Heavy, Tough & Profitable
By Tom Lassiter
If you want to inject a little energy into a conversation with a casual furniture retailer, mention one of the following furniture materials:
Sometimes it might take a three-word phrase, such as “recycled plastic lumber,” to get the synapses firing.
As soon as the subject matter becomes clear, retailers with experience in the category perk up.
“Our best-selling lines are recycled plastic and MGP,” says Ashleigh Kosin, co-owner of Bell Tower Lake House Living in Richland, Michigan.
“The recycled plastic stuff is awesome,” says Steve Gilboe, president of Patio Palace, which has stores in London and Windsor, Ontario. “It really does what it says it does,” which means the heavy, well-constructed furniture can sit outside through a Canadian winter and fare just as well as if stored in a temperature-controlled garage.
No doubt about it, resin/polymer/MGP/plastic lumber furniture is tough. Neither sub-freezing temperatures, nor intense summer sun, nor stiff winds, nor corrosive salt air seem to phase it. It requires less maintenance than a gazing ball on a concrete pedestal, which is to say, none.
High-quality, low-maintenance, durable furniture products are not inexpensive. Specialty retailers understand this and confidently offer a modest-sized dining group with a $3,000 price tag.
Some consumers, however, may do a double-take. Marketing buzzwords aside, we’re talking about furniture made of plastic, so some hesitancy on the part of the uninformed is to be expected.
But when consumers understand the product after seeing it on a neighbor’s dock or deck, year in and year out, the furniture seems to sell itself and contribute generously to the bottom line.
One gauge of the growing importance of the category was the number of exhibitors at September’s Casual Market Chicago. Joining well-established big players such as PolyWood, Telescope Casual Furniture, and Seaside Casual Furniture was Pawley’s Island, best known for its hammock line.
|Pub set in new exclusive olive color by Wildridge Poly Furniture.|
Making its second appearance at Casual Market Chicago was Wildridge Poly Furniture. The Ohio brand grew out of Little Cottage Co., which has been making playhouses, storage sheds and specialty buildings since 1999. The company made its first poly furniture in 2012, says Dan Schlabach, president. Wildridge sells through online merchants as well as through specialty retailers.
Wildridge builds its furniture from plastic lumber made of recycled HDPE and produced by Tangent Technologies of Illinois.
Pawley’s Island’s lineup includes a version of the classic Adirondack chair, casual dining furniture, and occasional chairs and rockers with a transitional look.
The line was quietly developed and sold through Pawley’s Island’s North Carolina facilities over the last decade before the public launch in Chicago. “The (plastic) lumber comes from our production facility,” said Marketing manager John Powell.
Pawley’s Island, with a partner firm, makes its own extruded plastic lumber by recycling milk jugs. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is the most commonly used material in the plastic lumber category.
|Belle Isle chaises from Telescope Casual Furniture.|
Telescope Casual Furniture, which entered the category about seven years ago, creates its furniture from sheets of Marine Grade Polymer (MGP). The category has grown to become “a significant portion of our line,” says executive vice president of marketing Bill Vanderminden.
The heavy material, he says, “has heft, which has proven to be a real benefit in the mind of the consumer.”
Heft is no overstatement. A 25-by-40-by-64-in. cushion storage box by Telescope weighs in at 171 pounds. The frame is aluminum, with top, sides and sliding doors made of MGP.
The material, Vanderminden says, “has exploded design possibilities” for Telescope. “We can create interesting shapes and use joinery techniques that would not have made any sense” in other materials, he says.
Telescope married its core strength in aluminum furniture with the options provided by MGP to create mixed-media product lines.
New for 2016 is Belle Isle sling, which features an aluminum frame with polymer arms. The frame and arm may be in matching or contrasting colors. “It’s a great, fun look that’s really fresh,” Vanderminden says.
|Hyannis Adirondacks from Malibu Outdoor Living.|
Malibu Outdoor Living, founded in 2010, also combined aluminum with recycled plastic lumber for its Napa Extension Table. The table features a frame of powder-coated aluminum and extends from 76 to 101 in., says Tony Layous, Production manager for the Rhode Island company. The table carries a 20-year warranty for residential use and retails for less than $2,000.
|Sanibel from Windward Design Group.|
MGP is the polymer of choice for Windward Design Group. The company added poly furniture to its primarily aluminum lineup about four years ago, says president David Peace. Many of the firm’s offerings combine aluminum and MGP.
Hampton Sling, for instance, features an MGP frame with an aluminum “bucket” that supports the sling seat and back.
Windward Design Group’s major introduction for 2016 is Sanibel Sectional deep seating. In addition to swivel and armed lounge chairs, there are armless and left-only and right-only arm chairs. The latter may be combined with 45-degree and 90-degree corner tables to form a custom chat group sized to a specific space. Also new this year are balcony and bar-height dining tables.
Seaside Casual Furniture, which introduced its recycled HDPE furniture in 1999, helped establish the category. “It took a while to get the trust and buy-in” of retailers and consumers, says CEO Katherine Carret.
That persistence has been rewarded with annual growth of 10 percent to 15 percent in the last couple of years, she notes. The company is now working on cracking the export market.
“To get the other markets will take a little time,” she says. “We’re just starting to see the reward for some of the education we’ve done overseas.”
Rhode Island-based Seaside Casual, which markets its HDPE as the Envirowood brand, has a reputation as a design pioneer in the category. The company was one of the first to break away from traditionally rustic looks and produce transitional and modern designs from HDPE.
Seaside Casual received Manufacturer Leadership Awards from the International Casual Furniture Association in 2015, 2014, and 2012 in the Resin/Fiber-glass category.
The company responded to intensifying competition by creating a sister company, Coastline Casual. Carret describes the line as “a little lighter and more playful,” making it suitable for younger and more budget-conscious consumers.
In plastic furniture, scale and weight are major determinants of price. While a Seaside Casual Adirondack chair will retail for about $500, a smaller Coastline Casual chair will sell for about $300.
“It’s really an answer for people who are looking for a starter set,” she says. Unlike Seaside Casual, Coastline Casual offers no deep seating. The line is available to specialty retailers but is also sold through other channels.
|Stratford collection from C.R. Plastic Products.|
Another major player in the category is C.R. Plastic Products, which started producing HDPE furniture from recycled consumer waste in 1994. The company previously was known as Canadian Recycled Plastic Products and introduced its new name in 2011.
“We recycle the equivalent of 70 million milk jugs a year,” says Ted Scott, vice president of Sales and Marketing for the Ontario-based company.
A co-founder of the firm developed a process to manufacture extruded plastic lumber using recycled plastics. An exclusive molding process gives a distinctive, wood-like finish to the plastic lumber. The grain extends all the way through.
“Our claim to fame is the look and integrity of the product,” Scott says. “Weight is value when it comes to plastic.” The company’s basic Adirondack chair weighs 60 lbs., “one of the heaviest on the market.”
|Garden classic counter-height table and chairs from Berlin Gardens.|
Berlin Gardens’ new products include a porch rocker, Garden Classic Dining Benches in assorted heights and lengths, and new finishes reminiscent of weathered wood. Marketing manager Steve Miller says the new finishes are “the first-ever distressed wood look in poly,” and they are exclusive to Berlin Gardens.
The colors are Antique Mahogany and Driftwood Gray. The wood-look poly is used for seats and backs in contrasting frames of black or white. Miller says the new natural finishes are available in dining sets as well as Berlin Garden’s Adirondack chairs, and in some accessories.
Berlin Garden’s dining benches provide an affordable option for customers who may not be able to purchase six or eight chairs with a poly dining table, Miller says. A 48-in. bench can seat two for about the same price as a single chair. A 66-in. bench can accommodate three persons.
|PolyWood-Select Harvest table with Coastal Select chairs and Harvest bench.|
The PolyWood brand is one of the oldest in the category. The company marked its 25th anniversary in 2015.
PolyWood has enjoyed double-digit growth each year for the last decade, including the recession year of 2009, says Megan Pierson, director of Sales and Marketing.
That steady growth led the company to add 215,000 sq. ft of manufacturing space, she says, which will be producing product for the 2016 season.
New for this year is a product line called PolyWood-Select that is distinguished by “an almost wood-grain look, with a lot of color variation,” Pierson says. The look inspired the brand’s tagline, “It feels like luxury.”
PolyWood Select will change in appearance over time. “The color just patinas,” Pierson explains. “It gets richer throughout the years and the characteristics stand out a little more.”
PolyWood Select carries a 20-year warranty and a premium price. “It’s a high-end design, for a higher-end market,” she says. Prices will range 25 to 40 percent higher per piece or set over the price for comparable goods in the PolyWood line.
|Counter table from Highwood.|
Highwood USA’s choice of plastic makes it unique among makers of polymer furniture. The Pennsylvania firm uses polystyrene rather than HDPE or marine grade polymer.
Craig Smith, director of Sales and Marketing, says the “main difference is the look, the touch, the feel, the finish.” He says customers say the textured surface has “a little less waxy appearance.”
Polystyrene has a firmer structure than HDPE, he says, which allows less flexing in longer profiles, or pieces. “It allows us to make different kinds of products,” Smith says, such as porch swings and gazebos, in addition to furniture.
“We make the sticks right through to the finished product,” he says. The product is a mix of virgin and recycled plastics, all sourced in-house. In other words, Highwood recycles its own waste from the manufacturing process. This is a common practice.
The company’s products are available from a number of online retailers, large and not so large. Smith says Highwood hopes to build up its presence with specialty retailers.
Two polymer furniture companies have no new major introductions for 2016. “The product line hasn’t changed,” says Brad Bender, president and owner of Element Square, a Canadian manufacturer. “It’s just evolving” with an emphasis on continuous improvement, he says. He describes his company as a “niche player” that enjoyed good sales momentum in 2015. “We didn’t skyrocket, but we didn’t lose any ground either. It was pretty steady.”
|Ridgeline collection by Breezesta.|
The Breezesta brand, made by Casual Living Products Unlimited, is sticking to its current product lineup for 2016. “Our customers are still buying plenty of what we have to sell,” says Tony Foreman, director of Product Development. The company chalked up growth in the range of 25 percent to 30 percent over each of the last five years, he says.
The polymer/resin/plastic furniture category requires a retailer to become fluent in words, phrases and abbreviations that seem more suitable to a chemistry lab than a furniture showroom. But those who do probably will be rewarded.
Consumers ultimately don’t care about HDPE or polystyrene or MGP. They just like this carefree furniture – a lot.
Benefits & Drawbacks of Various Plastics