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Cinde W. Ingram

Leisure industry grows steadily as buying patterns shift

Consumers are still buying outdoor furniture and grills, despite ongoing economic pressures on consumers' wallets and shifts in where they buy, according to Casual Living's exclusive Universe Study.

Sales of products for outdoor, porch and patio offer a bright spot in the overall home furnishings market so retailers are positioning themselves to capitalize on what consumers are continuing to spend on their outdoor living areas.

At $3.2 billion, grill sales account for just over half of the $5.8 billion leisure industry. Home improvement centers, such as Lowe's and Home Depot, represent the undisputed top distribution channel in the grill niche, which is growing more than 5% annually. Discount department stores, including Target and Wal-Mart, account for over one-fourth of grill sales. Some specialty retailers have conceded the once-prosperous grill category to their higher-volume competitors but others have stepped it up by offering full outdoor kitchens and designer direction in creating cooking areas beyond the walls of the home.

Sales of outdoor dining sets, which make up nearly two-thirds of the outdoor furniture market, continue to grow primarily through home improvement centers and discount department store channels. Although those channels are catching onto the value of selling conversation groups, specialty retail stores still hold a strong market share of deep seating purchases. With those sofas, loveseats and tables, specialists play to their strengths by offering full collections, broader fabric choices, better customer service and delivery. Although retail sales of umbrellas have leveled off, specialty stores are expected to grow their umbrella sales faster than the overall market.

Sales of lounge chairs, hammocks, rockers, benches, gliders and other seating are shifting in favor of discount department stores and home improvement centers, according to Casual Living's latest market research. Department stores are moving farther away from the outdoor seating category.

As for other outdoor furniture, warehouse membership clubs and the direct-to-consumer channel are growing fastest in sales of fire pits, bars, serving carts, etageres, storage and miscellaneous tables.

These latest figures do not include outdoor lighting and accessories other than umbrellas and accent furniture for outdoor use. Much of the $755 million total of retail sales in outdoor lighting reported in Casual Living's 2004 Universe Study went beyond sales of portable lighting products, like outdoor lamps and lanterns, to include landscape lighting. Home improvement centers and discounters dominated those numbers.

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