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Hearth & Home January 2017

Adirondack chair from Berlin Gardens.

Growth Continues

By Tom Lassiter

There are few negatives but many positives with today’s plastic furniture, and more and more consumers are recognizing that fact.

Mike Dalton can explain in two short sentences why plastic outdoor furniture is popular with consumers and why specialty retailers love the category.

“People just want low maintenance,” said Dalton, furniture buyer and store general manager for Ski Barn, which has four locations in New Jersey. “And they don’t mind spending the money” for a product that offers years of carefree service.

Ski Barn is a dealer for Seaside Casual, as well as for other brands that use plastic of some variety for the entire product or major components.

The DEX collection by Seaside Casual.

“I’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of the product,” he says. “I have it at my home. My parents have it on their dock; it spent three days underwater during Hurricane Sandy.”

Dalton’s family simply hosed off the furniture, which had been lashed in place, once the water subsided. It looked and performed as good as new, he said.

That’s a major reason why plastic/resin/poly furniture continues to gain favor with homeowners as well as with the contract and hospitality markets.

Perhaps plastic outdoor furniture is simply the most casual of all outdoor furniture. It’s typically heavy enough to withstand stiff winds, whether at the coast, on the plains, or at the base of a mountain.

Tied down to resist the tide, the furniture isn’t fazed by a hurricane’s storm surge. Scratches and nicks aren’t fatal mars; the color permeates all the way through.

Many brands of plastic furniture use either virgin or recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which appeals to many with environmental sensibilities. They enjoy knowing that their Outdoor Room furnishings may have served as milk jugs in a previous incarnation. And one day, in the distant future when the furniture is woefully out of style but not necessarily worn out, the plastic parts can be recycled to become milk jugs once again.

Some furniture makers use other types of plastic, such as polystyrene. Telescope Casual employs a high-end form of HDPE called marine grade polymer, or MGP. The company uses MGP as the primary material in some of its products; in other items it uses MGP as a secondary or accent component with aluminum frames.

Telescope introduced MGP to its line in 2008. Today 40 percent of the product line “features MGP as a frame material or accent,” said Bill Vanderminden, executive vice president.

Bazza MGP from Telescope Casual.

Plastic is “a very important part of what we’re doing going forward,” he said. “It does check at retail. People do see the value. It’s not just some idea we’re pushing.”

Another big selling point for poly furniture is its place of origin.

“People like that it’s made in America,” said Jeff Hickman, vice president of Plants and Things USA in Anoka, Minnesota.

Hickman’s leading line of plastic furniture is by Berlin Gardens, based in Millersburg, Ohio. A Made in USA label is legitimate for the majority of plastic furniture brands.

Poly furniture that doesn’t originate in U.S. plants most likely is from our neighbor to the north, Canada.

C.R. Plastic Products, Canada’s leading maker of plastic furniture, earns 65 percent of its sales from customers in the U.S. The company grew by 37 percent in 2016 and expects to hit that mark again this year. “We can ship anywhere in North America, probably within five days,” said Jamie Dailey, president.

Patty Meyer is a furniture buyer for Sun & Ski, a chain with stores in six states from Massachusetts to Virginia. Sun & Ski offers products by Seaside Casual, as well as MGP furniture by Telescope Casual.

“Everything about it is a no-brainer,” she said in reference to Seaside Casual. “It’s a little bit of an investment, but Seaside has a 20-year warranty. With children, it’s great. We have very few problems.”

Several makers of plastic furniture entered the category by producing interpretations of classic Adirondack chairs. The iconic design, popular in Canada (where it is known as the Muskoka chair) as well as the U.S., remains a staple for most plastic furniture makers. The reason is because they sell.

Adirondack chairs from the Generation Line by C.R. Plastic Products.

Hickman estimates that Plants and Things USA keeps about 300 Adirondack chairs in stock, even during the off-season. They sit outside on the store’s 12-acre site about 20 miles from Minneapolis, immune to damage from severe winter weather.

Dalton said Ski Barn often gives customers a discount when they purchase multiple Adirondack chairs. “We give pair pricing,” he said, “and people love that.”

Adirondack chairs pair naturally with fire pits, he said. They’re a logical solution when additional outdoor seating is needed because they almost always fit in. In addition to full-size Adirondack chairs with a hefty footprint, smaller-scale versions are available. One source is Coastline Casual, a sister brand to Seaside Casual.

There’s even an Adirondack-inspired chair for consumers who prefer a more contemporary look. Loll Designs introduced its first poly furniture 10 years ago with a nod to the Adirondack chair. Today the Minnesota company offers a wide array of outdoor furniture and related products, all made of recycled HDPE (see sidebar).

Seaside Casual introduced 17 new designs in 2016, said CEO Kate Carret. “We’ve been leading by design,” she said.

Seaside’s lineup includes cushioned deep seating in transitional as well as contemporary looks. New for 2017 is the DEX collection, a modular, deep-seating group with clean lines and a moderately low profile.

The company allows consumers to choose contrasting colors for seats and backs and frames in its MAD Fusion product line. Resin wicker may be selected for seats and backs in a variety of MAD Fusion chairs, offering visual variety, textures, and comfort options.

Seaside’s Java collection, introduced for 2016, incorporates double-sided resin wicker panels for seating surfaces as well as for front and side panels. The move, Carret said, “allowed us to lighten up our designs, and not only visually.”

Berlin Gardens also allows consumers to mix and match colors. “We have 37 different color combinations,” said Steve Miller, Marketing manager.

The company recently added a new outdoor bar and a longer island that features an overhanging countertop suitable for bar stools. Dining, gliders and fire pits are strong product areas, Miller said. Yet Berlin Gardens’ two best-selling products are Adirondack chairs, one folding and one stationary.

The privately-held company has enjoyed steady growth in recent years, Miller said, without volunteering specifics. The company has been careful to balance increased production with its commitment to fill orders promptly.

“We’ve tried to, in a sense, limit our growth,” Miller said. “We’ve held to a pretty steady two-week lead time. We don’t want to suddenly find a six- or seven-week lead time for our customers. It’s important to put our dealers first.”

Sitting on a stock of 300 Adirondack chairs and waiting for spring in Minnesota, Hickman is a fan of top-quality poly furniture and Berlin Gardens. “They are a factory that treats you like you want to be treated,” he said. “And we get treated good.”

Loll Designs Is Quick to Recognize Opportunity

The path to success in the outdoor furniture business, as every entrepreneur knows, can take some odd twists and turns. The route taken by Loll Designs surely is one of the strangest yet.

The founders of the Duluth, Minnesota company once designed and built urban skateboard parks. They used a paper-resin composite product called Richlite for the skating surface, but disliked sending so much scrap to landfills.

Another use for Richlite, they learned, is as a cutting surface in commercial kitchens. But no one was producing Richlite cutting boards for the consumer market.

Voila! The waste problem was solved, and Epicurean Cutting Surfaces was born. The cutting boards are widely available in cooking shops and numerous online sources, such as Sur la Table.

HDPE was another material used in building skateboard parks. The company used large plastic sheets, made of recycled high-density polyethylene, to enclose the structural frames supporting a park’s ramps and other curving surfaces.

Fire chair and bench.

There was plenty of HDPE scrap as well, with pieces large enough to cut into several lengthy slats.

“Adirondack chairs have a lot of long, linear pieces,” says Nate Heydt, vice president of Business Development for Loll Designs. “That’s where we landed.

“At the time, we weren’t a furniture company,” he says. “We were selling them on the side and giving them to friends and family.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the skate park and cutting board capitalists to realize they had stumbled into a new market.

With a tall, semi-circular back, their Adirondack chairs looked pretty much like everyone else’s.

“We had the idea to cut off the top flat, and make a modern-looking Adirondack chair,” he says. They studied the market and saw that no one was making an Adirondack chair with Scandinavian flair, “with really clean lines.”

The founders called their chair the Lollygagger Lounge. It was perfect, they thought, for lazing around and just lollygagging. From that came the name for this new furniture business, Loll Designs.

The company launched in November 2006, primarily selling online.

“We got picked up within four years by Room & Board,” Heydt says. Design Within Reach soon followed. “All of a sudden we are in these two national retailers, and with a really good web presence, and doing really well.”

The founders sold their design-build skatepark business, called Trueride, to some friendly competitors “so we could focus on lollygagging,” the website says.

Today the company offers more than 250 design SKUs encompassing all types of outdoor furniture. Other products include storage units, planters, birdhouses, and pet feeding stations. Except for its fire rings, virtually everything the company offers is made of HDPE.

Products are flat-packed for easy shipping.

Fresh Air bar height set.

Contract and hospitality sales make up more than half of the company’s volume, Heydt says.

Aloft Hotels chose a rocker by Loll Designs for all of its locations. Burgerfi, a chain of gourmet hamburger restaurants, uses Loll tables in its outdoor areas. The main location of Seattle Public Library, an architecturally significant building opened in 2004, has Loll Designs’ furniture replacing the original furnishings, he says.

The company has been slow to reach out to independent specialty retailers, Heydt says. The fit has to be right, he explains. Summer House, in Washington, made the cut. So did Penn Stone Outdoor Living, in Pennsylvania, and Kolo Collection in Atlanta.

Sojourn, in a resort-vacation area bordering Lake Michigan, is a shop featuring antique and designer pieces. The town of Sawyer, Michigan, is within driving distance of Chicago, says manager Brooke Nyman.

Furniture by Loll Designs, she says, is the only outdoor furniture the shop offers. Made in USA counts with her customers, as does the furniture’s Green story.

“We just love their design,” Nyman says. “Their stuff is very good looking and modern, which is very much our style. We love that it’s made of recycled materials. It’s an easy sell for us.”

Ten years after its founding, Loll Designs reached its goal of achieving $10 million in sales, Heydt says. The company donates one percent of sales to environmental causes and has little landfill impact.

The manufacturing facility is a zero-waste operation. “We don’t put a piece of plastic in the dumpster,” he says.

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