By Adelaide Elliott, Special to Casual Living, a supplement of Furniture Today
In a trend that has continued since retail stores reopened following shutdowns in the wake of the coronavirus last March and April, home furnishing stores have reported increased consumer interest and spending across the board. And that trend has left some retailers weighing the pros and cons of adding new categories.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in being involved in several categories,” noted Erik Mueller, president and CEO of Watson’s, a Cincinnati-based chain of retail stores that carries indoor and outdoor furniture, recreational furniture, and pool and spa products. “But, it also makes things more complicated. Each one has its different problems, different schedules. It definitely keeps things interesting.”
According to research from market and consumer data company Statista, just from January to March 2020, online visits to websites selling home decor and furniture products went from 1.56 billion to 1.7 billion. Later in the year, Salesforce found that the online sales of home goods during the holiday season increased by 89%.
Now, in 2021, many industry experts and data services indicate that the market should see continued increases, citing many people’s sustained unwillingness to travel and spend money on activities outside of their home, which will in turn free up money for more spending on home purchases.
For outdoor spaces, COVID-19 has left many consumers considering investments for the first time ever, creating new opportunity for those with outdoor furniture available.
“If you would have told me last March that 2020 would end up being as great as it was for us, I don’t know that I would have believed you,” said Doug Sanicola, owner and president of Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center in La Verne, Calif. “But it was, and it was for a lot of retailers and manufacturers. … I think that’s the optimistic message you have to move forward with in outdoor, new business or not.”
But, even for those already in the furniture retail business, adding outdoor can be complicated: Buying seasons are different, the manufacturing base is different, and the product, materials and styles are oftentimes very specific to outdoor.
When Amy Arant decided to take the leap into outdoor, she was excited about the product, but not very familiar with the specifications or the market. Arant, an accountant for more than 20 years, had gotten into retailing in 2014 when she took over ownership of Wrapsody in Blue, a Blue Ridge, Ga.-based home accessories and furniture retailer that originally opened in 2005.
“I had been in accounting for 27 years, and my daughter was raised and out of college, and everyone was just telling me I needed to do something different, and I did,” explained Arant. “So, I reinvented myself and immersed myself in the store.”
And, after a few years spent learning the ropes and trading in some of her accounting skills for lessons on gift and furniture markets, customer service and furniture manufacturing, she observed an open “niche” in her second-home-heavy area. While nearby retailers in the area offered some lower price outdoor options, there was no store dedicated to more boutique, quality outdoor living products.
“I wanted to offer the high quality outdoor furniture that was made to last and had longer warranties,” she said.
So, after spending more than three years researching the category and its product, Arant opened Wrapsody Outdoor Living as a separate store in the area in 2019.
For Arant, those three years spent researching the industry has made all the difference.
Starting with a trip to the Atlanta market, Arant said she just started scoping out manufacturers and asking as many questions as she could about their warranties, frames, etc. In addition to learning about materials, constructions and more, speaking with those manufacturers also taught her a lot about which ones she was really interested in doing business with.
“If they took the time to teach me and really answer questions before I started buying, it was a good sign,” she said.
Arant said she was really looking to find manufacturers that were willing to educate her long-term, taking time to meet and educate her staff with in-store rep visits, factory tours and more.
She also used applicable lessons from her home furnishings business when seeking out partners, noting that she already knew it was a priority for her to find a manufacturer that protected pricing online for its brick-and-mortar partners.
Arant also noted that many of the lessons she learned indoors about delivery and pricing was applicable outdoors, too, as well as the knowledge she had on her customer base. Knowing that her region had more cabin decks to fill than poolside lounges, she pulled away from “beachy” looks and colors, opting for items more “woodsy.” Being able to receive customer feedback before getting started outdoors with the indoor business was helpful in this process, too.
Besides what she learned from manufacturers, Arant said her education also included a lot of reading as she turned to industry publications and online content to learn more about the “surprising” variety of product and manufacturers that were behind the industry. There, she also learned about the outdoor furniture challenges and requirements, such as wildlife (squirrels can be a problem for wicker in her area, for example) and the materials might hold up best to her region’s wooded climate.
“Having a pretty solid knowledge of what the homes and the people in the area are like made picking outdoor styles simpler,” Arant noted. “But then I had to learn from my manufacturers and my research about what I needed to stand up to the weather.”
When Mary and Paul Maki chose to open their coastal Wilmington, N.C., outdoor furniture store, Porch Concepts, in 2016, they knew lots about building outdoor spaces from their years in the sunroom construction business through their company Porch Conversions, but not much about retail or furniture.
“From being in that industry for 20 years, we always were asked ‘Where should I go for furniture? What kind of furniture should go in here?’” said Mary Maki. “It’s part of the house, but it’s kind-of an outdoor living experience.”
So, when a space opened up in Porch Conversions’ building, the couple decided to become the answer to those questions, taking the leap into the outdoor furniture business. And, while Mary Maki knew she was excited about the product and about the opportunity to work with exciting vignettes and color, both Makis said they had a lot to learn on the technical side.
To kick start the learning process, they dove head first into furniture markets, starting with a trip to High Point Market, attending every educational session they could to learn generally about pricing and marketing furniture, as well as meeting resources to begin learning about outdoor-specific product.
Wanting to offer something for everyone in their store, the Makis chose to stock “good, better, best” options. They also chose to stock sunroom-style indoor pieces alongside their outdoor products in the 10,000-square-foot store.
“Having no retail experience, I learned a lot going through the High Point shows and the Chicago shows and seeing how those spaces were set up,” explained Mary Maki. “You go there to learn and look at … how designers build there spaces.”
After a successful first market, the Makis sought out more industry connections, introducing themselves to the International Casual Furnishings Assn. and attending Casual Market Chicago, something they described as “one of their best moves.” They also brought on a general manager who had worked in furniture sales previously.
Finding good industry connections through markets, the ICFA and good sales reps seem to be the real key for most anyone to launch the outdoor segment successfully. For Dave Jacobs, whose family business, Jacobs Custom Living in Spokane Valley, Wash., got into outdoor in 2006 after decades just in the upholstery world, groups such as the ICFA have been crucial to his business.
“I really have been able to gain friends all over the country, and we talk often at these events about similar things affecting our business,” said Jacobs. “I know there are partners of the ICFA that are supposed to be able to help businesses save money, but I think the real value is in the sharing of ideas.”
For Jacobs, what really kept him in the category was a few great sales reps he met early on. The first, longtime rep Dennis Thurmer, he met on a visit to Las Vegas Market to source outdoor slipcovers for his outdoor replacement cushion customers. It was Jacobs’ first market, and Thurmer helped the retailer take advantage of outdoor as a new revenue stream, an idea they had been playing with for some time before.
The Jacobs Custom Living upholstery business had always been inundated with replacement cushion orders in the spring, and Jacobs and his crew had been observing the brands and quality of the furniture frames that his customers were using.
Realizing that no stores in the area actually sold the outdoor furniture brands they saw coming in year after year, and with Thurmer’s help on the first few orders, Jacobs bought a few pieces to place in the front of his store, finally settling into a niche of higher end brands.
Finding a niche and sticking with it, Jacobs said, is something he would advise anyone interested in outdoor do when they start, and also he suggested finding at least one person already in the industry to help guide you.
“At the time, there was only one other patio store selling patio,” noted Jacobs. “So we just tried a few pieces, and business started climbing.”
Today, even though the store also carries indoor pieces and some decor, Jacobs Custom Living remains known primarily as a custom upholstery resource and patio store, and Jacobs attributes that staying power both to his market and the community he has found in the outdoor industry.
Those connections also have helped him keep up a good relationship with manufacturers, which has served the company well through challenges including a difficult second location opening several years ago and more recently the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of great folks in this industry you can look to for advice,” noted Sanicola, whose run his California retail operation for more than 20 years. “And you’d need that, especially at a time like this.”
Despite a year of ups and downs, Sanicola also points out that the outdoor industry has seen a rise in consumer interest, making this a unique time for entering an industry that has the potential for big rewards.
His store saw sales gains in 2020, took on new digital content and brought in a remarkable number of new designer clients and traditional consumers, some that he does not believe would have come into his store before the pandemic.
“I don’t personally know of anyone today who is opening new outdoor businesses or businesses generally,” said Sanicola. “But if you do it right, you can see a lot of success. … There’s more work but it seems like there could be more opportunity, too, for new people.”