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Rock Wood goes against grain with outdoor leather

Rock Wood goes against grain with outdoor leather

A potentially groundbreaking product line for Rock Wood Casual can be traced back to a mailed product sample that was nearly tossed in the recycling bin. For the longest time, the submission sat unopened on the desk of Jennifer Mulholland, Rock Wood director of sales and marketing.

"I remember seeing [the envelope] and thinking, 'Oh great, another piece of typical outdoor leather,'" she said. "I didn't even look at it. But the distributor's national sales manager kept calling; she was very persistent. Finally, I opened it up and was blown away."

The small piece of leather was soft and supple — exactly like the leather found on a piece of fine indoor furniture.

"The weight of this leather is absolutely mind-boggling," Mulholland said.

Buyers at last September's Casual Market were also blown away. Rock Wood debuted outdoor leather slipcovers, which fit over chairs in its Oasis collection. The slipcovers are available in 40 colors, ranging from apple green to fuchsia to six shades of gray and black. Retailers understood the value immediately, Mulholland said, but that didn't translate into a lot of order writing.

"This outdoor leather is so unique, I think it will take a few years for it to really hit," she said. "This is really a major work in progress. We created a concept in cushions, moved into slipcovers and now we're in development of an entire line."

In the meantime, Mulholland is also working on an ambitious marketing strategy to show retailers, designers and commercial clients — and, by extension, consumers — why they should be into outdoor leather in a big way.

Marketing hurdles

At least Mulholland has a good story to tell. The leather is produced exclusively by an Austrian tannery that uses nanotechnology to embed cowhide with materials that make it waterproof and resistant to cracking. The leather is antimicrobial. It can also repel sunlight, meaning that even on hot, sunny days the leather stays cool to the touch.

"It's the perfect product," said Mulholland, who adds that, because nanotechnology is involved, the product isn't easy to knock off.

The tannery's lone North American distributor happens to be located near Rock Wood in suburban Toronto, which is how the two companies connected. Rock Wood made its launch into leather last May at the HD Expo, where it debuted a line of outdoor leather cushions. Buyer reaction foreshadowed the Casual Market response several months later. HD Expo buyers were intrigued by the concept but reluctant to take a chance on it. Mulholland only partially blamed the economy.

"I think lot of it also has to do with this industry, which doesn't tend to be as open-minded to new products as other industries," she said, making a comparison with the tech industry. She finds casual furniture retailers are reluctant to try anything new.

Lately, commercial clients have been the same way. But for that customer base, which makes up half of Rock Wood's business, the economy is a bigger factor.

"Contract has been hit later, but harder, by this recession than even specialty retail," she said.

On the bright side, contract is a huge business that encompasses everything from public parks to assisted living facilities. And many hotels are locked into refurbishing their outdoor furniture at five- to 10-year intervals to maintain their standards.

"That business will come back," Mulholland said, "but it will take at least a year for it to happen."

Then there are consumers who had issues with the deep seating category, partly because they thought the product simply looked too good to use outdoors. They didn't believe the hype. Could the same thing happen with Rock Wood's outdoor leather?

"I think there is a bit of a parallel, which is why we thought of putting a slipcover on a woven piece," she said. "It still looks like an outdoor chair. People will be reluctant to put it outside if it looks like a leather couch. You can't take any piece of furniture and add leather. It has to be the right look and design."

Nevertheless, Mulholland realizes consumers will need a steady diet of product information to be convinced Rock Wood's leather furniture can get rained on without suffering any damage. Education will be a big part of Mulholland's marketing strategy from the outset. At press time, she was preparing to shoot room-setting photography of the product and send e-mail blasts to target customers. She was also brainstorming product literature to help demonstrate how the nanotechnology works.

Her efforts will culminate with a major introduction at this month's HD Expo, where she'll show buyers firsthand how durable and beautiful the leather is.

No time like the present

Mulholland will probably still face price resistance. She'll have to show buyers why a high-end product is worthy at a time like this. The economy is still sluggish, and the leather isn't cheap. Rock Wood fashions its cushions and slipcovers from whole cowhides that cost them $90/yard, pushing retail prices into the realm of high-end outdoor fabrics. A leather slip-covered chair, for instance, retails for around $2,000. It all begs the question, why now?

"When the timing is wrong, that's when you should be aggressive," she said. "If we all sit around and wait until it's safe, we'll never get ahead. The most exciting time to start a business is during a recession. It's a good time to expand, too. For us, I believe that now is the right time to look for the next big thing.

"I just think it has a huge potential in this market," she said. "[Outdoor leather] will be a big player in a niche way. It's green. It's new and innovative. It represents everything our industry is supposed to stand for. It's perfect."

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