As outdoor furniture numbers swell, the rush to ride the wave is on.
Change is in the air for the outdoor category, and it’s not just the approach of fall and the new products rolling ashore this month at the Casual Market in Chicago.
According to a recent survey conducted by Wakefield Research, 66 percent of U.S. households will make a purchase of new furnishings or accessories for their outdoor space this year. That’s up from 42 percent in 2016, with overall sales expected to reach $5.3 billion within the next three years. Numbers like that attract attention and even full-line furniture retailers who never considered dipping their toes in the water before are actively studying the horizon and deciding how to best ride this new wave.
Li Kurczewski, creative director at Jaipur Living, suggests the current shift in the outdoor business was born on the West Coast where “the indoor and outdoor lifestyle made a serious impact on the design world, bringing nature into the interior space and stretching the indoors out. In home design, more windows and more natural light are the new crush, along with wrap-around decks, small garden spaces and terraces that feel like one’s living room.”
“Home building and new home design is definitely influencing today’s outdoor market,” says interior and product designer Libby Langdon. As evidence, the author and makeover television personality points to a show house project she undertook this summer for Traditional Home Magazine in South Hampton, N.Y. “What’s important for retailers and manufacturers to understand, is that the terrace for the main house was 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. People are building houses with larger outdoor spaces now, and spaces of that size demand a lot of furniture.”
A certain amount of style is also important since outdoor furnishings are becoming something of a status symbol among both the affluent and the aspiring—the one furniture category as noticeable by the neighbors as the make of one’s car in the driveway. “Outdoor is the new living space, and there’s definitely a lot of keeping up with the Joneses now,” notes HFA member Andy Thornton, founder and partner at La Difference, in Richmond, Va. “This is not an adjunct business anymore.”
Langdon, who designed her first licensed outdoor collections for manufacturer NorthCape last year, theorizes that “consumers now see their outdoor spaces as additional square footage that expands their homes. They are looking to create true outdoor rooms and they are starting to compare those outdoor rooms to their indoor rooms.”
In so doing, notes Gene Wilson, director of merchandising and vendor management at HFA member Room & Board, “They want solutions that they are proud of; solutions that are comfortable, that they find to be beautiful, and that they can use to entertain.”
“People are willing to invest in their outdoor spaces,” Langdon says. “There’s a big audience out there that sees the value in good quality, well-made outdoor pieces.” La Difference’s Thornton agrees. “They will spend $7,000 or $8,000 and look at it as though they are furnishing a new living room.”
The average sale at Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, Calif., is $15,000, according to Doug Sanicola, the store’s president and the first retail chairman of the International Casual Furnishings Association (ICFA).
“People are always shocked when they see how expensive outdoor furniture is,” says HFA member Kyle Johansen, director of merchandising at Minneapolis-based HOM. “But they are always willing to pay for more expensive, better-quality furniture once they’ve gone through a life cycle or two of cheap patio furniture that falls apart on them in one, two or three years.”
In My Room
Creating fabulous outdoor rooms that rival their indoor counterparts requires more than furniture, and consumer spending in the accessories category has doubled in the past year. “The outdoor category for us is up about 20 percent this year, particularly at the high end where consumers want good, quality furniture,” reports retailer Becky Greene, executive director of merchandising at Furnitureland South in High Point, N.C. “But portable lighting and rugs are also important if you want to really make your outdoor setting look as good as your indoor. That really wasn’t the case as little as five years ago, but now, the options in outdoor decorating are unbelievable. A lot of the products don’t even look like they are made for the outdoors.”
Author and design strategist Mary Knackstedt points to an upholstered group introduced by Century Furniture at the High Point Market, complete with skirts and details usually found indoors. “Designed for lounging comfort, it didn’t look at all as though it was intended for outdoor use,” she says.
Furniture designer Richard Frinier, who has been designing for the outdoor category since 1981, says that “the category has evolved and become more elevated. While outdoor furniture was previously viewed as a stepchild to the home furnishings industry, there have been immense advancements made in the quality of the materials and construction technology, as well as in the vast variety of product categories now available. So much so, that there is virtually no difference in overall quality or aesthetics between how interior and exterior furnishings are made today.”
The industry is advancing on the fashion front too. “Outdoor was always behind indoor by two years,” says retailer David Schweig, president of Dallas-based Sunnyland Outdoor Furniture (Schweig is a 2017 HFA Retailer of the Year). “We were always playing catch-up, but now we’re seeing closer and closer ties to indoor, particularly in terms of color. A couple of years ago the outdoor business was a sea of brown. Now, as in indoor, we’re seeing greys come in.”
Kurczewski says to also be on the lookout for “shards of ocean blues and soft shades of robin’s egg,” at Market this season, adding that styles overall are becoming less novelty and more sophisticated. “Look for soft sages and rich pops of teal and moss greens that fill rooms with delight and energy. These serene colors are calming to the senses and blend beautifully with naturally occurring color palettes.”
To Everything There is a Season
“Outdoor living gives us the space and time we need to bring balance back into our lives,” Frinier says. “Everything today moves so quickly, making the outdoor room and resort-at-home concept all about time and how we set the stage to spend that time.”
La Diff’s Thornton believes consumers are increasingly gravitating to outdoor spaces due to psychological need. “The more we become technologically driven, spending time on our phones, laptops and iPads, the greater our need becomes to reconnect with nature. I think it’s in our DNA,” the executive posits.
“Let’s face it, we’re no longer an agricultural society,” says manufacturer Derek Ritzel, president and chief executive of Castelle. “We’re all stuck in offices, cubicles and cars, and at the end of the day, we need air. We want to breathe and look at the sky because we’ve been looking up at drop-ceiling tiles all day. There’s nothing better than being outside.”
Plus, “the advent of fire elements and super stylish outdoor heating products mean than even cool-weather customers can utilize their spaces six, seven, eight months of the year,” Langdon says. “People who think they are only going to do business from May to August are really missing the boat.”
Indeed, points out Ritzel, “If full-line furniture retailers were to put the same lens they use on outdoor on other categories they offer, they’d probably throw out everything in their stores except sofas, recliners and bedroom. Everything has a season. Dining’s starts up as people approach Thanksgiving. Grandfather clocks have an unconscionably short selling season limited to the holidays.”
Conversely, “one of our full-line dealers just outside of Denver made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to leave at least two or three groups of outdoor furniture on his floor all year long, shifting it to a more prominent space as the season approached. People would come in and say, ‘I was here in January, and there was an outdoor set over here. Where is it?’ And he would take them right to it. What he found is that people plan their purchases a lot further in advance than we think. He’s actually transacting in February, March and April, especially when shoppers find out they can custom order things any way they want.”
“This is a year-round business,” says Room & Board’s Wilson. “It differs from region to region when you break out our business geographically—people in the West and Southwest obviously have different weather patterns—but we do a lot of commercial business so we have to have it available. We’ll see a peak between March and September, when the bulk of the sales are happening, but we’re seeing more and more in the off-peak months and it’s growing each year.”
HOM sets the floors of its branded Seasonal Concepts department in February. Johansen says the “season” begins and ends “when the weather decides it. We are typically selling down our floor models in September and rolling over to Christmas in the space in October. We do Christmas from October to January, and then it’s back to patio. Typically, people really start coming in when the weather gets into the 50s and 60s, but that can be in March or May for us. It can snow in May in Minneapolis.”
Rolling in the Deep
Johansen has seen a lot of changes in the category since he started buying outdoor product in 2005. “People are much more serious about it now as an extension of their home. People down in Florida have been doing it forever, because they always have good weather, but we’re seeing the trend in the Northern areas too. People say, ‘Gosh, I don’t just have to have a 10×10 deck with a dining table and a grill; I can make something bigger and put seating out there. In fact, where the industry used to be 80 to 90 percent dining, we’re seeing a big shift to deep seating: Sofas, loveseats and big, over-sized chairs where can you actually sit down and enjoy yourself. Patio dining chairs are not very comfortable to sit in for a lot of hours.”
Says Room & Board’s Wilson, “If you think about the history of outdoor, it was always dining solutions and uncomfortable chairs. Now you can get amazing fully upholstered product from us and from many other retailers. We began selling fully upholstered outdoor product in 2010 and since then, the outdoor category has grown faster than our company every year, by a significant portion, with fully upholstered outdoor furniture now making up 34 percent of our sales.”
“Deep seating is just as hot as it could possibly be,” concurs Sanicola at Outdoor Elegance. “When shoppers come into our store their number-one choice now is four club chairs around a fire pit, with deep, comfortable seating second, and dining always coming in third.”
“In the past, cushioned goods with foam cores held water, but things have changed thanks to Sunbrella fabrics, Ever-Dry and Dry-Fast Foam,” says Schweig. “Today it’s all about cleaner lines without a lot of detail or craziness in the patterns, and great comfort. We’re involved in a lot of trade groups, and we hosted a meeting attended by a lot of indoor retailers who had never really been in an outdoor store. They have all these magic numbers they work with–$899, $999—and they saw prices on our sofas of $2,000 and $3,000. They were astounded that people would spend that kind of money on sofas that go out in the elements. Then they sat on one, and said, ‘Oh my God, this is so comfortable!’”
“The trend toward deep seating started here in California and has finally made its way across the country because people want to emulate the outdoor resort lifestyle,” says Terri Lee Rogers, president of O.W. Lee and incoming chairman of the ICFA. “We’re transitioning from dining outdoors, to relaxing and entertaining outdoors with incredibly comfortable deep seating conversation areas.”
Along with great comfort and sexy fire elements, a growing number of makers are seeking the attention of full-line furniture retailers and interior designers with licensed collections. In addition to Libby Langdon at North Cape, there’s Barclay Butera at Castelle (where a customer can easily spend $25,000 on an outdoor set), the new Winterthur Museum Collection at Lane Venture (which builds on collections at sister Heritage Home companies Henredon and Hickory Chair), and Trisha Yearwood at Klaussner Outdoor (which president Gary McCray says, “is a great tie-in for the full-line retailer in moving shoppers from indoors to outside.”)
“The market is starting to look a little crowded,” relates Stephanie Pereira, vice president of sales at Lane Venture. “I was previously in the tabletop world at a time when all the designers were getting into that category and I learned you have to have a story and a look that’s different, something that is going to resonate with the consumer with or without a name. There also has to be a real connection between the licensing group and the manufacturer. We worked very closely with Winterthur to really capture something unique, based on the lifestyle of the DuPont family and the way they entertained.”
Brack Culler, vice president at Braxton Culler, which expanded from stationary upholstery into outdoor some 20 years ago—introducing Langdon’s first licensed stationary collection along the way—believes that the advent of licensed collections in outdoor “will draw attention to the category. When you’re launching new products it’s a shot in the arm, a boost for the manufacturer,” he says.
Still, the growing number of new manufacturers and retailers in the outdoor furniture field has some outdoor specialists concerned newcomers will focus on low-end, imported product, running the risk of under-shooting customer expectations and creating ticket compression much like that which has plagued the indoor industry for the past two decades.
Ritzel, for one, is hoping outdoor retailers learn from the mistakes of others.
“It’s important to remember that people always spend more on things they want, versus things they need, and right now they want to be outdoors entertaining their friends and family,” says Ritzel. “If you’re thinking about getting into this business, my advice is to get with somebody who understands this space and have them teach you how to do it right.”
Johansen is more sanguine. “The most important thing for full-line furniture retailers considering the outdoor category now is not to be afraid of it,” he says.
“It is a different business, but at the same time, you’re selling furniture. It may be a different type of quality, and a different price point than you’re used to, but it’s still furniture and when you break it down you’re already selling the same customer. It’s just that right now, if you’re not in the patio business, they are buying somewhere else.”