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Cinde W. Ingram

Casual Market upbeat, maybe too short

After airport and traffic delays due to stormy weather forced a slow start for the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market last month in Chicago, buyers faced compressed shopping schedules.

The overall mood was upbeat and optimistic, with exhibitors realizing that, despite slow selling seasons in some parts of the country throughout 2006, buyers still were serious about making orders and checking out all of the new products manufacturers had to offer.

By lunchtime the first day, the floors of the Merchandise Mart were filled with casual furniture buyers ready to do business. But before the market ended, some veteran retailers were feeling squeezed. Those included Petey Fleischut, who owns Delaware-based Casual Marketplace with her husband Harold and serves as president of the Casual Furniture Retailers Association.

"I am truly concerned about how well retailers can make effective decisions for the benefit of their businesses in such a short amount of time," she said. "The time allotted for retailers has been literally cut in half by having a premarket and the shorter Casual Show. Neither one fill the needs of the retailer because of the time restraints."

California Backyard's Buzz Homsy, who manages the Casual Classics retail buying group, strongly agreed with Fleischut's comments. He suggested the July premarket be combined with the September show and held the third week of August, possibly as early as 2008.

"If this is an international market, it's got to be longer than three days," Homsy said. "This year especially, half of the factories did not have their pricing in time for premarket so as we came to market, prices were fluctuating."

Rising prices, reflecting higher costs of raw materials and fuel, were also a major concern for other retailers. "Everyone stepped up with fabrics tremendously at this market," said Bonnie Richens of Anaheim Patio & Fireside. "Our biggest challenge is that prices have gone up. We're wondering how high can you go?"

Retailers Tom and Patricia Gillin, owners of Toys for the Home in Phoenix, Ore., said they love coming to Chicago for the show. "It's hard to pack everything into three days, but the vendors have been great," Patricia said.

Despite their concerns, retailers were taking in the wide range of quality home furnishings, designed to keep specialty retailers a step above their competitors.

Summer Classics' President Bew White said he noticed plenty of credit issues in the marketplace. "A lot of dealers have got to get in and do some leasehold improvements," White said. On the mood of the Casual Market, "from my perspective, it's very upbeat and positive," White said.

"A lot of people are talking about good attendance; what we're seeing are great attitudes," said Jan Trinkley, vice president, Gensun. "When it comes to product, they're really positive. Dealers are saying the price is higher, but they see the perceived value and they'll buy. Joe Ruggiero fabric in mint green, featured on the Corona Collection displayed in the Gensun showroom's front window, was a main attraction." Gensun President Lisa Zhou agreed and added, "That's our lucky spot."

Luxury product, good quality

Gloster's prominent display of its Anassa lounge with the Ultraleather cushions drew raves from retailers, said Teresa Newton, assistant sales and marketing manager. Introduced to the industry at last year's show, Ultraleather appeared in numerous showrooms this year. Consumers remain cautious, however, about the fabric's ability to stand up to weather changes or it becoming sticky in the sun. Neither concern is legitimate, putting pressure on manufacturers to get the message out.

"There's an incredibly strong trend for luxury and quality," said Charles Vernon, Gloster, president. "It's taken our breath away."

Trying out Laneventure's High-back Settee, Ron Sleeper, owner of All Decked Out, Quechee, Vt., pronounced it "very comfortable" but said the look would appeal more to his commercial customers than his store customers. "It's on the edge," he said.

Laneventure's introduction of its first full cast aluminum collection, Savannah, may have prompted some to wonder if the industry really needs another cast aluminum dealer, but it is just part of being a full-line manufacturer resource, said Gary McCray, vice president, sales and marketing. McCray compares the category's importance to Laneventure to that of its teak collection. By no means its largest category, teak is currently Laneventure's fastest growing category. "Teak has become a substantial part of our business. I want to do the same in cast," McCray said.

Laneventure also showed 111 fabric choices. "The fabrics we offer are as important as anything else we do," McCray said. "We're seeing some retailers pick fabrics first and then the finishes." Some of popular colors and finishes were more subtle and distressed than in past years, McCray said. Motion pieces continue to be big sellers, he added. "I think it's a good time to be in the outdoor business," McCray said.

A cushion dining group represented Hanamint's entry in that category. "It's been very well received; we've written a lot of orders," said Russ Sorenson, vice president. "Color and fabric, as always, are extremely important. And with chat groups, our spring chairs are doing well. Action is a must."

Brenda Pereyda of Mallin said its Laguna outdoor woven collection and 54-inch round and square fire pits were doing well. Its Westfield deep seating and dining collection also showed potential for use in game rooms or recreational rooms. "Our marketing plan is really to push the outdoors in," she said. "This has been a very upbeat market. We were pleasantly surprised. And we're excited to have seen a lot of new people."

Debbie Dill of Anacara said its Pinehurst Collection with wood finish looks was getting attention. "That's probably the biggest excitement for us," Dill said. Another highlight for Anacara was meeting five new retailers in the market's first two days.

"I think our wood is getting the most attention," said Ryan Williams, Kettler International, marketing manager. He reported good retail response to Kettler's Hampton Bay Collection, made of Eastern European robinia, because of its durability and design. The lounger includes a sliding shelf to accommodate a drink or a book.

James Tyrie, Barlow Tyrie sales manager, said its Dune day bed with built-in coffee table and shown with Sunbrella fabric was well received by retailers. Its Design Excellence Award-winning Horizon Sun Lounge and new deep seating collections marrying stainless steel with teak also drew retail attention.

"The consumer is ready for the more sophisticated look and the whole industry is going that way," said Jennifer Mulholland of Rock Wood. The manufacturer's Zen modular collection, designed for the underserved 25–45 year old age group, was drawing good retail attention along with a large storage box, big enough to hold pool chaise lounge cushions. "That was a good surprise for me," she said.

Haney, vice president of Outdoor Lifestyle, said opening day "was probably the best day we've ever had at this show. It was busy, steady and quality."

Dale Campbell, vice president, Lloyd/Flanders, said he was surprised to have such a good first day of market after having such a strong premarket.

Kathy Juckett, CEO, Telescope Casual, also described the show as having a very busy start. Her company's showroom stayed full on the following days. "We've certainly seen tremendous excitement," she said.

Debbie Young, president of Windham Castings, described the market as "the best we've ever had. I think it's our move upstairs to a permanent showroom. You can show the product better and it also legitimizes you."

Al Arad said Cast Classics was pleased with retailers' response to its 18 new collections, displayed in a huge temporary booth because its permanent showroom simply was not large enough to hold all the offerings.

Retailer Bruce Aronson of The Pool & Patio Center, Metairie, La., said the temps did a better job of showing great merchandising techniques this year. But like other retailers, he mentioned concerns caused by seeing an overabundance of outdoor wicker.

"The atmosphere has been a little more electric than last year," said Michael Mettendorf, vice president, New River Casual Furniture. "I've seen some major accounts and the feedback's positive."

Joseph Cilio, president, Alfresco Home, noted retailers were delayed in arriving, but said, "we've had a strong response to what we've brought to market and we're writing business."

"We've had exceptional traffic," said Marshall Mullins of Old World Stone & Iron. "I've seen as many people in one day as I had expected to see the whole market." Old World's mosaic tabletops were shown along in a temporary booth in Chicago and will be displayed this month at the High Point Market.

With the introduction of its new Sorento dining collection, Ficks Reed is building its presence in outdoor with plans to do even more in the months to come. The full Sorento line will be introduced in High Point this month. "We'll have four or five outdoor lines by 2007," Ficks Reed president Gene Saenger said. He added that in the last few years the 120-year-old company is "getting back to what people expect from the Ficks Reed name." Dealers who pick up the company's products are also able to sell its interior lines, providing another revenue stream.

Poly-Wood's booth, winner of the Casual Furniture Retailers Merchandising Award in the Furniture Category for temporary exhibitors in booths under 600 square feet, generated "oohs" and "aahs" with its paint cans spewing brilliant swaths of orange, yellow and lime fabric. A year after introducing its very successful, higher end Mission seating group, the company's strategy is twofold following two distinct customer paths.

"Our customers are going in one of two directions: either drifting toward a lower price point or to the high end," Clay Rassi said. "The traditional middle-of-the-road Adirondack chair is falling off."

As vendors set up for the Casual Market, there was already good energy and the expectation of a good show, said Tom Freeman of Twin Oak Hammocks. "There was a feeling of lightness and optimism," he said. "Most everyone has done well this year."

Merritt International's mix-and-match displays not only earned the company a CFR Merchandising Award in the accessories category, but serves as a good example for retailers, Eric Damer said. "If the products are displayed right, it creates an impulse buy," Damer said. "You can almost double your sales with the right merchandising."

New to market

In her second year at the Casual Market, Vivian Guyot, president of T.O.P.I. imports, introduced a line of all-weather tablecloths for tables with umbrellas. She also added 72-inch tablecloths due to customer demand.

Several companies made their debut during this year's Casual Show, including Kosta, a specialty manufacturer and designer of indoor and outdoor furnishings for the hospitality industry. The company brought its contemporary hand-woven resin and aluminum furniture to market.

"Our concept is great design, stunning quality and down-to-earth prices," said Anselmo Di Virgilio. "Our booth is designed to resemble an outdoor lounge area with walls made of grass using our very chic and exclusive new all-weather designs."

Don't Eat the Eagle expanded its interior fabric line to include a new collection of outdoor fabric accessories called Gilded Nest. The line includes throw pillows, reversible chair cushions, table linens, patio umbrellas and more. "The outdoor market is an exciting growth opportunity for us," Owner Kimberly Badenhop said.

ShadeScapes USA unveiled its Paraflex line of distinctive shade umbrellas at the market. The centerpiece of the Paraflex umbrella system is the unique rotating holder, which works much like the human arm, allowing the umbrella to be tilted and rotated in an almost infinite adjustment range.

"We're excited to bring the North American market a European-styled shade solution from a manufacturer with a long history of innovation," said Ron Edmondson, president of ShadeScapes USA, also the exclusive importer of the New Zealand-designed line of ShadeMaker umbrellas. "Our experience shows that consumers want a wall-mount umbrella at a great price point."

Eleanor Butchart, owner of On Fire, in Santa Rosa, Calif., came to market wanting to buy deep from just a few vendors. She added teak outdoor furniture to her family's hearth business two years ago, and last year added other categories from Summer Classics. Although relatively new to the industry, Butchart has a sophisticated strategy: concentrating on selling the outdoor room and differentiating her mix. "I'm staying away from the product that looks just like everything else," she said.

As a first-time exhibitor at the Casual Market, Kristin Suddreth, president of Kylex, Inc., was happy with opening day. The new all-weather art company launched in January and offers a five-year warranty on its products and a minimum sale of just four pieces. "People are familiar with the concept but many are just now starting to look into it," she said. "We want people to just try it. They can use it for merchandising and see how it pulls a display together." The company has an exclusive license agreement with artist Alan Giana to reproduce 10 of his paintings as all-weather art.

Also among this year's new exhibitors were some interior furniture and accessories suppliers. Maitland-Smith, for one, was blown away by the reaction to its outdoor offering, Nature's Habitat, a line of relaxed seating, dining and accessories made from reclaimed teak, recycled iron and pietra dura stone. "People can't get over our price points," said Cami Bond, inside sales and event manager, Maitland-Smith.

Homespice Decor is another interior furnishings supplier that plans to return to the Casual Market next year following this year's interest in the company's outdoor rugs made from Out-Durable olefin.

For Caffco International, which has a permanent showroom on the 15th floor of the Merchandise Mart, the move to outdoor was a natural progression, according to Robert Moore. "We have been manufacturing Euracast [lightweight foam] pots for over 10 years," he said. Marketing to the outdoor industry as Thompson & Elm, an outdoor lifestyle company, it offers outdoor furniture, accessories and garden decor.

An intermittent exhibitor at the Casual Market, fireplace accessories manufacturer Achla Designs used the show to garner reaction to its new outdoor accessories products. "We are moving a little bit more toward patio," said CEO Ashok Hingorany. "The reception has been good although this is a much different market than we are used to."

Rutledge Design Co.'s whimsical, hand-painted umbrellas caught the eye of Debra Juhl, who attended the Casual Market in search of product for her new store, Urban Patio, which she expects to open by the end of this year. Juhl has been developing her store concept for a few years, taking time to do her homework and learn about the industry. "I'm excited to be here," she said. "People are really helpful."

High-energy, bright colors and a busy showroom support Deb Autrey's claim that Homecrest is back with a vengeance.

"We are a boutique manufacturer and we will focus on that approach instead of trying to be all things to all people," said Autrey, newly named director of marketing and public relations for Homecrest.

Of the many highlights for Pam Keefer and Gene Schurer of Aquarius Pool & Patio in Williamsport, Penn., were Barcana, Inc.'s pre-lit palm trees in accessories and Homecrest's glass table tops with the leaf design. In fact, Homecrest's entire showroom drew comment from Keefer: "I like the bright colors," she said.

Despite seeing lots of new products, retailers may have wondered what happened to longtime vendors, such as Dayva International. General Manager Derrick Riley said a major shipment error resulted when Yellow Transportation lost crates containing Dayva's 2006–2007 product offerings and show materials.

The crates were located two days after the beginning of the show, making it impractical to still have them set-up and displayed.

Signage at Chicago's Merchandise Mart welcomes market guests.

Fleischut

White

Trinkley

Chicago's Merchandise Mart, host of the International Casual Furniture and Accessories Market for 25 years, will remain as its location for the next 10 years.

Cilio

Arad

Campbell

Young

Mettendorf

Gilded Nest soft goods from Don't Eat the Eagle

Cameleon by Kosta

ShadeScapes Paraflex umbrella

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