Hearth & Home February 2016

Lake Shore wicker from Telescope Casual.

Forever Brown

By Tom Lassiter

It’s beginning to look a lot like … brown will remain the dominant color for resin wicker for a while longer.

There’s a reason that so many resin wicker groups tend to look alike, regardless of manufacturer. You know the silhouette: Straight sides, wide arms, relatively low back, modern in a kind of 1997 way.

“It’s the vanilla of outdoor furniture,” said Wes Stewart, CEO of Sunset West. “Everybody’s got their vanilla flavor, because it sells.”

Leucadia collection from Sunset West.

Resin wicker sells and sells and sells. Especially in shades of brown. Marketers may call the color mocha or java or chocolate (the names tend to be food-based), but the majority of resin wicker patio furniture definitely has been, and continues to be, brown.

“We here in the Midwest tend to be a sea of brown,” said Dan Gould, owner of Outdoor Kitchen & Patio in Omaha, Nebraska. “When I do step out and buy things that are not earthtone colors, they tend to stay here a little longer.”

Telescope Casual Furniture offers two resin wicker collections to supplement its main product line of aluminum furniture. One collection is traditional, said vice president Bill Vanderminden, while the other is transitional. Both come in a single color – brown. “We’re keeping it conservative,” he said.

Tropitone Furniture Company dabbles in resin wicker by offering a group with a woven “bucket,” or seat back and bottom. Kenzo is available in one color (brown) and has “done extremely well for us,” said Frank Verna, director of Sales. Kenzo was designed by Peter Homestead.

Most homeowners rely upon cushion fabrics to inject color and life into their monochromatic array of woven plastic fiber. Beige cushions remain a refuge for the timid. For the daring, there are bright colors with contrasting welts (among hundreds of other choices).

“There’s a tendency for it all to look alike,” Agio president Bob Gaylord said about resin wicker furniture. Yet North American homeowners seem to have an insatiable appetite for the all-weather product. “We’ve got a long way to go before this category stops growing,” Gaylord said. “I don’t see any end in sight.”

Resin wicker accounts for more than 50 percent of Agio’s business, according to Gaylord.

The category racks up more than 40 percent of Summer Classics’ business, said president Bew White, who replied to questions via email. White noted that “growth has stalled” as additional vendors have entered the market with lower-priced goods.

Wicker is available through online vendors, catalogs and home improvement stores, as well as at indoor furniture stores and outdoor specialty merchants. Industry veterans who remember injection-molded plastic chairs keep watching for resin wicker to turn up at gas stations and convenience stores, a sure sign that the end is near.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go to China and buy a bunch of cheap product and come back and sell it,” White wrote. He expects growth to resume “as more elaborate designs take over.”

Buyers at Casual Market Chicago are quick to recognize fresh designs. That was the case just a few seasons ago when the first resin fibers made to look like water hyacinth vegetation appeared. The resulting weaves stood out beautifully.

A more recent freshening occurred when a handful of manufacturers became the first to offer resin wicker in tones of driftwood and gray, a palette that continues to gain traction.

“We were early in gray and driftwood,” said Clay Kingsley, president of Kingsley-Bate. “Everybody copied it.”

Coral from Jensen Leisure.

One of the most striking resin wicker design innovations at September’s Casual Market Chicago appeared in the Jensen Leisure showroom. The manufacturer departed from its usual all-wood designs to offer Coral, a collection that marries resin wicker with accents of ipe, the South American hardwood.

Marianne Dickerson, co-owner of Patio Shoppe stores in Coral Springs and North Palm Beach, Florida, received her first order of the new Jensen Leisure product in the final days of 2015. “It’s very different, very unusual,” she said. “I can’t wait to get it on the floor. I think people are going to love it.”

“Preseason orders have been very strong,” said Janet Wansor, vice president for Sales and Marketing for Jensen Leisure.

Mixing resin wicker with other materials to create a fresh look remains a strength of leading manufacturers. Gloster Furniture integrates resin wicker with teak. 

“Going forward, we’ll integrate with other materials,” said North American president Eric Parsons.

Kingsley-Bate offers a group that mixes resin wicker with teak accents. Ratana has introduced groups combining aluminum with resin wicker in order to differentiate itself from the competition, said Winnie Ng, Sales manager.

Six-year-old Peak Season’s product lineup includes many items that integrate resin wicker with other materials and few items that are primarily resin wicker. President and CEO Timothy LeRoy said the company’s hottest resin wicker products are decorative accents, such as wicker ottomans, storage baskets or accent tables.

“We’re experiencing exponential growth in things used to decorate the outdoor space,” he said.

Summer Classics has groups that blend resin wicker and teak and introduced new mixed-media collections last fall. Two feature teak and resin wicker, while a third combines aluminum and resin wicker. “We believe this is the future of the business,” White wrote. Resin wicker has “been in a design resurgence using mixed materials.” 

He pointed out that the resurgence will mean incremental growth, not a boom as in the early years of the category.

These and other higher-end designers are making the investment in design expertise, as well as in manufacturing, that produce looks that cannot be easily, or inexpensively, copied.

“It all depends on the design,” said Kingsley. “Just slapping something on a piece of furniture doesn’t improve it necessarily. It’s all about the design and how it’s done.”

Distinctive design translates into better margins for specialty retailers as well as manufacturers. “The only way to make margins is to design distinctive elements into (the product), to separate it from the pack,” said Gloster’s Parsons.

Copycat designs are the bane of any fashion industry, whether garment or furniture. The tendency to knock off what were once considered fashion-forward looks in resin wicker was accelerated by the simplicity of those now-dated silhouettes.

“Simple designs lean toward being more contemporary,” Gaylord said. “That basically means square corners and flat sides.” As for the frame, “There’s nothing to it,” he said. Even a novice metalworker can build a frame with only right angles.

Avant Chat and fire pit from NorthCape.

Tom Murray, president of NorthCape International, noted that certain resin wicker designs, once considered cutting edge, have “become commodity products. The boxy, dark-framed sectional has been a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of price.”

To set its products apart, NorthCape has shifted its emphasis from contemporary – which once accounted for about 65 percent of its volume – to more transitional designs.

Murray noted that categorizing styles is highly subjective. One person’s transitional could be another person’s contemporary. The ability to offer choices in each style, including traditional, benefits specialty retailers, he said.

“You want a good representation of traditional, transitional, and contemporary for the average market,” he said. “If you have a third, a third, and a third, you’ll be OK.”

NorthCape enjoyed double-digit sales growth in 2015, with a rush of orders in the final weeks of the year. The orders “paint a really good picture for Q1 and Q2,” Murray said, adding that the timing could cause some shipping issues as the season gets rolling.

Biscayne seating from Erwin and Sons.

One key to continued success in the category is being able to distinguish between fads and trends, said Erik Dych, vice president of Erwin and Sons. Fads appear suddenly and don’t have legs. “You need to concentrate on the trends,” Dych said. “The trends are slow, but they keep moving in the same direction.”

Erwin and Sons still offers plenty of traditional designs, but the number of transitional and contemporary groups continues to grow. North American tastes are “slowly converting over,” he said. “This has been the trend for many years.”

Lou Rosebrock, senior vice president for Sales and Marketing at Lloyd Flanders, agreed. “You definitely see a move toward cleaner lines and more contemporized product,” he said. 

Veranda Classics by Foremost remains comfortable with its largely traditional lineup of resin wicker furniture. “We are a traditional house,” said Neil Streitfeld, National Sales manager. “Customers and dealers clamor for something edgy and different, and at the end of the day, what they sell best is down-the-middle-of-the-road traditional.”

Veranda Classic’s fiber colors remain in the brown palette. “People love the look of gray,” Streitfeld said, “but the sales don’t bear out doing much with it.” Weaving in darker shades such as black puts a contemporary spin on the product, he said. So brown it is.

Wes Stewart of Sunset West expects to see gray resin wicker furniture gain in popularity. The color is gaining momentum in interior décor, he said, especially in kitchen cabinetry and flooring.

“If you pick up a copy of Architectural Digest, you see a lot of gray and cleaner lines,” Stewart said. “It has to make its way out into the backyard. We see that trend really coming on.”

Largo woven vinyl collection from Lloyd Flanders.

Lloyd Flanders also is betting on gray. Largo, a new collection designed by John Caldwell, is executed in an antique driftwood look. “We’ve recognized that gray is going to be successful for our retailers,” Rosebrock said.

Innovative colors, along with distinctive fiber textures and weaves, have helped Ebel enjoy strong growth in recent years. That record continued in 2015, with sales up “in the low and mid-teens,” said Mark Bottemiller, National Sales manager.

The company’s products fall squarely into the transitional category, he said, with a slight tilt to the contemporary. “We haven’t done as well with the extremely contemporary collections,” he said. “We’ll stay to the middle of the road.”

Recent design innovations from Ebel include resin wicker club chairs with high backs and wing-chair styling. “The combination of high backs with some new weave styles are going to do very well for us,” Bottemiller said.

Another advantage for Ebel, he said, is the company’s willingness to weave with unusual splines (resin fibers). “The hand – the braids and twists and options – are so unique,” Bottemiller said. “When you put your hand on them, they don’t feel like milk cartons anymore.”

Additional freshening comes from a new, dark gray fiber color. Ebel calls it Smoke – “a safe, marketable color,” Bottemiller explained.

Agio’s Gaylord agrees that the color gray has huge potential. “What a great neutral it is!” he said. “We see it in the indoor industry. I have no reservations about gray coming back really strong.”

If those predictions are right, a surge of gray and driftwood might one day wash into resin wicker showrooms. Think of it as islands in a sea of brown.

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