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More Than A Casual Encounter

Furnitureland SouthFurnitureland South displays a few collections outside under the company’s 85-foot-tall, 18th century highboy replica, proving the products’ ability to withstand the elements.
HIGH POINT - Full-line furniture stores that have embraced the outdoor furniture category find it boosts sales and promotes a one-stop shopping experience for customers.
     Furnitureland South Founder, President and Owner Darrell Harris recognized the value of selling outdoor furniture from his company's start four decades ago. The category grew along with the store's addition of the Mart as it expanded into 1.3 million square feet of selling space near High Point.
     When asked whether Furnitureland South's sales in the outdoor furnishings category are increasing, Outdoor Gallery Manager Shelby Sari didn't hesitate. "Absolutely, it's growing," she said, drawing from 14 years as buyer and manager of the category. "The fabrics and the product innovations are just phenomenal, especially with designs and with the fabric selection."
     Nebraska Furniture Mart has sold outdoor furniture for more than 25 years at its locations including Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines, Iowa. "Our sales with outdoor furnishings continue to grow year after year," said Janet Lura, patio/grill buyer at the store. "We continuously expand our categories."
     David Van Elslander, VP of Art's Backyard, said, "Art Van has always ‘dabbled' in outdoor furniture, but it wasn't until spring 2012 that we started taking it more seriously, recognizing the sales growth the category was experiencing." Art's Backyard now features outdoor products in 34 of the Top 100 retailer's locations. "It has grown 20% year over year since 2012, and we see the trend continuing this year."
     With more than 20 locations in South Florida, City Furniture was in the outdoor furniture category in the early 2000s, vacated it due to subpar sales and re-entered in 2010. "Our outdoor sales are increasing with time," said James Conway, outdoor buyer, City Furniture. "Although our total business was slightly up, our outdoor business grew 15% from 2011 to 2012. In the outdoor re-launch, we veered away from commodity products and tried to hit the gap between the big boxes (who mostly have traded down to steel sets now) and the specialty patio stores (that usually don't have the buying power and economies of scale from running a large distribution operation). This gives us the ability to have the specialty look and service, but have our pricing be very competitive with the big boxes. We believe we offer the best value in the marketplace."
     Also based in South Florida, El Dorado Furniture began to introduce the outdoor furniture category full force about two years ago. "Every day we see more customers inquiring and buying outdoor furniture," said Suen Capo, buyer, El Dorado Furniture. "Our sales have increased dramatically in the outdoor category."
     Based in Sarasota, Fla., Bacon's Furniture & Design has been in business 30 years but only added outdoor furnishings a couple of years ago, company President Bill Bacon said. "We're seeing growth in the outdoor category and it's plus business for the furniture store. When our designers are doing a house, they're able to go right out onto the lanai and do that also."

COMPARING CATEGORIES
     The outdoor category is a small but growing piece of their overall business, each of the major furniture retailers said.
     "For six months out of every year, it is in the top three for sales per foot," Van Elslander said of Art's Backyard at Art Van Furniture.
     "Our outdoor category has grown faster than our indoor business; however this is to be expected when you are entering into a new category," City Furniture's Conway said.
     At Nebraska Furniture Mart, "the outdoor category performance levels are at the same pace as our overall furniture business," Lura said.
     For El Dorado Furniture, "It's still a very small percentage of our overall business but it is a growing category," Capo said.
     Bacon stressed he looks at outdoor furnishings "as plus sales for our company that we weren't getting. It's faring very well for us, but we devote quite a bit of floor space to it and we spend quite a bit of time training. You can't just put two or three sets on the floor and be in the outdoor business. You've got to have the different price points. You can't just have the high end by itself and think you're going to be in the outdoor business. They (consumers) like to compare one to the other, so you've got to know what you're talking about and you've got to show them the difference."
     Furnitureland South's Sari expressed a similar view of the casual/outdoor category. "It's certainly a wonderful add-on for somebody who's doing their entire home," she said. "We have designers who work with them and if they have a room off the patio area, they'll carry their colors through. As we've discussed in the past, the huge outdoor living spaces are not getting any smaller. They are continuing to be larger where you may have an area by the pool and an area with an outdoor fireplace or a gas fire pit."

POPULAR PRODUCTS
     Castelle continues to be Furnitureland South's best-selling brand of outdoor furniture, Sari said. Crafted by Pride Family Brands, Castelle is cast aluminum but its woven metal designs suit customers who want the wicker look. "They're my No. 1 vendor, hands down," Sari said. "Woven is still strong. We're seeing a little bit more of a trend from transitional to a contemporary look. Everybody likes the sleek, clean lines."
     She added that gas fire pits are becoming a huge category. "We saw this last market, when virtually everybody introduced a gas fire pit. Castelle and OW Lee even have it in their dining tables. We've got it displayed in bar height and dining height for that consumer to see."
     Agio's Veranda Collection, a full assortment of seating, dining and fire pit/chat group, has proven to be the best-seller at Art's Backyard for the past three years, Van Elslander said.
     "Everyone loves umbrellas, but we are also seeing a lot of success to the fire pit sets or chat sets," Van Elslander said. "These are extremely popular for couples who enjoy entertaining and the outdoors."
     Nebraska Furniture Mart finds cast aluminum products and gas fire pits are popular with consumers in its marketplace, Lura said.
     Traditional cast aluminum furniture remains the top choice for City Furniture customers, "but the fastest growing part of our business is wicker deep seating," Conway said.
     "Seating (sofas and sectionals) and dining seem to be the most popular items" for El Dorado's customers, Capo said. "We are also noticing an increase in the sales of umbrellas."
     Bacon's woven products are selling best for outdoors. "The different types of wicker looks are very strong for us," Bacon said. "We still sell a lot of sling, but the wicker looks and the padded chaises and padded sling chairs are doing well. Today the fabrics are so great that you can do some really creative things on the outdoor wicker and the Sunbrella type products so it doesn't look like an outdoor product. You've got the durability for being out in the weather if you need it."

GROWTH EXPECTATIONS
     At Art's Backyard, Van Elslander said he expects to see "a 25% gain in sales over last year, although the sales will definitely come later this year because of last year's early spring."
     Lura was equally optimistic in her forecast at Nebraska Furniture Mart. "We expect continuous growth in all of the outdoor categories," she said.
     Growth is also expected at El Dorado Furniture. "I see the category increasing tremendously, as more and more people are using the outdoor space for home entertainment," Capo said. "When the prices of outdoor TVs decrease, I think that's when the industry is really going to see big numbers. It's definitely the category with the most growth potential right now in the furniture industry, especially in South Florida when the product isn't seasonal as the rest of the country."
     City Furniture also projects continued growth in the category. "We are still figuring out what sells and tailoring our lineup to the customer's needs," Conway said. "Next year will be about creating a better in-store presentation through our home accents program, specifically changing our rugs, umbrellas, pillows and fabric choices to excite our customers about decorating their backyards."
     Bacon and his staff remain impressed with the potential of the outdoor category. "We felt so encouraged with what we were doing in our Sarasota market, we've expanded our store that was 30 miles south of it for outdoor," Bacon said. Completed at the end of February, the expansion includes a gallery of Tropitone Furniture and some of its other better outdoor furniture brands, now appearing in both stores. "Before, we did not have enough space dedicated to it in the south store, and now we do," he said.
     Support from key vendors helped Bacon's to extend into the outdoor arena so quickly. "The way they're helping me, other than the advantages you have with early buy, is they are doing a terrific job of training with our salespeople," Bacon said. "Our design staff has so much to learn; the training is a critical part to get them up-to-speed on outdoor. When you talk about spending a lot of money on outdoor product, you've got to know how it's made, the structure, whether it's aluminum and powder coated - you've got to know those things in order to sell that quality of product."
     Furnitureland South's staff guides consumers who want to extend their living areas outdoors. "We've got a great staff of designers who can lay it out for them and help them pick out (fabrics and frames)," Sari said. "The majority of our business is special order."
     Because of its flexibility, Furnitureland South can accommodate customers from across the nation and also international consumers who have a variety of outdoor projects. For example, Sari recently helped a customer who was furnishing a rooftop area to find the needed products. "We have high-rises we deal with that have the narrow balcony area. Some of the manufacturers have addressed that with the counter-height category. Also with rectangular shaped, narrow tables, you can maximize your space in that type setting where it can be put up against a wall, not taking up as much room. You see it in the high-rise situations and you see it in situations where people are down-sizing.
     "We're starting to get a lot of business from the area where Hurricane Sandy caused so much devastation in North New Jersey and New York," Sari added. "We're seeing some of those clients that are now at the point of shopping here at the store and purchasing the product. All of that takes time."
     Sari noted the unusual weather patterns across the country through the winter months as she spoke of expectations for the season. "The way the East Coast has been hit with a lot of storms, I think people are going to be ready to break out and to be able to enjoy the outdoor and warm weather," she said. "Of course, 2012 was an election year and I know some people consider that as a holding and waiting period. But we're poised and ready for a big season. We're looking for it to break loose."

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