16 Feb 2016
Fire-pits Seen as Warm Spot for US Outdoor Furniture Market
Consumers have resumed spending in the US outdoor furniture sector, according to many buyers at Casual Market Chicago, with the upturn particularly noticeable in the case of fire-pits, sectional seating and sales via e-channels.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the bitter winters of recent years, the outdoor furniture sector is doing good business in North America. This is particularly the case for multipurpose fire-pit tables, according to the outdoor furniture professionals gathered for the Casual Market Chicago event. While sleek European designs struggle to make inroads against the traditionally more chunky tastes of the US, low-rise informal outdoor seating is gaining ground over the previously popular formal dining sets, with reconfigurable sectional sets also proving a hit.
Drew Fransen, representing Tanjaya, an Indonesia-based outdoor furniture brand, was just one of many to see positive signs in the market. He said: "It's catching up now. I think the whole outdoor/indoor living space thing is the new trend. It started in the south, but it's now popular all over, so we sell lots in New Jersey and New England.
"We do a lot of business with contractors and interior designers, and they are seeing a lot more buildings going up. Retailers and garden centres, too, we are seeing that more."
While cold winters may limit the amount of time people can comfortably spend outdoors, it seems to have little impact on outdoor furniture sales. Highlighting this, Fransen said: "I think people are excited when the weather is getting better. They want to maximise their time outdoors, living in the indoor/outdoor space."
A clear star in the outdoor furniture market, perhaps helped by the recent colder weather, is the multifunctional fire-pit table. As a result, these tables with inset gas burners are available in a variety of formats from many indoor/outdoor makers.
California Outdoor Concepts was an early innovator in the sector. Clint Blevins, the company's founder, now sees a clear seasonal pattern to sales, saying: "The bulk of the country has a winter time. So, if you live in Chicago, for example, and it's April, you may really want to get outside, but it is still too cold. If you have a fire-pit, that's no problem. As a result, we see a spike in our sales in April. Then in the fall, people want to stay outside longer, so in October we get another spike in sales."
Blevins has seen the niche grow rapidly in recent years, in line with a notable change in consumer preferences. He said: "Some 15 years ago, we were the first company to offer the fire-pit table. It is now the second most-requested outdoor product, topping even gas grills, which is hard to believe. Just 10 years ago we were selling 90% gas logs and 10% glass, now we sell 95% glass and 5% logs. People want a more contemporary look."
Many exhibitors at the event also noted a trend away from formal outdoor dining sets and a move towards low rise, high comfort, informal furniture. Linda Hogeland, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for leading brand, Meadowcraft, based in Wadley, Alabama, said: "Deep seating is still a huge part of our business and continues to grow – there is a trend is towards deep seating versus dining. Dining is not as important a category for everyone now."
Kelly McComb, Marketing Director for Montana-based Homecrest, also noted the importance of casual, comfortable furniture to the American consumer, saying: "We do a lot of slings with some great fabrics. We have some sensational fabrics that have a two-way stretch and a memory, which takes the sling, as a seating option, to a whole new level of comfort. We have a line that has non-motion pieces, but it is the motion pieces that are selling. The other trend is casual seating and fire-pits at a dining height as a replacement for the traditional dining table."
Re-configurable sectional furniture was also proving popular at the show. Rosita Ling, Marketing Manager for Seattle-based Ratana, said: "Wovens and the resins are always great sellers, while the sectionals have been selling really well."
Gary Gartside, Sales Representative for Florida's Windward Design Group, had a similar view, saying: "Sectional furniture in polymer has been doing well, as have fire-pits. If you walk around the floor you will see a lot of fire-pits, even though it's 97°F in Florida. The wicker is still extremely strong. Cast furniture, though, I think has dropped off noticeably."
The choice of materials for outdoor furniture and how well it resists the elements is obviously of great importance. With this in mind, Gartside noted the popularity of Windward's marine polymer, especially in the coastal regions, saying: "Marine grade polymer is doing really, really well. It's a great Florida product because of the weight, and the colour goes all the way through so scratches don't show. The polymer business in the US is really growing. It's one of the hottest sectors."
According to Amorin Strong, representing Michigan's Oakland Living Corp, cast aluminium was also selling well. He said: "Anything aluminium will sell well. It's the most maintenance free and it's the most durable; it won't rust. If you go cast [aluminium], you've also got weight, so you get the best of both worlds.
"People go with iron because they want weight, but it rusts. People won't go with hollow aluminium, while it won't rust, it doesn't have weight. When you meet in the middle – and you get the weight and the rust-free factor – then it'll sell."
Fransen was keen to highlight the popularity of outdoor sectional dividers, especially in smaller urban outdoor spaces and commercial settings. He said: "Dividers are selling well. Living spaces are getting smaller and people living in the condos use them as dividers. Restaurants can also use them as dividers.
"Our tables with whitewashed teak are also selling well. Teak is growing stronger and stronger."
Much of the furniture on show was on the large side, catering to US tastes (and perhaps US waistlines). The European exhibitors at the event, though, reported a certain reluctance among conservative retailers to try anything of lighter appearance, despite consumers being seemingly willing to buy.
Mike McKeever, US Vice-president for Les Jardins, a French outdoor furniture designer and maker, said: "It's a struggle. It's always been a challenge for us. They prefer really big cushioned things here. Someone today said: ‘These chairs are too small for people in New Jersey.'
"We have slowly made a name for ourselves. Many of our customers, if they do take a chance and put one of these on the floor, they are generally pretty pleased. We very rarely lose a client once we get one – it's getting them in the first place that's the problem."
Bypassing reactionary furniture retailers to sell online is a solution that many manufacturers have now embraced, with McKeever saying: "Our best client is an online catalogue company, a well-known higher-end business targetting people with household incomes above US$500,000. We sold 150 containers through them. The educated, wealthy people who have travelled, they buy this stuff."
The importance of online selling was a recurrent theme at the event. Blevins noted its impact, as well as acknowledging the importance of two key traditional sales days in November that take place around the American Thanksgiving holiday. He said: "E-commerce is going real, real fast. At some point Cyber Monday will surpass Black Friday. If you are 35 or under, you don't go to bricks-and-mortar stores. If you are a bricks-and-mortar retailer and you don't have an internet presence, you're screwed."
Ling also noted the impact of e-commerce on the sector, saying: "I think the industry has evolved so much over the last few years in response to the internet. All the customers are very knowledgeable, everything is becoming very transparent. There are no secrets any more.
"The new generation buyers seem to go online to buy stuff instead of coming to the shop, and that's why, for our showroom, we offer a Google virtual tour. Somebody who doesn't have the time to come to the shop can still manage to see what's new on the floor."
Casual Market Chicago 2015 was held at the Chicago Merchandise Mart from 16-19 September. According to its organisers, the show attracted thousands of outdoor furnishings buyers from across North America.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago