Small Is Beautiful
By Tom Lassiter
|Laurence Estrada, owner.|
In business, being small can be a beautiful thing.
Being small can enhance speed, agility and responsiveness. A business unhampered by layers of management and competing department heads sometimes may have a competitive advantage. Decisions can be quick. Deals can be struck at lightning speed.
Being small, and being good at what you do, opens the door to boundless opportunities.
This is the place where E9lifeStyle finds itself. Based in Richmond, British Columbia, E9 is fresh, new branding for a 15-year-old company, American Home & Patio.
“Some of our dealers said American Home & Patio sounded too much like a retail store,” says company founder and owner Laurence Estrada.
The new name was rolled out about a year ago, and products bearing the E9 brand made their debut at Casual Market Chicago in September.
“We like to think we’re a hidden gem that people don’t know about yet,” says Estrada, who spent more than three years as National Sales manager for Ratana in the late 1990s, before that company expanded into the casual furniture business.
The E9 name was inspired by combining the first letter of the founder’s last name with the number of people in his family. Estrada and his wife have seven children.
Buyers visiting E9’s temporary showroom space at the Merchandise Mart in July saw no outdoor furniture that could be considered traditional. Everything leans to a contemporary look.
E9 offers casual furniture in extruded aluminum and stainless steel. Its synthetic wicker products use Hularo fiber, a premium line. Fabrics include the entire Sunbrella catalog, as well as Twitchell’s Textilene and the Batyline by Italian fabric-maker Serge Ferrari.
The emphasis on contemporary styling, Estrada says, is “just by personal choice. We like to think the demographics we’re going after are the younger crowd. We’ve got to try to maintain a certain niche.”
If E9 tried to cater to all tastes, he explains, the company would run the risk of “loosing the niche advantage.”
The company’s location in the greater Vancouver area also may have influenced Estrada’s styling direction. Vancouver is known for its fashion-forward tastes and international flair. The area’s strong ties to Asia and Pacific Rim nations make for a population that is affluent, youthful and not bound by tradition.
For 2016, E9 offers five wicker groups, three aluminum collections (including two that are exclusively dining), and a stainless-steel dining/counter collection.
The company also offers a limited selection of items for the contract market, including a Hularo dining chair and slatted aluminum chairs manufactured by Jati & Kebon, which features furniture of Belgian design made in China.
“We don’t have a large variety of items to offer,” Estrada admits. “What we do have is a good quality product.”
“We do wonderful numbers” with E9, says Crystalview owner Ron Batt. The company, he says, manufactures its own cushions and turns them out quickly.E9’s products are a hit with Crystalview Pool & Spa, a Vancouver casual furniture retailer.
That’s an important selling point above the 49th parallel, where the casual furniture season is short and intense. Outdoor furniture shoppers have become conditioned to immediate gratification and expect to receive special orders much faster than consumers south of the border.
“When you can have custom product in less than a week,” Batt says, “it’s good.”
E9 has its own cut-and-sew operation, with access to the full range of Sunbrella products through Trican Corporation, the Canadian version of Glen Raven’s Trivantage fabric and hardware distribution operation.
E9, in keeping with its emphasis on quality and recognizing that Vancouver has a temperate rain forest climate, uses only reticulated foam for its cushions. Reticulated foam, sometimes called quick-dry foam, allows rainwater to pass through quickly. Unlike regular foam cushions, reticulated foam cushions may be used shortly after a summer rain. The quick-drying nature of the foam also helps prevent mold.
The cost for reticulated foam “is up there,” Estrada says. “It’s a premium product that we sell.”
Estrada says E9’s furniture is manufactured in Indonesian and Chinese factories that also produce for some of the industry’s best-known, high-end brands. He notes that Dedon relies on Hularo resin fiber exclusively, the same as E9.
Yet E9’s pricing is more moderate than the high-end brands coming from the same factories. Estrada says he keeps overhead low and is able to operate on thinner margins. The company has fewer than 10 employees.
Phil Squarie, Jr., at Wicker World in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says his store added E9 furniture this season. In the course of a month, Wicker World moved four sets with an average price of between $3,500 and $4,000.
The line, he says, incorporates good quality with moderate pricing and modern designs. For Wicker World, E9 “seemed to be an easy fit.”
Squarie notes the scale of the furniture is not as expansive as some deep seating brands. “Some of the sectionals are a little smaller, more European-scale,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful with that.”
Scale that seems modest in the Prairie Provinces may be just right in Canada’s more urban settings.
Living space is at a premium in Vancouver, a peninsula city where the average size of a high-rise condo is 840 sq. ft. Micro-condos are now hitting the market, with about 300 sq. ft., or the size of two parking spaces.
E9’s business currently is concentrated in Canada’s western provinces, Estrada says. One reason is that filling custom cushion orders in a timely fashion becomes more challenging as one moves farther east. Winnipeg is some 2,200 kilometers (1,360 miles) from Vancouver, and it’s only halfway to Canada’s eastern cities. Trucks can’t cover that distance in an overnight run.
Canadian shoppers, Estrada says, expect quick delivery on custom cushion orders, and casual manufacturers in eastern Canada can meet those requirements. As a result, Estrada says, his company has not yet penetrated markets in the eastern provinces.
Another limiting factor is E9’s lack of sales representatives in the eastern part of the nation. Estrada so far has relied upon personal contacts and regional trade shows to market his products.
Estrada sees growth opportunities in the United States. The company debuted its products at the Las Vegas furniture market last summer. As American Home & Patio, his company has shown at Chicago’s Casual Market for four years.
Estrada says West Coast states are of particular interest to him because of their relative proximity to E9’s home base.
“We have really advantageous skid rates to ship to California,” he says. “I can ship to California cheaper than I can ship to Quebec.” He’s investigating the most expedient methods to get his products across the U.S.-Canada border “so we can get them to our customers down the West Coast as fast as possible.”
The company’s main hurdle to building its business in the United States, he says, is lack of name recognition. “When we exhibit in the U.S.,” he says, “people don’t know who we are.”
The seasonality of the outdoor furniture business led Estrada to seek other product lines to round out his business year.
E9 is the exclusive Canadian distributor for Halo, a brand of leather furniture that Estrada says also supplies Restoration Hardware.
Patio is a seven-month business in Canada, he says. “By offering Halo, that should keep our sales consistent throughout the year. Patio sales are icing on the cake.”
“Our target market is interior designers,” Estrada says. “We decided to stock only the best-selling SKUs.”
The company has a membership program, called B2B, for design professionals working on single residence projects. The B2B program teams the designer with an E9 retailer (where possible) or with an E9 customer service person.
The B2B program, Estrada says, aims to support designers and foster their success.
E9 allows its patio retailers to purchase hybrid containers – mixing and matching products from any collections – or the option of purchasing less-than-container loads as needed.
Most retailers, Estrada says, opt for the warehouse program to take advantage of the custom cushion option. Some purchase only frames by the container and special-order cushions, he notes, “for the best of both options.”
After a decade and a half in the casual furniture business, the furniture line rebranded as E9 remains a small player in the patio industry. But in terms of quality and customer service, E9 competes handily with companies many times its size. And that’s a beautiful thing.