Woven in time
Laurie Rudd -- Casual Living, 3/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Woven wicker, longknown for enduring designs and timeless crafts manship, is recognized today for the latest in durability and contemporary sensibilities.
"Wicker has always been a constant in the industry," said Gary McCray, president, Lane Venture. "But with what's happened in the last couple years in the ability to create so many new natural looks, it's really gotten hot as a category."
Transcending the ups and downs of generations, woven wicker has earned a popular position within the casual segment that is resulting in renewed opportunities for established entities as well as attention from new entrants.
"Many are getting into the category," McCray said. "In the end, quality will stand out. We are seeing an improved business climate and we have been busy with orders. The challenge is in determining what will be popular as the mood gets better."
The growing field is seen as creating opportunities for many, but challenges as well.
"I see the wicker category congested with a variety of companies offering the same style, same look, same finish of woven product," Allen Calzadilla, president, Skyline Design. "We are hearing from dealers who have tried the lower-end goods and have experienced returns from the end consumer and have simply had enough."
"Our customers are having to deal with the fact that Internet- only companies can put junk out there, getting the right look; but ultimately, it is not as comfortable when it shows up at a home," said Tom Murray, president of NorthCape International. "The oversaturation is a concern, but can be overcome if we are able to drive folks to sit in the furniture." Murray sees selling comfort and size over the Internet as difficult, which ultimately benefits specialty retailers.
As oversaturation may be a concern unique to the category, there are concerns that are universal across the outdoor living industry. Top on the list is Mother Nature.
"There are things we cannot control, like the weather," said Lou Rosebrock, VP of sales and marketing for Lloyd/Flanders. "Our dealers are very optimistic for the season as most are in the process of setting their floors. We are seeing the season getting off to a slow start; however, everyone is optimistic."
"We are ready with product and waiting for the good weather to come in," said Godfrey Leung, VP of sales, Ratana Home and Floral. "The feedback we have received during recent trade shows in Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas and Las Vegas was very positive. We wrote orders and the retailers were positive even in the uncertain economy."
Whatever the season holds, the category's ongoing potential to deliver the latest trends is being seen as its key for success. "The wicker category will always be around," Calzadilla said. "But consumers will be looking for something different than what they are seeing in every store they walk into."
"One of the biggest concerns we see is that unless you have something fresh in wicker, there are a growing number of retailers that do not want to take on more or cannot differentiate," said Gary Pettitt , president of Seasonal Living. "For a medium to small seasonal store, it has become difficult to compete with the wicker category unless they provide really unique pieces or weaves."
"Outdoor wicker suppliers, and all casual furniture suppliers for that matter, need to continue to earn the consumers' disposable income by being different," said Tami Newton, director of sales and marketing, Palm Springs Rattan & Garden Classics. "We are always looking to bring out stylish durable values."
Retail market trends
In the trend toward blurring of lines between indoor and outdoor living spaces, woven wicker has been ahead of the game. This indoor-outdoor functionality is resulting in the addition of new markets.
"The category has changed so dramatically from traditional to contemporary, yet c ontinues to be the only truly indoor-outdoor furnishing," Murray said. "A lot of the other categories say they can be used for both, but actually do not make that indoor-outdoor bridge like wicker." As a result, interest by the traditional furniture market is being recognized as a growing trend for the category.
Growth is also being experienced from additional markets due to the versatility of the category. "We are seeing an increase in legitimate e-tailers - people that are maintaining strong margins and offering those to the consumers," Rosebrock said. "There is a trend also for brick-and-mortar retailers adding the online availability to their selling tools."
The indoor-outdoor appeal is not lost on the contract/hospitality marketplace. "With the comfort and low-maintenance factor, contract is utilizing more wicker furniture for both indoors and out," Leung said. "The look of wicker is also emotional and provides a feeling of summer, wherever it is used."
Although grounded in traditional roots, exciting design trends are being forecasted for the category. At NorthCape International, with approximately 50% of the company's national sales currently in traditional styles, they are seeing a shift toward requests for more contemporary designs.
"I see dealers reacting positively to new edgy shapes and finishes in synthetic, which to me is confidence in their ability to sell it to their clientele," Murray said. "For so long, everyone was playing extremely safe; I think both retailers and consumers are ready for something truly new and fresh."
For Ratana, Leung is seeing a movement toward less traditional designs as well. "When we travel, we are seeing those retailers that usually carried traditional styles, looking for more transitional designs," Leung said. "For next season, we believe that from colors to weaves, we will see contemporary designs in equal presentation with conventional."
Rosebrock agrees that contemporary design is growing in the category which also is bringing on the advent of new textures and colors. "In our loom line, we are offering a huge array of colors," Rosebrock said. "Something we are seeing is that our retailers are accepting color more readily for the base as well as in accessories to add punch to their sales floors."
Mixing constructions is another trend appearing in offerings by multiple manufacturers. During the 2011 International Casual Furniture and Accessories Market, the addition of teak or aluminum to wicker designs received high levels of attention.
Building upon its strength, Kingsley-Bate is promoting unique looks by combining wicker with teak. "This is not only found in merging materials within a single piece, but also pairing wicker chairs with teak tables," said Brian Blakeney, director of sales and marketing, Kingsley-Bate. "Doing so creates a more interesting presentation, and it's not something other companies offer at a comparable price."
With growing competition, manufacturers in the category are expanding marketing efforts to differentiate. For Lane Venture, taking its message nationwide is in the plans to set its brand apart. "We are going back into national print advertising in conjunction with our parent company Furniture Brands," McCray said.
The company is partnering with Traditional Home magazine for not only advertising but event promotions as well. Lloyd/Flanders will also see increased national advertising efforts this season to promote the brand.
Consistency of message is working for Palm Springs Rattan. "Our message continues to remain strong, allowing the customer to choose their favorite fabric, coordinating throw and embroidered pillows in any fabric at the same price," Newton said.
Creating tools to assist the specialty floor sales personnel to educate consumers is the latest marketing effort from NorthCape International. "As we already have the distribution infrastructure and good products, we are focused on making it easy for store salespeople to sell our products," Murray said. The company's sales tool includes a price list that can be customized for dealers to pick their mark-up while incorporating product images and dimensions.
Skyline Design is looking for the global release of its 2013 catalog as a cornerstone to its marketing initiative. "Our existing catalog has been received as one of the best outdoor catalogs on the market today," Calzadilla said. "The large size and breathtaking images in real-life settings helps set it apart from the traditional catalogs used throughout the United States' brands." Calzadilla feels the catalog is a useful tool for selling the product that retailers may not have the space to display.
Opportunities and optimism are being expressed for the future of the category. "I am guardedly optimistic," McCray said. "Ultimately the category will see growth as the economy gets stronger and as furniture stores embrace the category."
"We are positive about the future of wicker," Leung said. "We see it as a long-term favorite due to its lightweight, durable, low-maintenance features."
New manufacturing practices, which are already coming out of European brands, are being seen for the wicker category in the future by some. "In three to five years, the labor of weaving will be removed from many of the styles of the wicker category," Newton said. "Injection-molded wicker seating and dining will be hard to tell from the more expensive, labor-intensive, hand-woven products."
"Our plans for the future are to always have a fresh, value-oriented offering for our customers and look to adding elements to the products," Rosebrock said. "We see continued enthusiasm in the marketplace for the category that will continue for a good many years."
Steeped in history, today's wicker embodies inspiration and innovation that is poised to endure.
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