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Cinde W. Ingram

Casual industry unites

Swivel, rock and tilt functions added more motion options for consumers. Chat collections, especially in woven materials, abounded on the Merchandise Mart's permanent and temporary floors. Innovative products emerged and more tete et tete groups debuted to provide intimate settings. Curtains in performance fabrics for consumer privacy and retail visual merchandising were other popular introductions at the recent Chicago Casual Market.

Overall, the mood of buyers and vendors was upbeat. They were busy and focused forward toward the 2008 season, despite some of them coming to the end of a perplexing season.

At the Apollo Awards dinner, Rory Rehmert announced changes in the manufacturers' association, now called the International Casual Furnishings Association. Until a few years ago, it was open only to domestic manufacturers, then recognized the international nature of our industry and allowed importers. Now it will become even more inclusive by allowing all key partners. Rehmert, a former specialty retailer himself, challenged others to ask themselves, "What makes specialty retailers special?"

Selling complete collections, providing customer service, selling quality products, merchandising in fashionable ways, educating consumers, never losing sight of value ... the list goes on. I'm reminded of comments from Catherine Galbreath as she accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award. She didn't know one kind of metal furniture from the other in the mid-1970s when she convinced her husband to add patio products to ABSCO Fireplace in Birmingham, Ala. She immersed herself in learning the niche. Before long, manufacturers were seeking her advice on fabric choices. "You never know who you are influencing," she said.

The consumers who served on my panel during the show could have used some influence. When buying outdoor furniture, they thought they had to carry it inside to store it during the winter months. Like the consumers on last year's panel, they were unaware flow-through cushions exist. Who will teach consumers about swivel, rock and tilt options or performance fabric curtains or any of the other innovations we are seeing?

Raising awareness, educating consumers and promoting high quality casual furnishings are among the ways specialty retailers keep themselves special. With a more united voice, the International Casual Furnishings Association can meet the challenges ahead.

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