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Cinde W. Ingram

Casual market mood upbeat

Casual furniture retailers arrived at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market with overwhelmingly positive outlooks. While weather and economic challenges presented seasonal challenges for some regions and retailers were still reacting to Southern neighbors devastated by Hurricane Katrina, they kept their focus ahead on their buying needs for the 2006 season.

Nancy Hayes, buyer for Patio Place in Chantilly, Va., expressed the sentiments of many participants when she described the market as upbeat. She also appreciated the move of the temporary exhibits from the second floor to the seventh. "It's better having them closer together, on 7 and 8," she said. "You can use the stairs."

Bill Williams of Backyard Billy's, Kent Island, Md., was looking for alternative tabletops that would stand the test of time and was impressed by some of Woodard's, including the Stone Impressions tops.

Tabletops also were on the mind of Diane Bassemier, owner of Bassemiers' Fireplace and Patio, Evansville, Ind. "Last season, the only tabletops left over were glass, so we won't do glass at all this year in many collections," she said. She also planned to add a new vendor to her line, expanding her cast aluminum and sling offerings.

Making his way along the seventh floor exhibits, John Tobias of Wicker Mart, Columbia, S.C., saw the hand-painted umbrellas from Rutledge Design down the aisle and immediately went closer to check them out. "They stand out like you wouldn't believe," he said.

The eye-popping colors of Archie's Island "happy furniture" inspired Ellen Cooper, garden room manager at Salisbury Gifts and Garden, Easton, Md., to place an order during the show. "The colors and shapes just wow me," she said. The chairs and tables, shown for the first time at the Casual Market, are made from environmentally harvested mahogany and painted in marine enamel colors.

Among the most classical designs found at Market this year was the Mount Vernon dining chair by Terra Furniture, based on the original mahogany dining chairs used by George and Martha Washington. Terra has an exclusive licensing agreement with the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association for developing the traditionally styled casual furniture.

Gene Schurer and Pam Keefer of Aquarius Pool & Patio, Williamsport, Pa., liked the practicality of such products as The Off-The-Wall Brella from the Blue Star Group, the deck-mounted umbrellas from Shade To Go and Rock Wood Casual's Sand Point wall table. They also liked the solar lights, birdbaths and wind chimes from World Factory.

Many manufacturers also expressed their excitement about the show. "It's been fabulous," said Paul Murch, Olympia Lighting.

"It's the hottest market I've been to here," said Fred Ilse, Outdoor Lifestyle.

Some had wondered if the successful premarket would slow September traffic.

"Those fears have been put aside by this show," said Hanamint's Russ Sorenson. "It has been fantastic. Thursday was probably the busiest day we've ever seen at Market."

The premarket worked as designed, said Sorenson, providing retailers with an opportunity to begin planning their buy and manufacturers with the chance to get the retailers' feedback. Hanamint for one made changes to some of its designs following the July event. "We benefited greatly from it, and if the momentum and cohesiveness continue, it will benefit the industry," Sorenson said.

"If the September market becomes quiet, than the manufacturers will need to look at [the issue again]," he said.

Sales rep Dean H. Smith is not a fan of premarkets, but said this year's event worked as a good preparation. "It's made this a little more relaxed," he said. "Manufacturers say the input they got from dealers at the premarket has allowed them to make changes in their showrooms and to product."

Agio President Bob Gaylord said the recent season was the worst he had seen. "Usually when you have a year like that people are cautious, but they're bullish from coast to coast," he said. "The pure demographics of what makes our business grow haven't gone away — the baby boomers and second homes."

 Sales of wicker and woven products are still soaring, and manufacturers are glad to supply buyers with fresh new designs in the category, like Lloyd/Flanders' Wimbledon line.  

   Alternative tabletops were the rage in most of the exhibits, including Carter Grandle's; the company vastly expanded its tabletop selection for 2006.

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