently reap the benefits of the category's success, it wasn't always that way. Guidry said few wood pieces would sell in the store's former location, perhaps because of a lack of commitment or consumers weren't ready to embrace it, especially teak. According to Guidry, "Cajuns are familiar with cypress and cedar."

In his mind, the recent deep seating trend coupled with mixed media pieces — in particular wicker and wood — brought the category forward.

"It creates an eclectic look with wicker pieces and cushions. That, combined with teak manufacturers taking the lead, marketing in national publications like Architectural Digest, has added consumer interest."

"It's our biggest growing segment," said Jon Chapman, merchandise manager, Rich's for the Home, Lynwood, Wash. "There is an emphasis on style; it looks exotic."

The largest portion of wood sales are generated from Jensen Jarrah, the retailer's No. 3 vendor. Rich's also carries some teak from Mulia Perkasa, an imported line by Casual Classics.

On the other hand, retailers like Leeda Marting and Clay Dennis are staying away from teak.

"There's so much out there, and I think the American consumer has trouble differentiating between price points," Marting, president and CEO of Charleston Gardens, said.

Instead, Marting carries Riverwood Casual's adirondack furniture by Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs; high-end painted mahogany benches from Century Furniture, and rustic "tree" furniture from Mainly Baskets.

"Everything we do is style-driven," she said. "We're not going to do some utilitarian adirondack furniture. We chose MacKenzie-Childs because of the style and it continues to be very successful."

In 2004, Dennis eliminated casual wood furniture from his store, Southern Hearth & Patio in Chattanooga, Tenn., due to distribution disagreements with manufacturers and poor sales.

"We'd only sell about four or five sets at $10–12,000 a set, and mostly over the Internet," Dennis said. "If I had more room, I wouldn't mind having wood on the floor, but right now it's not worth it."

Manufacturers succeed in wood category

For manufacturers, the wood category generates a more positive outlook. Teak, in particular, has had a surge in the marketplace over the last year.

Terra Furniture's traditional Mandalay deep seating and dining collection has existed for five years with "ho-hum" orders, and experienced a "bang" this year, said President Ken Burrows. Workers in Terra's California facility even had to produce 34 Mandalay club chairs in-house to fulfill orders.

"Delivery is very, very key today," Burrows said. "It's more difficult for the manufacturers to keep good deliveries because (teak) is imported and we don't know what the retailers are going to sell. Right now it's doubly difficult for retailers and manufacturers."

Like Guidry, Clay Kingsley, president of Kingsley-Bate, sees the mixed media trend moving forward. Kingsley-Bate has paired teak with other natural elements, such as aluminum or stone.

"For us, (the wood category) is very good," he said. "Quality teak is always going to be in demand."

In 2006, Gloster Furniture will continue its lines of mixed media, including teak and sling, teak and stainless steel and expand its current all-teak collections.

"The Kingston range is No. 1 and Ventura is coming out as a stronger group," said Ginger Johnson, Gloster national sales manager. "In 2004, we added a lot of accessory pieces — a swing stand, gateleg table — to make them full collections."

Other woods aren't left by the wayside, either. An infusion of painted wooden furniture from China is having an impact, but the historic colors of the Cottage Classics Collection continue to add sales for Richey Industries' Great American Woodies brand, Bill Linn said.

In High Point this month, the company will debut its Vintage America line, which will offer a duck-back oil stain finish for a mahogany look.

The limited introduction includes an adirondack chair, footrest, standard rocker, high-back rocker, round side table and rectangular side table. More pieces will be added by the end of the year.

"It fills a void that we've had," Linn said. "People ask if we have something that's not just plain cypress. This is an oil stain that we're currently using on our cedar line, and the difference makes a terrific result."

Heading into 2006, issues manufacturers continue to face with the wood category are supply versus demand, as the price of teak continues to climb.

"It's all relative," Kingsley said. "You will lose some of the consumer market when the price gets too high. The trend towards the cheap stuff is fading away. Not only do the stores realize the cheap quality, but the consumers have caught on to the fact that there's no such thing as a free lunch."

"We've proven that it doesn't matter what the price is as long as the style and comfort are there," Burrows said.

"Fortunately in our industry, this holds true."

Terra Furniture's traditionally styled Mandalay Collection experienced a surge in sales this year.

Leeda Marting chooses style-driven wood collections in Charleston Gardens' retail store and catalog, like V&R Emprise's Henway Collection.

New for 2005, Gloster introduced an adirondack seating collection, above. Right, Kingsley-Bate's bar height line continues to succeed.

Above, Jensen Jarrah's Summer Lounge Conversation Group is riding the deep seating wave, while Great American Woodies will debut its Vintage America Collection, right, in High Point, N.C., this month.

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