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Hearth & Home March 2014

Hanging fabric swatches at the Kolo Collection in Atlanta.

Focusing on Fabric

By Tom Lassiter

If fabrics aren’t front and center in your store, and on the lips of your salespeople, then you’re leaving money on the table.
At The Ivory Company in Atlanta shades of white and ivory are on display across all categories.

A panel of gossamer-sheer fabric creates a delicate screen that seems to float in the showroom. It’s translucent, allowing a glimpse of what lies beyond the vertical divider at Sunshine Boyz Island Home store in Venice, Florida.

At Steve McKenzie’s in Atlanta, 19 hemmed panels of custom fabric, each the size of a generous tablecloth, hang from coat hooks. They seem to have magnetic pull and demand to be touched, lifted from the hooks, and stretched out to get the full visual and tactile impact of the colorful patterns. Artist-proprietor Steve McKenzie creates his own fabrics; his designs are digitally printed in the United States on Belgian linen.

The palette is more limited at The Ivory Company, also in Atlanta. Shades of white and ivory predominate across product categories, including rugs and table linens, plus bed and bath. Texture becomes more important in a daring but limited colorway that speaks of elegance and luxury. Though the color family is tightly defined, the possibilities offered by the textiles seem infinite.

Textiles have a central role at each of these merchants, establishing a chic atmosphere designed to appeal to discriminating shoppers. The presentation is strikingly different from the norm.

“People will pay a premium for something special, something not run-of-the-mill,” says Daniel Charney, co-owner with Brian Corson of Sunshine Boyz. “We’ve found that’s the key to our success.”

The philosophy behind Sunshine Boyz in Venice, Florida, is that people will pay a premium for something special; this fabric is a perfect example.

In four years, the shop has grown from 1,400 sq. ft. to 5,500 sq. ft. Sunshine Boyz sells furnishings for the home, indoors and out. Casual furniture lines include Summer Classics, Panama Jack and Pelican Reef brands.

More successful casual furniture retailers understand that customization and options set them apart from other vendors and help put them on a par with upscale online sellers such as Frontgate. The easiest way to offer customization for any décor is through the array of high-performance fabrics available from an expanding list of mills and jobbers.

The Sunbrella brand, from Glen Raven, and the Outdura brand, now owned by Germany’s Sattler AG, are the default standards for high-performance, solution-dyed acrylic fabrics. Umbrella giant Treasure Garden has introduced a line of solution-dyed polyester fabrics, called O’bravia, for outdoor furniture and awnings.

Also in this space are fabrics designed and produced by Pennsylvania’s Sunbury Textile Mills, using Sunbrella fibers. Another maker of solution-dyed acrylic fabric is Crypton. Jobber Silver State produces a custom designer line called Aláxi, which is woven from Sunbrella fiber. Texas-based Perennials, a high-end brand affiliated with designer David Sutherland, and Maria Flora, an Italian brand, also are making inroads among specialty retailers.

But how do most retailers let browsing customers know about the array of options available? Some shops, like those mentioned earlier, broadcast it visually throughout the store. Shoppers get the message as soon as they step inside.

Retailers elsewhere may employ Sunbrella’s recently redesigned kiosk system that puts swatches at eye level and invites easy exploration. Innovative retailers, such as Texan Karen Galindo at Outside In Style, carve out space for shoppers, guided by sales staff, to explore fabric possibilities. The spacious area is labeled “the design center” to reinforce the notion that special things happen there.

The new fabric kiosk from Sunbrella.

“Not having customizable fabrics that are easy for your customers to look at is a big mistake,” Galindo says. “Fabrics drive the specialty business.”

Exteriors is Galindo’s shop that caters exclusively to professional designers. It features a fabric wall displaying more than 100 large swatches of custom-order fabrics. Designers flocked to it from the very start. “You would have thought we were running a crack house,” Galindo says.

Today’s Patio, with seven locations in Arizona and California, has a dedicated fabric room at its Scottsdale store, which serves the business’s most affluent market. The room is about 12-by-20 and features two glass partition walls, making the fabric samples hanging from rods highly visible from throughout the store, says CEO Chad Scheinerman.

Scheinerman credits the fabric room with boosting sales of premium fabrics, some of which are “$200 bucks a yard.” He says giving customers the opportunity to see and touch larger fabric samples makes them “feel more comfortable” with moving forward with a special order.

At Terra in St. Louis, sales people are trained to welcome guests (note the terminology) and immediately explain there are many more options available than can be displayed in the showroom.

“Every one of our guests is greeted, and we tell them about our special order program,” says Vickie Jeude, general manager. “Most of the fabric books are laying out on the coffee tables as they walk in.”

Informing store visitors about fabric options is crucial, but presentation is no less important. Making a visual impact with rich, trend-setting fabrics speaks volumes about a merchant’s expertise and product depth. Customers then become more receptive to hearing a shop’s fabric story.

Textile designer and consultant Laurie Jenkins, creator of the Laurie Bell brand of outdoor textiles and products, says it’s immediately apparent when a merchant understands how to add pizazz with fabric.

“It’s like you feel chic to be there,” she explains. “You feel cool when you step in.”

Jenkins pointed out Sunshine Boyz, Steve McKenzie’s and The Ivory Company as examples of shops that “get it.” It doesn’t matter that casual furniture is not the main product line (and The Ivory Company offers none). Jenkins says its crucial to look beyond what the direct competition is doing for inspiration and insight.

“I look at fashion, I look at Apple,” she says. “I look at anybody but people in our market. If we’re always seeing the same thing, we’re always doing the same thing.”

Steve McKenzie spent a career as an artist, creative director and CEO with Larson-Juhl, a leading maker of custom framing materials. His eponymous shop in a trendy area of Atlanta puts his philosophies to the test.

There’s a fabric wall and an industrial rack of pillows. Flowing fabric covers the width of a 12-foot-high wall in the shop’s glass-enclosed conference room, “as if it were drapes, so people can visualize how it can be used,” McKenzie says. “I think people have to see it used in context. I truly believe that if you don’t show it, you’re not going to sell it,” he says.

Steve McKenzie’s sole outdoor furniture line is a French brand, Grange. Cushion fabrics are by Sunbrella and Laurie Bell. The shop also carries Laurie Bell-brand pillows.

Kolo Collection, also in Atlanta and just a half-mile away from Steve McKenzie’s, spotlights Italy’s Maria Flora line of fabrics. About three-dozen samples hang in a prominent wall location.

“It’s the only fabric that we hang in the store and let people feel and touch,” says Paul Yuncker, operations manager. “It’s outstanding fabric.”

There’s a direct relationship between a merchant’s special-order business and the emphasis placed on promoting better, more exclusive fabrics. Each merchant must experiment and find an approach that works in his or her particular market.

For instance, at Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, California, most floor display sets use standard fabrics (A or B grade). That keeps marked prices at a competitive point for budget-conscious shoppers, “keeping them from turning and walking out the door,” explains owner Doug Sanicola. Standard fabrics also expedite clearing the floor at season’s end.

Fabrics by Perennials are a great hit with many retailers, and many well-to-do customers as well. This is upper-end product.

Yet 75 percent or more of the store’s business is special order, he adds. And about a third of that is through designers. “They always specify a COM (customer’s own material) fabric or a fabric of the highest quality,” he says. Choices at Outdoor Elegance include Sunbrella, O’bravia, and Perennials, a solution-dyed acrylic line introduced in 1997.

“Perennials became big for us last year when we were doing a job on a $30 million house,” Sanicola says, adding that “Perennials fabrics are pretty wild. Some of them are insanely expensive,” costing as much as twice or three times as much as other top-grade custom fabrics.

Perennials also is available at AuthenTEAK in Atlanta “for the most premium of customers,” says co-owner Eric Brenner. Other brands include Sunbrella, Outdura and Silver State’s Aláxi. Brenner calls Sunbrella “the go-to resource for fabrics, especially when a customer wants to buy from multiple vendors.” The fabric line’s availability through so many furniture manufacturers makes coordination easy.

Merchants remind that there’s a distinction between fabric coordination and having every cushion in a five-piece group made from the same fabric. The “matchy-matchy” look can be a turn-off for today’s discerning customer.

The eclectic look in home fashion is apparent in shelter magazines as well as on the websites of trend-setting online merchants. Design-conscious consumers want a unique look, which is most easily achieved by choosing a selection of unique fabrics.

Sunshine Boyz understands this design aesthetic. “The rooms that attract all of us tend to have something special,” Charney says, “and that is rarely a set of furniture. You don’t see many sets of furniture in our store, ever. I don’t buy lines so much as I buy pieces.”

Choices of fabrics “are the easiest way to give the customer the non-matchy-matchy look,” says AuthenTEAK’s Brenner. “The frames may all be from the same company or material. But if you mix up the fabrics, it doesn’t look like such a store-bought look.”

Custom fabrics, he says, “are a pretty easy upsell. It’s an easy way to generate more income.”

Refining the Fabric Story

At Outdoor Elegance in LaVerne, California, a Sunbrella fabric kiosk stands next to a Hatteras fabric display.

Fabric makers as well as furniture manufacturers continue to refine their strategies for presenting fabric options to specialty store shoppers. The goal is to make the fabric story easier to share and to encourage more special orders of premium fabrics.

OW Lee takes a two-step approach to presenting fabrics. The company’s stock fabric book arranges coordinates so that stripes, solids, textures and trim may be chosen with confidence. Furniture dealers as well as shoppers understand they can choose from among a range of coordinates and not make a fashion faux pas.

Should a shopper desire to step up to higher-grade fabrics and/or more exclusive colors and patterns, OW Lee’s program streamlines the process by relieving the retailer of some of the usual special-order responsibilities.

When a shopper decides on a particular fabric from Sunbrella, Outdura, Tri-Vantage Fusion and certain Silver State swatch books, OW Lee coordinates ordering the yardage and delivery to its cut-and-sew operation. This process gives shoppers “hundreds of options,” says president Terri Lee Rogers. Plus, “It makes it so the retailer doesn’t have to track the fabric, or perhaps make a pricing or yardage mistake that will either delay the order or cut into the dealer’s profit margin.”

Outdura’s Ovation program has nearly 90 SKUs organized into 12 color stories, or “collections of fabrics that work together,” says Natalie Scott, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Sattler/Outdura. For more choices, the swatch book opens to “block decorative dobbies by color to offer more selection.”

Glen Raven continues to tweak its Sunbrella kiosk program. The mechanics of the kiosk have been redesigned to allow a shopper to see all eight panels at once, says Marcia Blake, Customer Fabrics merchandising manager. “There’s a lot more visibility of the actual fabrics.”

In 2011, Glen Raven began teaming with retailers to host in-store, invitation-only events for interior designers who sometimes bring their clients. The event includes a presentation on Sunbrella fabric performance, sustainability, history, features and benefits.

One specialty retailer has taken advantage of the program annually for three years, Blake says, “and it has increased their sales from the kiosk year after year after year. Now we’re getting calls from (other) retailers to participate.”

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