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Cinde W. Ingram

Changing Seasons

September 10, 2012

Over the past few weeks, we've survived a record-breaking heat wave as well as drought, wild fires, hurricanes and West Nile virus.

Considering this year's casual furniture season started strong in most parts of the country, turned off at times and finished facing scorching hot weather, the casual furnishings industry is returning to Chicago's Merchandise Mart fully reminded of the challenges we have overcome to get here.

Maybe because of all the hard work this industry has done over the years to create weather-resistant products - including furniture, fabrics, rugs, lighting and a range of other accessories - we're returning to our niche's biggest market with a sense of confidence.

Ever an optimistic bunch, the home furnishings industry is always ready to review the newest slate of products that will help homeowners make their castles more comfortable. That castle now includes outdoor living spaces that literally extend the home's uses outdoors.

Key industry players tell me they expect to see the outdoor room lifestyle continue to grow for the next few years. They back up those expectations by pointing to a number of factors including an uptick in sales of outdoor furnishings and the slightly improved housing market. Homeowners are making investments in their landscaping and outdoor entertaining activities.

Just over 90% of landscape architects rated outdoor living spaces as popular in a recent survey of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Larger decks, bigger patios and more homes set up to include prominent outdoor rooms are proof that outdoor living areas have become true extensions of indoor living spaces. For residents of urban areas, more outdoor rooms are being developed on rooftops, terraces and/or balconies.

Although the overall size of homes being built today is smaller than in 2007, outdoor rooms are more likely to be included. Renovations also are including outdoor rooms in the plans. Those outdoor rooms cost less to build and maintain, but still provide more space for entertaining at home. And Americans have decided they like being able to entertain at home in outdoor rooms with district areas dedicated to different functions. Those activities range from relaxing beside a pool, in a spa or around a fire to watching TV, listening to music or entertaining friends by grilling outdoors.

The latest annual Weber GrillWatch survey showed grill owners host approximately 2.8 barbecues during the summer. Nearly 19% said they host at least five barbecues during the summer months. Guests tend to congregate outside during grill parties, about 60% of grill owners said. Just over 25% of those guests enjoy "hanging out" exclusively by the grill during those get-togethers. Adding to those numbers, a whopping 75% of grill owners said they fire up their barbecues at least once a week during the season.

Jamie Durie, HGTV host of "The Outdoor Room" and author of a best-selling book on the same subject, says he expects to see more outdoor kitchens, dining rooms and general entertaining spaces. Good lighting options have helped homeowners to extend the amount of time they spend outdoors, he said.

Durie agrees with leading casual industry players who see popularity spreading for heating products, such as fire pits, fire tables and electric infrared patio heaters. Those products should help to keep outdoor rooms cozy as temperatures drop and most of America transitions toward its coldest season of the year.

Retailers, designers and manufacturers can help consumers by thinking of all the options catered to for interiors and converting them for outdoor use, Durie advised. Those options include products that impart comfort and luxury as well as storage and convenience. These are factors the industry has long been aware of, but today's climate is reflecting not only the consumer's demand for best value but also low maintenance.

People are trying to get more out of their homes - either because they can't sell their homes or don't want to. Gen X is choosing more practical and smaller scale products than aging baby boomers, who are more likely to select deep seating and conversation groups.

Here's something the casual furnishings industry knows that both of these generations can talk about: The best rooms in the house may be outdoors.