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Cinde W. Ingram

Casual Market mood shifts to caution

Buyers, vendors plan to work harder in coming months

Opening day excitement gave way to determination and wariness at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market this week. 

As both buyers and vendors emphasized the need to work harder in the coming months, they also acknowledged their uncertainty about the future. Reactions at the market continued to be upbeat but with mixed results as the week wound down. 

“Some people say it is their best market ever, others, ‘Where are the people?’ ” said Dudley Flanders, president of Lloyd/Flanders and the International Casual Furnishings Association. 

“I think there's a lot of fear of the unknown,” said Michael Mettendorf, vice president of sales and marketing for New River Casual Furniture. “I think all dealers are scared about the future, but they haven't used it as a crutch or an excuse not to buy. Most of them are putting their noses to the grindstone.” 

Mettendorf wasn't alone in saying he expected the mood of the market to be a lot more dreary than it was. Nor was he alone in tempering that optimism with caution. 

“I think dealers are being very selective. They are really looking at their inventory and have a lot have questions,” said Jan Trinkley, sales manager for Gensun. A new program Gensun introduced at the July premarket to offer discounts based on floor spots has gone over very well, Trinkley said. “If our product is on the floor, we know it will sell,” he said. 

Fred Ilse, president of Outdoor Lifestyle, recalled the mood of last September’s show. “I think everybody is cautious but everybody was cautious last year, too, and we ended up having a decent year.” 

“The show, for us, has been very strong,” said Joseph Cilio, president, Alfresco Home. “The quality of the retailers here has been good. We worked hard before the show to make products our customers were asking for. We respond to them and they respond to us. It’s exciting for us as a young company to be received so well.” 

At 9 a.m. Monday, the Telescope showroom was empty and sales reps were wondering if the economic doom and gloom had prevailed. Less than two hours later, they were swamped and continued at that pace for the next three days with established and new customers. 

“We picked up quite a few new dealers,” said Chris Ellis, director of sales and customer service. Ellis speculated the company’s dealer focus committee, launched a few years ago, is paying off. “We’ve gotten lots of suggestions and I think it’s probably why we have been so successful in going forward,” he said. 

Retailer Donna Gibbs of Town & Country Casual, Augusta, Ga., said, “Telescope is looking better than it has for years.” Gibbs and the others from Town & Country Casual left for home Wednesday morning. “I wish we could stay longer, but we have to get back to business,” said Michael Fuller. “It’s absolutely been a good show.” 

“I think it’s been a great show, but there is a lot of concern [among retailers] about price point,” said Carl Vice, general manager and owner of Casual Living & Patio Center in Louisville and Lexington, Ky. “A lot of the retailers add up the numbers faster than the manufacturers, and they are concerned about sticker shock -- with a fair amount of good reason for thinking that. That said, the showrooms are spectacular. It’s a pleasure to see how all of the showrooms have been dressed.” 

Almost every buyer at the market was looking to do something different to grab their customers' attention. Greg Martin of Kolo Collection in Atlanta said he was on the lookout for new items with inventive designs and new materials. “I need fresh innovations I can mix in with our more proven designs,” Martin said. 

Other retailers sought to carry more moderate price points than usual in an effort to cater to a broader base of consumers. In John Keller's case, selling those lines serves as a marketing strategy more than anything else. “It's just a matter of having it so we can up-sell them to higher-end lines,” said Keller, who owns Sequoia Out Back in Warrington, Pa. 

Keller said without those moderately priced lines in his store last season, he couldn't even approach those customers to up-sell them. They would walk in, browse for a few minutes and walk out. He and Sequoia general manager Eli Hymer hope by including moderately priced lines next spring, those customers will stick around longer. 

Whatever their strategy, Casual Market buyers were certainly a determined group as they put a positive face on a market that coincided with one of Wall Street’s worst weeks in history. 

Evidence of more open-mindedness was everywhere in the market. Buyers appeared to be willing to try anything to create excitement in their stores. 

“If we would have shown a European contemporary look three years ago, our dealers would have laughed at us,” said Jennifer Mulholland, Rock Wood director of sales and marketing, of the company's new Cove collection. “But I wanted to have it here, even though I expected to sell none of it. Instead, I've sold three. I'm ecstatic. 

“The mood here has been surprisingly good,” Mulholland said of the market. “There's a big difference, though, between the market and orders. Ask me in a month and I'll tell you how buyers are really feeling.” 

Domus Ventures was among the vendors who couldn’t be happier. 

“We have been slammed. It’s been phenomenal,” said Dave Hill, Domus Ventures sales manager for North America. Hill added volume of orders for just one of the company’s new lounges already exceeded 15,000. Innovations, including the first outdoor massage chair and a coffee table that lifts at the touch of a button to change heights, kept buyers returning to his booth. 

Kathy Torrans, of Torrans Manufacturing, was another vendor happy with the show. “We have gotten a lot of attention and have even written some orders, although this isn’t an order-writing show,” she said. 

The demand for traditional looks and dark colors held steady over market, although there was plenty of interest in transitional and more contemporary looks such as those offered by Les Jardins. 

“I love this booth,” said Sommie Atkinson of Abaca Imports, Alexandria, Va. “I think they have the most interesting modern designs in wood. They are extremely innovative.” 

Although lighter finishes appeared in showrooms across the market and a white finish on a new collection has gotten a good response for Woodard, Sales Director Perry Solomon was not convinced it would sell. “We hear year after year that we need to brighten up our color palette, but what customers are buying is the dark finishes,” he said. 

Still, retailers were appearing to be more open to using color to brighten up safe earth tones. 

The Visels of Cornwell Pool & Patio, in Plymouth, M.I., for example, were struck by how manufacturers were mixing and matching the new fabrics for bright, eye-catching accents. 

Some of the market’s first-timers did better than they might have expected as well. 

“It’s been a fantastic show for us. This is our first year and we didn’t know what to expect, but it is nice to know you can put in a nice booth and do well,” said Kevin Fritz of Leisure Design. 

As retailers shopped the floors, they couldn’t help but also notice the growing number of Forest Stewardship Council certified wood dealers. “FSC has really hit its stride here at the casual show. People are stopping me in the halls to talk about it,” said Rick Hilton, of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies and audits wood manufacturers. 

“Response to our ipe timber and environmental efforts has been absolutely marvelous,” said Max Jensen of Jensen Leisure Furniture. “It’s been universally positive.” 

Gensun was among the other manufacturers who joined the eco-friendly movement with its new soy oil-based foam, wrapped in Dacron. All of Gensun’s cushions manufactured in the United States feature the soybean foam.

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