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South Sea Rattan marks 25th year

Will debut pocket spring cushions to bring indoor comfort outside

Seated, Jacob and Esther Kuo, with son Inor Kuo and Sandra Marion
Seated, Jacob and Esther Kuo, with son Inor Kuo and Sandra Marion

With casual lifestyle trends combined with a growing eco-friendly awareness returning attention to rattan and wicker furniture, South Sea Rattan is sharing its sustainable story with a wider audience.

Some casual furniture retailers took serious notice of South Sea Rattan inside its first permanent showroom in Chicago last September. Other casual retailers and indoor furniture dealers have made return visits to the company’s High Point Market showroom for a couple of decades.

“Our focus is to serve both segments of the market,” South Sea President Jacob Kuo said.

While recognizing the importance of frame styles and product designs, South Sea is maintaining its indoor standards of fabric quality and comfort levels for its outdoor cushions. “We emphasize seating comfort because we know people want to sit in it and enjoy it for a long period of time,” Kuo said. “Over the years, we’ve found comfort to be critically important.”

Headquarters in Greensboro NC
Employees gather outside South Sea Rattan’s headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.

Building on an expertise developed over the past 25 years for its indoor rattan and wicker furniture, South Sea will launch pocket spring cushions at this month’s High Point Market. Those cushions, wrapped in conjugated foam with flow-through capabilities for outdoor use, will debut to the casual furniture industry at the Chicago Preview in July.

“I think it’s just another step in revolutionizing the outdoor business,” said Sandra Marion, vice president of sales. “It’s very similar to an inner spring mattress with pocket coils and it gives you the comfort of a very high-end mattress. I think this will separate us and give us another edge.”

Kuo and Marion described South Sea’s mission as becoming “the No. 1 outdoor and indoor wicker and rattan factory in the industry in the middle price points.”

“We continue to look not only at things like the inner springs to add value to the inside and quality of the product, but also to add fashion in things like more color and finishes in the outdoor as well as the indoor lines,” Marion said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for having the style and fashion in that middle, more promotable price range.”

Careful packaging inside South Sea warehouse
Careful packaging inside South Sea warehouse
Manufacturing Process

Cut-and-sew division uses skills gained through indoor furnishings experience.
Cut-and-sew division uses skills gained through indoor furnishings experience.

Although contract buyers have bought South Sea’s indoor rattan and wicker furniture through the years, the company only recently set up a sales force to handle that segment. Especially for health care and retirement living needs, the category shows strong growth potential.

Replacement cushions already bring in business although it’s often 10 years or more before anyone returns with a need for new cushions, said Kuo’s wife Esther, vice president. With her background in textiles and apparel, she understands the fashion aspects of the furniture business.

South Sea has learned to innovate and adapt to market changes since the family-owned company first opened in East Orange, N.J., in the wake of an economic recession that gripped the nation in the early 1980s. Kuo quickly realized his company would have to be as strong and pliable as the sustainable materials it sources from Indonesia to make its furniture.

“We were small and didn’t have a huge overhead,” Kuo said of the company’s early days. “We found out if we really wanted to be in the furniture business, we would have to move to the furniture capital of the world.”

In 1986, the company relocated to Greensboro, N.C., where its 135,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and offices dominate a 22-acre tract near Interstate 40 and the Piedmont Triad Regional Airport. The facility employs about 30 workers during the off-season in its cut-and-sew cushion operation. More workers are added when needed.

Exhibiting its indoor wicker and rattan furniture at the High Point Market through the late 1980s and early ’90s, South Sea put itself into a prime position to serve some of the furniture industry’s biggest retail players, such as Levitz and Haverty’s, during a time rattan/wicker sales were at a peak.

Although it was positioned to supply the middle price range, competition from low-end rattan and wicker furniture manufacturers did not help overall business when the indoor wicker and rattan category began to slip, Kuo said. At the same time, the evolving trend toward casual lifestyles along with development of sunrooms and outdoor living areas were bringing more demand for a better quality of casual furniture.

Kuo turned his attention to casual specialty retailers and took a temporary showroom space on the 8th floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart eight years ago. Unfortunately, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack combined with other economic factors to slow South Sea’s movement into the casual niche. Three years ago, South Sea began developing furniture to withstand outdoor conditions.

“In the early days, there were so many people in indoor wicker and rattan, but a lot of those have fallen by the wayside so it left the category fairly open for us in the medium price points for indoor wicker and rattan,” Marion said.

South Sea was able to show off its major push into the casual segment in September when its permanent showroom opened in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

“At the July premarket and the September market in Chicago, we did have very good traffic and exposure,” Kuo said. “We had quite a few major players come into our showroom. Some of them wrote orders, not everybody, but at least they got to know us.”

While they were prepared for the strong response its weather-resistant collections received in Chicago, Marion and Kuo were surprised by the amount of attention given its two indoor furniture collections displayed there.

“We had a number of outdoor furniture retailers say, 'That’s a category we could see going into for sunrooms and covered areas,’” Marion said. “We’ve been very fortunate that it’s worked both ways for us. The indoor stores are seeing the outdoor category growing and the need to be in that category. And then the outdoor stores are seeing the niche for indoor wicker and rattan, and adding that. So it’s been a good combination for us.”

Casual furniture dealers and designers say their customers want to create outdoor living areas to entertain friends and guests, but they also want a haven where they can relax, Kuo said. Consumers may have cut back on vacation travel, but they still want to recapture those memories and bring a resort feeling back to their homes.

“In these tough times when everybody is cutting back on vacationing, they use that money to fix up their homes and backyards. They want something nice there to enjoy,” Kuo said. “Instead of spending a couple of thousand dollars to vacation in the Bahamas, they say 'Let’s use that and vacation at home.’ That opens more business opportunities for us.”

With a master’s degree in accounting, Kuo’s son Inor manages operations for South Sea Rattan and Fairfax Home Furnishings. He also oversees its recently updated Web site, which allows retailers to check stock availability 24/7. “As we’re getting bigger, it’s critical to manage inventory control,” the elder Kuo said.

Having a large warehouse and an already established system for quick shipping provides an advantage these days because retailers are buying conservatively and expect their suppliers to be able to warehouse the product for fast delivery.

“We’re really seeing resurgence in the wicker and bamboo category, so it’s all come together for us, the indoor and the outdoor,” Marion said.

She speculated even after the current recession lifts, retailers who have become accustomed to a two- to three-week express cushion program and quick shipping service will want to continue it.

“Fortunately, we have zero debt and are in position to help out all our dealers so they don’t have to carry loads of inventory and be stressed out for cash,” Kuo said. “We can work together and weather the storm together.”

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