Laurie Rudd -- Casual Living, 5/6/2011 5:51:13 AM
THE SHADE PRODUCT SEGMENT WAS NOT IMMUNE TO RECENT CHALLENGES EXPERIENCED BY ALL IN BUSINESS, CASUAL OR OTHERWISE, BUT THE CATEGORY IS NOW OPENING UP AGAIN.
"The challenges we face mostly are to be innovative with the look of umbrellas and to maintain the competitive price of our umbrellas amid the constant rising costs of materials and labor today," said Eric Glaser, national sales manager, Fiberlite Umbrellas. "Consumers today are not only looking at umbrellas just for shade, but as a way to enhance the look of their outdoor environment, whether it is in the commercial or retail sector."
This heightened interest in outdoor living and shade products is gaining ground in the United States despite the economic climate.
"I feel there were challenges specific to the shade segment including materials availability, logistics, labor and pricing," said Calfornia Umbrella National Sales Manager Bryan Sanches. "The environment in general was challenging."
The Pomona, Calif.-based manufacturer was among those making, distributing and marketing shade products that met a variety of challenges with solutions designed to rise above.
For years, the international market has recognized the advantages of shade products and has ranked it as one of the first elements to dress exteriors. The American market, however, has lagged behind and just recently started to recognize the category's benefits and invest in them as well. The surge of interest is being attributed to Mother Nature as well as marketing.
"First and foremost, there is a growing awareness in this country that direct exposure to sunlight is not healthy, and most people have looked to shade products for protection," said Jeff Leisen, national sales manager of Galtech International. "Secondly, shade products are used as much for shade as they are for fashion."
Treasure Garden's Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jeff B. Dorough credits the surge in interest to greater consumer awareness of UV protection, effective marketing and the depth of design choices. "Shade umbrellas provide beauty, fashion and function all in one product," Dorough said.
Ultimately, the enhanced value of shade has created one challenge most companies welcome: Managing increased orders. "Dealers placed early-buy orders earlier and larger than ever before to ensure shade products early in the season," Dorough said. By building up Treasure Garden's basic inventory during the slower months, the shade manufacturer was able to keep pace and handle the heavy demand of the early-buy season.
Sun Garden also is responding to rising demand for its largest cantilever parasol, the 13-foot Curve, as well as continued orders of its 11 1/2 -ft . Easy Sun octagon. "Definitely, things are starting to pick up," said Mike Mallory, director of sales, North America. "Oddly enough, our more expensive models seem to be selling better right now. It's kind of the opposite of what most people might think: That it's all about price point."
Mallory thinks the demand for off set umbrellas is driven by other developments that have occurred in the casual industry over the past 10 to 15 years, such as the growth of chat groups, backyard entertaining and decorative tables without holes for center-post umbrellas. "We came out with a new model of our parasol, the 13-foot Curve. It's our biggest yet and our most expensive. And it's outselling everything. People are going for our bigger and better models."
Sun Garden, which is based in Germany, holds worldwide patents on its products. Every year, it faces patent infringement challenges from people who try to copy its designs. This year was no exception after a Sun Garden sales rep recognized a knockoff umbrella inside a New York retail store. Because the retailer was a longtime customer, the companies worked in partnership to have that product removed and returned to its manufacturer. "A patent is only as good as your ability and your willingness to enforce it," Mallory said.
Challenges over the past two years varied as "credit markets tightened, capital projects stalled, dealer inventories stagnated and ordering patterns dropped," said Dougan Clarke, founder and CEO of Miami-based TUUCI. "Most of our customers and vendors alike were, fortunately, prepared for the economic climate and maintained a consistent, though noticeably reduced fulfillment schedule with TUUCI."
Both established and emerging businesses felt the impact. Newcomer to the shade segment, FLEXX Market Umbrellas, experienced challenges involving raw material and labor. "As a new company, we made the decision not to pass increases along to our customers," said Andrew Mehlman, managing partner of the Denver, Colo.-based firm. "We have also been caught up in the labor shortage issues that China is experiencing and have seen some delays in production. To off set these delays to our customers, we have extended payment terms."
Materials, labor and logistics were not the only concerns during the current economic climate. "Our biggest challenge was patience," said Jo Edmonson, vice president of sales and marketing for Paonia, Colo.-based ShadeScapes Americas. "In the contract and hospitality arena, the number of quote requests for our shade products continued to grow, but the timeframe to commit was longer. Of course, many projects were put on hold indefinitely due to budget cuts."
In addition to the tightened contract niche, ShadeScapes Americas and others dealt with economic effects on the specialty retail market, which off - set inventory reductions with greater interest in manufacturers' drop-ship capabilities. Timing concerns for orders and shipments presented challenges, many of which were manageable, yet difficult.
"Reduced early-buy orders and increased in-season demands placed a stress on our warehouse operations," Galtech's Leisen said. "We were able to overcome this by increasing our warehouse inventory at the moment we saw the season take off in such a positive direction."
Across the industry, shade companies that were able to be flexible and responsive fared well despite the tough times. "We have a direct relationship with our factories and control materials as well as labor," Sanches said. "In fact, we were able to take advantage of challenges facing others."
Sales jumped for California Umbrella as retailers and contract customers were looking for solutions that were available and at favorable price points. "Customers are coming back this year after we were able to respond quickly to them last season," Sanches said.
The shade segment is responding to its increased popularity by creating new shade products while reaching a greater understanding of the business and the industry as a whole.
"Because TUUCI has focused our investments on an overall ‘experience,' we are better positioned than ever to exceed the expectations of our consumer, our dealers and agents worldwide, our vendors, and importantly, our internal staff members at the enjoyment level," Clarke said. Through the addition of a Shadow Works development group, TUUCI has seen shade introductions quadruple over the past 24 months - more than ever before in the company's history.
At ShadeScapes Americas, the challenges faced have led to refinement of its multi-channel distribution strategy and the addition of more key accounts including ecommerce retailers, specialty stores and a key high-end cataloger. "We continued promoting to our other channels - contract, hospitality and the design trade," Edmonson said. "Not being dependent on just one or two channels benefited us during these challenging years."
Ultimately across the shade industry, challenging times have provided opportunities for innovation and growth. For example, Fiberlite Umbrellas plans to continue product designs based on Ray Sweet Sr.'s patented fiberglass frame umbrella as the company positions itself for the future. "Our primary niche is commercial applications due to the quality of our products," Glaser said. "Sales growth has been consistent, and 2010 was one of best years ever."
For FLEXX, technology has been instrumental in product development and is a key factor going forward. "We will continue to look at ways to improve our product as well as to develop new unique merchandise," Mehlman said. "We realize that we need to stay at the forefront of technological advances in our industry to continue to be a leader and grow."
New products were not an area in which the segment pulled back during challenging times. As the shade category ramps up for the upcoming show season, expect more innovations to be unveiled.
For TUUCI, Clarke thinks the new Plantation MAX Cantilever featuring an inventive Aluma-TEAK finish is cause for excitement. "It speaks to the ultimate outdoor experience and represents the imaginative engineering that makes our shade products uniquely TUUCI," Clarke said.
In the contract area, California Umbrella is adding a new series with marenti wood, which offers teak-like performance with half the cost. The company is also expanding its line of cantilevers by adding large and budget options, including an 8-ft . model at a $100 quantity price point.
Fiberlite will introduce the Triton at this month's HD Expo in Las Vegas. This model is a double-tiered umbrella offering increased wind flow within a contemporary design.
ShadeScapes Americas is launching 13 shade designs to the contract industry this season. "We worked with existing manufacturing partners to develop and launch new shade collections from Umbrosa, Woodline and May Sunshades," Edmonson said. "Each collection offers cutting-edge shade forms, moving us further into the contemporary shade segment."
For Treasure Garden, introductions are being made in every area of the manufacturer's operation, from packaging to fabric collections. "Our exclusive O'bravia furniture fabric collection provides our dealers with high-performance fabrics and an excellent value for the consumer," Dorough said.
Galtech is adding a promotional- level aluminum umbrella that allows the company to capture new sales markets and dealers to hit attractive price points.
"We are developing a line of contract-grade umbrellas that we will introduce later this season," FLEXX Market Umbrella's Mehlman said.
It was little-known author Joshua J. Marine who said, "Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful." For the shade industry, ingenuity, vision and hard work have been instrumental in overcoming the numerous challenges found in today's business climate. For many, solving those challenges enabled them to soar to higher altitudes.
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