PATIO: Not All Roses
By Tom Lassiter
Casual furniture retailers, for the most part, seem pleased with the way 2017 has turned out. Some experienced a bit of turbulence along the way, when fickle weather kept foot traffic down and sales off the expected pace.
Others witnessed sales seesaw for inexplicable reasons, grinding to a halt in peak season only to surge again come autumn. The extended mild weather that most of the nation enjoyed into early November kept homeowners thinking about Outdoor Living much longer than normal – and buying.
On balance, most retailers interviewed report that sales were about on par with those of 2016, which was a solid year for most. Some saw sales rise, and considerably.
Even those retailers who recorded a slight decline weren’t upset, because being slightly off following an excellent year is nothing to moan about.
Hey! It could have been worse, right? Remember 2009?
The majority of retailers we spoke with are expecting a deja vu year in 2018. Most are fine-tuning already solid programs that are performing well.
For instance, Village Green in Rockford, Illinois, is adding a new vendor (OW Lee) and expanding the presence of a high-end line (Gloster) with a “store within a store” arrangement. Village Green is one of several that is adjusting its early-buy program, reducing early buys in anticipation of more special orders next year.
While we did encounter one retailer whose sales are in an inexplicable multi-year slide, most expressed cautious confidence and have a “steady as she goes” outlook. No one spoke of ominous clouds looming.
And yet, because retail is retail, nagging worry can rear its head without much provocation. Sometimes worry is justified, and sometimes it is unfounded.
“What if,” one retailed mused, “we run out of rich people?”
No worries, mate. Don’t bet on it anytime soon.
Tri County Hearth & Patio Center
A quick glance at the numbers told store owner Rona Kelley that her patio sales were up in 2017. A couple of big commercial orders caused a big uptick in revenue. But when she set aside the contract jobs and looked only at residential sales, she was surprised.
“Our sales were down almost 10%,” she said. It was shocking because it seemed like things were going well.
“We had a very strong beginning to the season,” she said. Special orders and early activity looked promising. “Then I thought we had a very nice summer. But I didn’t sell through the bulk of my early buys.”
A cast-aluminum group that sold quite well in 2016 just didn’t turn, leaving her with five sets in the warehouse. “The things I thought were home runs were not,” she said.
Resin lumber furniture sold well last year but disappointed in 2017. “I can answer every objection, and I can’t get them to pull the trigger,” she said, even when customers love a group and come back twice.
Cast aluminum is her strongest category, and Hanamint is a major supplier. Kelley carries aluminum in a variety of styles. “We did good with it,” she said. But that single category couldn’t carry the whole season.
“We had such a strong spring,” Kelley said, “and then it fizzled throughout the summer.”
The decline further confirmed an ongoing trend. Hearth sales at her store are solid, she said. But the grill business is in decline, and so are patio sales. “Where patio used to be 20% of our income, it’s shrinking,” she said.
This season has been a head-scratcher for Kelley, a veteran of more than 30 years in the industry. “I’ve tried to position us at the higher end, knowing I can’t compete at the low end,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to do much early-buy this year. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
North Kingstown, Rhode Island
This year’s casual volume was a lot like last, said Kerry McKay, an owner at 117-year-old McKay’s Furniture. “Overall, we consider it to be a fairly successful season,” he said. “We moved a lot of inventory.
“We do a lot with outdoor wicker. We do an awful lot of the poly product. Sold some padded sling. We’re still selling a lot of cushion,” he said in early November. “And tons of umbrellas. People are moving to the higher-end umbrellas, the cantilevers.”
McKay’s leading vendors include Seaside Casual, Kingsley Bate, Telescope, Woodard, Erwin, and Gloster.
“We’re not real good at the lower end,” McKay said. “We’ve got people dropping 20- or 30-grand on this stuff.” A typical ticket, however, tends to fall in the $1,500 to $3,000 range.
McKay’s Furniture will approach 2018 with caution and buy a little less. Some inventory remains on hand to sell through next spring.
“We’re looking at the marketplace,” he said, “and wondering, ‘Is there a ceiling here somewhere?’”
Resin lumber furniture was the hot category at Chesapeake Spas, said manager Brock Arter. The shop stocks furniture by Seaside Casual and Colonial Road Woodworking.
Arter said the Leisure Lawn Collection by Colonial Road has been particularly popular, especially single chairs rather than sets. “People are really jumping on that stuff,” he said.
Both manufacturers offer 20-year warranties, he said. He noted that Colonial Road’s prices give it an edge with shoppers.
Chesapeake Spas also carries furniture by NorthCape, Breezesta, and Telescope. Sales of Telescope sling are stagnant, he said, “probably because other places around us are selling sets for the cost of two chairs that I have.”
Furniture sales make up as much as 20% of annual revenues at Chesapeake Spa, Arter said. He pegged casual sales this year as “slightly better.”
Salem, New Hampshire
Customer trends were clear to store manager Josh Desrochers this year.
• The traditional patio furniture your mother loved isn’t selling so well anymore. “The older styles – that stuff’s done,” Desrochers said.
• “Deep seating did really well,” especially in more contemporary looks. Desrochers named Windward Design Group and Patio Renaissance as examples of manufacturers with contemporary-leaning groups that sell well. “It’s modern without going too far,” he said.
• “Recycled plastics did really well.” Patio Place carries products by C.R. Plastic Products and Berlin Gardens. Lengthy warranties and low maintenance requirements cause consumers to gravitate toward resin lumber products, he said.
• Wood furniture isn’t doing so great in the Granite State. “That category is kind of dead for us,” Desrochers said. “It’s a tough one in New England. People aren’t happy about paying for it.”
• Patio Place reaches out to customers primarily with digital advertising. “Mailings get expensive,” the manager said. Social media is the way to go these days, but it’s not a task that just any employee can handle. “It’s almost like you have to create a position for it,” Desrochers said.
• An average ticket at Patio Place tallied about $2,500 this season.
• Desrochers seemed generally happy with how the season played out, but figures weren’t available. “It seemed like we grew a lot. We saw a lot of product go through the door. Numbers-wise,” he said, “I don’t pay too much attention.”
This is how good 2017 was at Sisset’s: “We’re bringing in our 2018 earlier than we normally do,” says Barry Sides, who described himself as one of those who “run the store.”
Sisset’s had to bring in new product early, he said, because “We have no last year’s stuff left.” His sales are up over 2016, maybe by 15%. “Business,” he said, “is great.”
Sisset’s, which characterizes its 3,000 sq. ft. as eclectic, whimsical, “and exactly like no place else,” did 10% of its business in pillows, Sides said. “That’s huge,” he observed. “Elaine Smith and all that stuff.”
Casual furniture accounts for 57% of the store’s business, with the balance going to outdoor gifts and accessories. Almost all furniture sales are special orders, Sides said.
Brands at Sisset’s include Lloyd Flanders, C.R. Plastic Products, Woodard, and Windward Design Group. Sides likes the latter two for their contemporary groups, which he said are experiencing an uptick in popularity. The store has added Berlin Gardens’ poly furniture for 2018.
Sisset’s owner is Melissa Glikes, a veteran of casual furniture retailing who apparently thrives in a lively environment.
“We do it a little differently,” Sides said.
Bon Air Hearth, Porch & Patio
Owner Mikki Hopcroft tracks sales at Bon Air Hearth, Porch & Patio by manufacturer. She knows exactly how much Homecrest furniture she sold this year, for instance. And the news is good for every manufacturer, she said.
“All of them were up,” she said.
The warm fall weather kept patio sales churning longer than usual. “We’re still doing a pretty robust business,” she said, particularly in Telescope products and especially the Leeward family of marine-grade polymer furniture.
Hopcroft noted that the Elements Air collection by Homecrest Outdoor Living sold well, including new cushion pieces introduced this year. “We sold three sets with fire pits,” Hopcroft said. A typical ticket at her store runs between $3,000 and $5,000.
Interest in dining sets has declined, she said, as entertaining becomes more informal. Hosts and guests are comfortable using the rim of a fire pit to hold dinner plates and glasses, while they sit in cushioned comfort.
Hopcroft added Ratana and Barlow Tyrie to the lineup at Bon Air for 2018.
Tropic Aire Patio & Wicker Gallery
Columbia, South Carolina
This year was as disorienting as a rough roller-coaster ride for shop owner Judy Singleton. “It was weird. Really strange,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and I’ve never seen a season like this.”
May, normally the best sales month, “was down terribly,” Singleton said, “and that hurt us for the whole year.”
Luckily, “October was amazing, and November started off well. We’re going to come out OK, but the spring was not what it usually is.”
She expects sales to be slightly off of 2016’s pace.
Tropic Aire sold “quite a bit of wood this year,” surprising Singleton. Her vendors are Kingsley Bate and Jensen Leisure. Resin furniture “did extremely well,” she said, including some contract sales. Polywood is her resin supplier.
The shop does more than half of its volume in special orders, she said. “We do inventory a lot of furniture, but not as much as we used to. We did a container of Agio,” she said. “It sold well, but you can do anything with it” in terms of customization.
Sales of resin wicker furniture remained strong, and aluminum combinations of cast- and extruded-metal remained popular.
Rocky Mountain Patio Furniture
Sales during August, September and October 2016 were so strong that owner Bob Lovett knew that it would be difficult to equal or top those numbers this year. He was right.
“It was more back to a norm for us,” this year, he said. Even so, he called 2017 a strange year.
“We started out up. We were thrilled through July. And then, in August, we got behind. September was average or above, but it wasn’t equal to last year,” he said.
When the numbers are finally crunched at year-end, he expects to be down around 3%. “Not enough to be excited about,” he said.
The shop, which switches to ski equipment in the cooler months, encountered a couple of surprises this season. The Sag Harbor collection, from Kingsley Bate, “sold the previous two or three years like there’s no tomorrow.” For 2017, Lovett loaded up in anticipation of another year of strong demand, “and suddenly it slowed down.”
Also on hand at season’s end: Enough cast aluminum to see the shop through 2018. “I don’t think we’re reordering,” Lovett said. “We’ve got that much of it left.”
Other lines he likes include Breezesta (“It seems to go in waves”), Lloyd Flanders (“Doing a really good job for us”), Ebel (“Took over when Lane Venture stubbed their toe”) and Jensen Leisure (“We were with Jensen Leisure before Jensen Leisure was cool”).
Greenforest Fireplace & Patio
It was a good year at Greenforest Fireplace & Patio, a high-end retailer just north of downtown Chicago. As an early snow fell, the store was taking delivery of yet another special order of Gloster’s contemporary Grid range.
“We’re actually late into the season with special orders,” says Rey Quesada, a salesperson and son of the owner.
He estimated that sales are up at least 10 to 15% of 2017’s volume, driven in large part by sales of Gloster and Castelle products. The shop’s other primary furniture lines are Kingsley Bate and Brown Jordan. Greenforest offers umbrellas by TUUCI and fire pits by Firetainment.
Quesada said Castelle’s Vertice City collection sold well this year. The City variation on the Vertice collection is scaled down a bit, offering deep-seating comfort in a size more suited to urban balconies and rooftop Outdoor Rooms. “It’s really nice,” Quesada said.
Gloster’s Grid is “always selling,” he said. “Grid sells for about $2,000 a seat. It’s very hot.”
Greenforest’s Gloster sales have been growing year over year recently, he said. The store, which opened in 2008, also did well with Kingsley Bate’s Tivoli sectional, part of a stainless-steel range designed by John Caldwell.
Among the four leading brands, Quesada said Brown Jordan generated the fewest orders.
Large sales are common. A customer ordered several items of Grid furniture and an 8-by-10-ft. TUUCI umbrella for her pool. Quesada said it was “easily a $40,000 order. And she’s a returning customer.”
With special orders growing, Quesada said early buys will be reduced slightly for 2018. He’s upbeat about the prospects for next year. “Looking at the market, I would think positively,” he said. “I don’t see any negative trends.”
Pool, Patio & Fireside
Casual furniture sales picked up in the last quarter of the year, said store manager Cathi Buckley, but not enough to reverse the slide. Sales are down 30% from 2016 levels.
“Our furniture sales have dropped every year for the last three or four years,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s our market, or what. I believe in what I’m selling. It’s just not selling.”
Buckley said OW Lee is her cornerstone brand. Other showroom vendors include Woodard, Telescope, and Lloyd Flanders. The store also carries, but doesn’t currently show, furniture by Homecrest and Windham.
“The sales I do have are great sales,” Buckley said. “I’ve done $8,000 to $10,000 orders 20 times this year. I just drop-shipped a $25,000 order to Arizona.”
An average furniture ticket, she said, is around $7,500.
The store has done well with OW Lee fire pits, but those transactions haven’t driven many of the add-on furniture sales that some retailers report.
Pool, Patio & Fireside sells umbrellas by Treasure Garden. Sales tripled this year. “In regular umbrellas, we killed it,” she said. There was less interest in larger and cantilevered umbrellas.
Buckley said the store loses some customers who travel to Kansas City to shop. Others are lost to online and catalog vendors. “Eventually we get those people back,” she said, when they discover their purchases don’t hold up to the elements and abuse.
The store’s business in hearth products, grills, and hot tubs is strong, she said. Which makes the decline in furniture sales all the more confounding.
Jessica Salisbury, CEO and creative director at Apollo Award-winning Village Green, said 2017 casual sales were flat. But she’s OK with that, because 2016 was a good year. She’s also predicting “a very strong season” next year.
She’s basing that prediction partly on changes at Village Green, which include joining Gloster’s “store within a store program” and adding furniture by OW Lee. The store recently added OW Lee fire pits, she said, “and we were blown away by how quickly they sold.”
Salisbury expects the new emphasis on Gloster products, with a fresh look in a new space, will cause teak sales to pick up. “Wood has always been a struggle for us,” she said. “But when we do teak sales, they are usually a nice ticket.”
Previously, when Village Green has created a “store within a store” with a vendor, “we’ve had overwhelming success,” she said. Current vendors with that arrangement include Tropitone, Lloyd Flanders, and Brown Jordan.
Salisbury observed that sales of resin wicker are slowing, probably because the “market is becoming so saturated.” The softness in wicker sales was more than compensated by a surge in custom orders for aluminum deep seating. She estimated that category is up by about 20%.
Sales of resin lumber furniture grow with every season, she said. Village Green carries the Breezesta line and Telescope’s MGP.
Salisbury made one further adjustment for 2018. She trimmed her early buys by a few percentage points to reduce overhead. She anticipates that growth in higher-margin special orders and “store within a store” sales will more than compensate for fewer turns in early-buy goods.
O’Malia’s Fireplace & Outdoor Living
Steve Pulone, general manager, decided to remain open on Memorial Day even though most competitors were closed. His instincts were right. He made a $23,000 sale that day.
An average ticket at O’Malia’s Fireplace & Outdoor Living runs $5,000 to $6,000, he said, but “it’s not unusual for someone to drop $25,000 to $30,000.”
Even so, 2017 will close out not quite as strong as 2016, which Pulone called “a banner year.”
Business this year was spread fairly evenly across the categories. “We did equally well with deep seating as we did with dining,” he said. Customers chose deep seating in aluminum as well as iron, plus some mixed media. Bronze and brown frame colors dominated. In cushions, blue surged.
Pulone predicts that black and gray frames will “come on strong next year.” As a result, he “probably doubled” those colors in his early buy.
In dining, customers bought big and small, but in waves. “It was weird,” he said. “I’d see two weeks of nothing but big tables. Then two weeks of nothing but four-tops.”
O’Malia’s was the only store reporting shipping woes, specifically freight damage “from multiple vendors” at the lower end. “We had to fight damage claims that ended up taking a bit out of our bottom line.”
Pulone’s high-end vendors, however, “were fantastic, firing on all eight cylinders. OW Lee is the flagship of my enterprise,” he says. “I never have issues. They never let me down.”
Salt Lake City, Utah
Autumn took its time in Utah, lingering with warm days perfect for enjoying the outdoors during that in-between time, sandwiched between summer’s heat and thoughts of ski season. Homeowners apparently took advantage of autumn to continue dressing up their Outdoor Rooms.
“We’re having a really long, nice fall,” said Michelle McDonald-Ross in early November, “so that’s helpful. We’ve had a great year. We’re very happy.”
McDonald-Ross is a member of the family that owns Leisure Living, which has about 20,000 sq. ft. of showroom spread over three levels.
Leisure Living keeps customers happy and interested by offering something for everyone’s tastes. “We were able to capture a lot of different kinds of people, whether they wanted something contemporary or transitional or more traditional,” she said.
No particular category stood out as a sales leader in 2017, and nothing gathered dust.
“We sold a little bit of everything,” McDonald-Ross said. “We sold a lot of wicker. We sold a lot of wrought iron. Even our teak, our wood category, sold well. We had kind of an even year.”
Wrought iron is a traditional favorite in windy Salt Lake. “It weathers well,” she said. “People get it.”
Sales of fire pits were fantastic, she said. The store offers models from OW Lee, Tropitone, Foremost, and Homecrest. Umbrella sales likewise were great, she said, though the pattern varied from prior years.
“We tend to sell them when it gets hot, like in July,” she explained. “We had a weird year. Everyone was buying them early.”
Extension tables were another strong item. “Wood, synthetic, tile, cast aluminum – it doesn’t matter,” McDonald-Ross said. “Extension tables are huge for us right now.”
Leisure Living typically stocks merchandise fairly deeply “so we can be really reactive for our customers,” she said. “If they want it tomorrow, they can have it tomorrow. A lot of times, that makes a big difference.”
Shoppers will find the store even better prepared to satisfy instant gratification in 2018. “We’re buying more stuff and will be even deeper with what we stock” in the coming season, McDonald-Ross said.
“It’s nice to special order, but if you can sell them out of stock, it’s easier.” Special orders account for about 20% of sales.
McDonald-Ross noted that shoppers leaned more toward gray tones in 2017, light and dark. New homes, she said, tend to follow a white-and-gray color scheme, which may be influencing buying tastes. Browns continue to sell, though in shades that are “a cooler brown, with a warm undertone.”
Saturated colors aren’t drawing much attention, even in accent pillows. “Pillows and accessories are softer, like grays and browns,” she said. “Our best-selling pillows are neutral patterns, prints and geometrics and stripes.”
McDonald-Ross, herself a Millennial, noted that “people in my peer group are starting to come into the store,” signaling that a new generation of shoppers may be getting serious about outdoor living. That’s another positive sign for 2018.
“We’re excited about next year,” she said.
Lehrer Fireplace & Patio
Furniture sales aren’t what they used to be at Lehrer Fireplace & Patio.
“Our heyday was in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” said Keith Lehrer. He and his brother, Ken, operate the business that was started by their father in 1954. “Furniture seems to have steadily gone down the last few years,” he said.
Casual furniture and Outdoor Room products account for about 10% of the store’s volume, which Lehrer estimated to be about $7 million in 2016 and on par with the year before. “We didn’t grow much,” he said.
The store actually generates more volume in grills than outdoor furniture, he said. Grills account for about 15% of sales. Hearth products account for about 75% of the store’s business, he said.
Even in Outdoor Room products, flame-related items capture a disproportionate share of sales. “Fire pits have taken over,” Lehrer said. “Half of our ‘furniture’ sales are fire pits.”
Lehrer Fireplace & Patio carries fire pits by OW Lee, “our main line,” he said. “We also carry Summer Classics.”
Demand for dining groups has fallen markedly, he says. Casual furniture shoppers tend to want “lounge chairs and sofas, and things to put around fire pits.”
Lakewood lies just west of Denver, nestled between Colorado’s biggest city and the dramatic Front Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains. The metro area offers plenty of potential customers and plenty of competitors selling casual furniture, Lehrer says.
Also serving this market are Christy Sports and Fruehauf’s, both of which have national reputations as leading casual furniture retailers. Lehrer also cited other nearby specialty retailers and lamented that outdoor furniture has become a commodity that is widely available, “even at grocery stores. A lot of people don’t perceive the difference in quality.”
Lakewood, he said, “seems a little harder retail market than it used to be.”
Customers at Fruehauf’s this year gravitated away from colorful hues, choosing neutrals instead. “Fabrics and finishes are going more toward the gray,” said Mariah Maydew, president and CEO. “Neutrals tend to be more popular than ever.”
As with most retailers contacted, Fruehauf’s found sales of dining groups to be soft, while sales of deep-seating grew stronger. Shoppers chose all sorts of frame materials, with a major consideration being enough heft so as not to blow away.
Wind resistance, likewise, is a factor in the popularity of poly, or plastic lumber, furniture. Sales of poly casual furniture, Maydew said, are strong.
She also noted that shopper interest in wood furniture appears to be growing. Fruehauf’s offers wood furniture in teak as well as ipé.
Fruehauf’s changed its buying strategy for 2018. “We’re buying a little deeper in our proven winners,” Maydew said. The additional volume might not sell through next season, she acknowledged, “but we hope that by buying deeper, in containers, we save more.”
Overall, she said of 2017, “It’s been good.”
Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks, California
“This year has been great, better than the year before,” says Penny Healey, manager of Patioworld stores in Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks, California.
Sales in both stores improved over the previous year, she said. She wasn’t able to provide an estimate of the percentage of increase over 2016.
Patioworld has a total of 10 stores. “All of our stores sell differently,” she said, reflecting different tastes and decorating trends in each market.
Thousand Oaks has a strong preference for the traditional look, she said. Customers “come in for quality and know the manufacturers by name. Cast-aluminum furniture is popular year in and year out, she said. “We carry two lines, and we stock it so (customers) don’t have to wait” on special orders, she explained.
Teak sold well in Woodland Hills this year, but was less in demand in Thousand Oaks.
Umbrella sales are strong in both stores, she said. “Our biggest sellers are cantilevers,” she noted, declining to name the brand. “We carry one that nobody else has,” she said.
Healey estimated that a “low average” ticket at Patioworld might be $5,000. Customers may make an initial purchase for that amount, she said, and return later for additional pieces. “People come back a lot and say, ‘We want more of this,’” Healey said.
Special order tickets tend to be larger, she said. Orders for custom fabrics and frames account for less than half of the volume at her stores, she said. Those sales, however, “are always big when they are special orders.”
Healey noted that the number of younger adult shoppers – couples in their mid- to late-30s – seems to be increasing. Patioworld reaches out to them with “a ton of digital media,” she said.
Patioworld changed its buy for the 2018 season. “We’re jumping with both feet into the modern look,” Healey said. “Very modern, very contemporary.”