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Consumer panel's views show industry's strengths and weaknesses

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Chris Gigley, Staff Staff -- Casual Living, October 1, 2008

A revealing consumer panel discussion during the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market offered retailers and vendors insights to keep their businesses going in the tough economic climate.

Panel Members

Robert Gibbs, left, was the only panelist who preferred minimal service from retailers.

The panel of six local consumers immediately broke into halves with vastly different outlooks. Robert Gibbs and Noel Ross, a pair of thirtysomethings living in downtown Chicago, were diligent shoppers holding out for the perfect look, while Pamela Preschlack, Leigh Moss, Mary Kay Ryan and Ginny Wells, four stay-at-home mothers from the tony Lake Bluff suburb, had more bottom-line demands.

Both Ross and Gibbs expressed frustration over finding the right kind of furniture for their limited outdoor spaces. Ross said her shopping efforts were so fruitless in Chicago-area stores that she considered buying online, a prospect Gibbs said he was open to from the start. The moms, however, said they use the Internet strictly as a research tool.

“I definitely do my initial shopping online so I can narrow my choices to store A or store B,” Preschlack said. “But in the end, I definitely want to see it first hand.”

When she does visit stores, Preschlack said she looks for durability first. She said she was willing to pay more for a chair, table or chaise that will last at least five years, and she wasn't alone.

“I want my furniture to be able to handle the harsh elements we have here in Chicago,” Wells said. “I expect to have it for at least 10 years. I also want to know the cushions will still be available if I need replacements in the meantime.”

The only shift in allegiances on the panel came when the participants discussed their in-store shopping habits.

“I find it irritating when people try to sell me something,” said Gibbs. “I don't want to get trapped. I'd rather just take my time browsing without having to worry about that.”

The other panelists, including Ross valued the customer service experience.

“When I'm at a specialty store, I'm willing to spend more because the people there are knowledgeable and are willing to deliver the furniture,” Wells said.

“I like talking with someone back and forth,” Ross said. “It's like having my own interior designer to help me make decisions. They have to understand me more than sell me, though. If they make that effort, I can talk to them forever.”

All six panelists said they enjoy planning their outdoor spaces on their own.

“It starts with me looking through interior design magazines, although now more and more I get inspiration from the design shows on television,” said Preschlack. “But I still like print. I tear out photos of what I like.”

When retailers offer interior design services, the panelists balk. Gibbs said he is suspect of the cost. Even if such services are free, he said, charges will probably be incorporated into the price of the furniture. Other panelists said they simply don't need interior design help.

“With the amount of space I have and the amount of time I use my casual furniture, it's probably not worth me using a designer,” Ryan said.

The most valuable insight may have come from something the panel couldn't discuss — flow-through cushions. When moderator Cinde W. Ingram, Casual Living editor-in-chief, asked if they value such new technologies, they were baffled — and thrilled.

“I've never heard of flow-through cushions,” Preschlack said. “In fact, I never put my cushions out this year because I kept having to put them up and take them back out again every day.”

Although aware of performance fabrics, panelists agreed there are plenty of new features and technologies in outdoor furniture they were unaware of. And that extra bit of knowledge would probably go a long way toward selling them.

“Flow-through cushions sound great,” Wells said. “I definitely want that for next year.”

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