20 Feb 2020
US Alfresco Dining Trend Sees Demand for Outdoor Furniture Soar
With US homeowners seemingly intent on eating outdoors whenever the weather permits, there's seldom been a better time to be in the exterior furniture or standalone grill sector, according to many exhibitors at the Chicago Casual Market.
Outdoor dining is thriving in backyards across America, if the Chicago Casual Market outdoor furniture show is any indicator. Consumers seem to be moving out of snacking in low, comfortable seating and into full dining table sets, and served from increasingly well-equipped open-air cooking facilities.
Rebecca Ross, Marketing Manager for CR Plastic Products of Ontario, was one of many at the event reporting growth in outdoor dining. She said: "Dining sets typically didn't sell a couple of years ago, but now people are really gravitating towards the dining area."
Furniture and accessories made for cooking as well as eating outdoors are also in demand and, accordingly, Florida-based Werever was showing its range of outdoor kitchen cabinets at the event. As the company's Sales Manager Jill Kliem explained: "In the time I've been at the company, it's definitely boomed. It was a smaller niche industry, now we're seeing it everywhere."
Werever's stand featured a cabinet under a shower of constantly running water, demonstrating its weather resistance. Kliem said: "What makes them weatherproof is the material – high-density polyethylene, known as 'boat board'. It's a closed cell material so it won't absorb any water, nothing sticks to it, so mould and mildew won't grow.
"Traditionally, outdoor kitchens have been masonry – big brick things that you cut holes in. With ours, it's more like an indoor kitchen."
Outdoor cooking is also becoming increasingly sophisticated. Australian brand Everdure was showcasing its eye-catching range of designer outdoor grills and ovens, a step up from the simple half-barrel charcoal holder. Anthony Hill, the company's General Manager for its Housewares Division, pointed out some of the key benefits, saying: "Our Fusion model combines electricity with charcoal. We integrated an electric start mechanism. After you load your charcoal on top, in about two or three minutes you'll start getting smoke, a couple of minutes later some flame, and then it cuts off after seven minutes."
Despite widespread enthusiasm in the US for outdoor cooking and eating, Everdure's experience was of consumers being slow to adopt anything new. Hill said: "What we're trying to do as a brand is evolve the outdoor-cooking experience, trying different things with the products. We find people in the US still love to do the basics. The growth market is in the offset smoking, but also the kamado-style oven continues to be very strong."
Fox Hu, General Manager of Florida-based Lagoon Furniture, also noticed a tendency for consumers to shy away from newer designs, with commercial buyers a better prospect for the company's range of modern styles. Expanding on this, he said: "In the US right now, we're more focused on the contract business, but we're trying to get some market share for retail as well. We feel like hotels are more open to this kind of concept than the end user."
Apart from the vibrant colours popping out on the stands of Everdure, Lagoon and a handful of others, most of the colours seen at the event were of a more restrained note. Ross of CR Plastic saw certain tones as on-trend, saying: "We're finding that there are a lot of colours popping up this year – your teals, your blues, and you can never go wrong with a grey – and we're finding that the greys are really selling. Three years ago you couldn't sell them, now you can't keep them. We are seeing those neutral colours popping up."
As with many sectors in the US, sustainability is of increasing importance when it comes to outdoor furniture. Even companies using raw plastics, such as Werever, were keen to point out the environmentally friendly aspects of their offering. Highlighting this, Kliem said: "Everybody's very environmentally conscious these days. We're part of the National Green Building Association, even though this is a plastic, the material is derived from natural gas. It's taken from shale deposits which are constantly replenished, so we're not taking anything from the environment that's not all automatically being put back."
CR Plastics uses recycled raw materials as a key selling point, which has proven especially effective with certain consumer groups. Drilling down a little further into this, Ross said: "What sets us apart from the other poly products is that we are post-consumer plastics. We take milk jugs, grind them up at our facility, add a pigment, extrude and mould into the furniture that you see here. In a typical deck chair there are 579 milk jugs.
"The back story is always something that's going to sell. We're selling to a generation now where environmental issues are predominant. Millennials tend to care more about the quality of the product itself and the story behind it."'
One company focusing on an up-cycling back story was Teak Two, based in Indonesia. The company was represented at the event by Chicago artist Susan Messer McBride, who said: "They use this gorgeous teak material – it's all recycled from buildings that have been knocked down, as Indonesia is transitioning into more modern structures."
Buyers would seem to be attracted to the aesthetic first and foremost, then encouraged by the sustainability message. McBride said: "It's the wood first, and then the storyline. People like the idea that they are using materials that aren't going to waste, but it has to look nice first."
Many at the event noted the importance of having something different – but not too different – to offer consumers in order to stand out in a crowded market. Some differentiated their products on quality, some on performance features, or for some, simply offering a well-known item in a novel colour was enough to attract attention.
Noting that his company's woven outdoor range was attracting buyers, James Carifa, a Sales Representative for New Jersey-based COB Design, said: "Our Summit sectional set, in navy blue wicker, has been getting a lot of attention. It's a little different with the navy colour, which is a little more unusual versus more standard neutral tones."
Another novel touch helping to make otherwise ubiquitous furniture stand out from the crowd was the colour-contrasting icons featured on Pennsylvania-based Sea Breeze's collection. The company's Sales Representative, Satchel Schoener, explained: "It's CNC-engraved, which cuts through the top layer to reveal the contrasting colour underneath.
"The most popular design depends on the neighbourhood. Sometimes, if you're near the water, then nautical is the way to go. If you're out in the country, then the horse head design is good. We go to restaurants, resorts and marinas to get their logo engraved on the back of the chair."
One company setting itself apart by function rather than form was Oasis Rolling Bases from Florida, which specialises solely in outdoor umbrella bases. Managing Partner Lawrence Galdonik explained: "It's a rolling umbrella base, designed and engineered in Germany. If you need to move your umbrella three or four feet because the sun's moved, you can adjust it in a second.
"Ours is the only base that moves like this. It takes the umbrella from a design element on the patio to something that's actually functional."
Although expensive, retailing for about $600-$1,800, Oasis customers seem willing to pay, with Galdonik saying: "We hardly got any pushback on price point because people understand that a sophisticated consumer with the money is going to buy because the quality is built in. They buy it for the movement."
Some at the event expressed concern – if not yet pain – at the lingering trade tensions between the US and China. Although designed and engineered in Australia, Everdure relies on Chinese manufacturing. Hill said: "We were fortunate that we brought in a good bit of stock prior to the tariffs getting to where they are now, but it will start to pitch. The price will have to start going up. There is no way that manufacturers, or dealers, or distributors can absorb that kind of pricing hit."
The 2019 Casual Market took place from 10-13 September at Chicago's Merchandise Mart.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago