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Hearth & Home February 2017

Manhattan deep seating from Sunset West.

Too Much of/a Good Thing?

By Tom Lassiter

Resin wicker has propelled the growth of the patio furniture industry since the turn of the century, but nothing lasts forever.

A diamond is forever. Almost everything else eventually succumbs to the ravages of time, which includes falling out of fashion.

This inevitable decline, in the fashion sense, at least, includes resin wicker furniture. The category has been the industry’s 21st century darling, helping fuel dramatic growth throughout the aughts as well as during the post-Great Recession recovery.

Resin wicker, it’s fair to say, has been the casual industry’s most recent Golden Goose.

So we snapped to attention last fall when a handful of casual retailers wondered aloud if the industry’s hottest category has begun to cool. They had no hard data, just a sense that shoppers last year weren’t quite as enthusiastic about all-weather wicker as they have been, season after season.

The retailers volunteered that suspicion when Hearth & Home called merchants across North America to assess the 2016 season as it drew to a close.

Their observations merited further inquiry. We checked with some leading specialty retailers as well as with resin wicker manufacturers. We asked if they had noticed any indications that the popularity of all-weather wicker has begun to plateau or decline.

Their answers varied, including:

  • Are you kidding?
  • No.
  • Yes.
  • Maybe.
  • Not yet, but we know this hot streak can’t last forever.

One point of consensus: Competition is tougher than ever. Resin wicker is part of virtually every major producer’s catalog, and at every price point. (Note, however, that prices have bottomed out and are sure to rise, as Chinese weavers are in short supply). If consumers seem less excited about product on the showroom floor, maybe it’s because they see so much of it.

They see the familiar lines of transitional/contemporary resin wicker with angular profiles. They see it heavily romanced in lifestyle photography by leading online vendors and catalog companies. They see similar products in the showrooms of specialty retailers and mainline furniture stores. They see copycat weaves and colors (coffee/mocha/brown) and designs at mass merchants and at members-only stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club.

Sometimes those Big Box store products carry the same brand names as found at specialty merchants, though at wildly differing price points. Shopper confusion ensues.

Let’s face it. Certain resin wicker looks are as ubiquitous as “White Christmas” background music during the six weeks before December 25. Even when you love something, too much of it can get tiresome.

The takeaway: Specialty retailers who expect to maintain customer enthusiasm for resin wicker must present furniture that stands out by virtue of design and quality. They must be prepared to educate customers about quality issues and why that investment matters.

Monticello by Patio Renaissance.

Designers and manufacturers who emphasize innovation in overall design, as well as in more subtle details, will have an advantage over those who play it safe with “me, too” products.

If a retailer suspects that resin wicker is losing some of its cachet on the showroom floor, one manufacturer suggests, it may be time to give the presentation a critical review.

Sometimes, says Wes Stewart, president of Sunset West, retailers are loath to break up a resin wicker group in the showroom. If the group has six pieces, the merchant feels compelled to present them as a unit. Stewart points out that showing the full group in this eclectic age may be a turn-off. He’s noticed that situation with his own retailers.

When everything matches, “There’s too much weave; it’s too overwhelming,” Stewart says. “If that’s how the retailer is going to display their goods, I can see consumers being averse to buying that way.”

The fix for this situation is easy. Swap out the woven coffee table in favor of another material, such as teak or aluminum, or a table that includes resin wicker and a second medium, such as wood or metal. Leave the sofa and club chairs, but send the love seat to live in another vignette.

“A fully woven product, mixed in an eclectic setting, is perfectly viable,” Stewart says. “It’s meant to work together, and it’s beautiful.”

Retailer Chad Scheinerman, CEO of Today’s Patio, with multiple locations in Arizona and San Diego, points out that merchants must have a unique offering. Resin wicker remains an extremely strong category, he says, in part because he presents “collections that have unique weaves and colors. You have to change it up a little bit.

“It’s about finding ‘that look,’” Scheinerman says. “The match-match stuff is everywhere.”

Groups with a fresh look that attract buyers, he says, include Orsay and Geneva from Ebel, and Celaya by Mallin. The latter, a deep-seating group, combines a cast-aluminum frame with a woven seat back.

Products such as these, he says, are “taking that woven category to a new level.”

Too Much Product?

The resin wicker category has been such a moneymaker that it continues to attract new players, large and small, says Dudley Flanders, president of Lloyd Flanders.

“It’s everywhere now, from the low end to the high end,” he says. Such widespread availability puts pressure on every vendor. “It could be that the pie’s not getting smaller, but just the slices.”

Growth in resin wicker as well as Lloyd Flanders’ loom products “has been kind of flat” over the last 18 months, he says. The company’s most popular introduction at the 2016 Casual Market Chicago was Wildwood, a teak and wicker group.

Wildwood from Lloyd Flanders.

“It’s possible that there is a cooling of full wicker, without any mixed media,” Flanders says.

Bew White, president of Summer Classics, agrees with the observation that growth in the resin wicker category has slowed. “But,” he notes, “it is still by far my largest category.”

White sees teak moving up in popularity, with interest in cast aluminum declining “substantially. Also, the fashion categories such as hybrids and upholstery are picking up some.”

Hybrids – furniture that mixes materials, such as teak and resin wicker – more often are called mixed media. Companies that have ventured into mixed media, especially when done with cutting-edge design, often find themselves with a big hit at retail.

“Mixed media is breathing new life into woven,” says Karen Galindo of Outside in Style.

The Austin, Texas, retailer notes that blocky resin wicker furniture with square corners once looked chic. “Now it’s been there, done that,” she says. “Anyone who does square is selling commodity at this point, where it’s 100 percent about price.”

She says the category may have topped out and that its dramatic growth curve may be flattening. “It’s not dead by any means,” she says. “There’s still a customer that wants it, but it’s not as hot as it was.”

Galindo says furniture makers have to be innovative “even to maintain the status quo. They have to come up with something exciting and new.”

Mixed-media furniture with fresh appeal, she says, includes Coral by Jensen Leisure and Wildwood by Lloyd Flanders. “Wildwood is one of the freshest, most innovative things I’ve seen in a long time,” Galindo says.

She also likes Lloyd Flanders’ Havana collection, which has a more traditional wicker profile and an open-weave look enlivened by vinyl with deep, rich hues.

Sometimes all it takes is a new weave to inject vitality into a familiar collection, she says, citing recent releases from Patio Renaissance. “They took old standbys and made them look new and different,” she says. Albert Lord of Patio Renaissance, she says, “is a genius in coming up with new weaves.”

Business at Patio Renaissance, where the preponderance of the line is in resin wicker, is strong, says Mark Gorr, vice president for North American operations.

“Resin wicker has not slowed down,” Gorr says. “It has accelerated. We still see our base growing, and dealers are increasing their floor placements with us. For at least the next two seasons, we are not expecting anything to fall flat.”

Agio president Bob Gaylord’s outlook is even brighter. Resin wicker furniture, he says, “is still the fastest growing part of our business. I don’t see any end to it right now. I wish cast and sling and other things were growing as fast.”

Agio’s resin wicker sales are “at least $100 million, or something like that,” Gaylord says.

Mark Bottemiller, National Sales manager at Ebel, says his company’s 2016 sales were softer than expected. “It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great,” he says. “Our season wasn’t where we had hoped it would be.”

Ebel specializes in resin wicker products. “At some point, the wave is going to crest,” Bottemiller says. “Are we there yet? I don’t think so. But we have to be getting close to the crest.”

The market one day will not be able to absorb any more resin wicker product, he says. Once that happens, he comments, “I think it will be a slow decline. It won’t be a cliff. It will be a ramp. There’s volume to be had for quite some time.”

Shortage of Weavers

The resin wicker industry depends on the craftsmen who can execute the increasingly intricate weaves necessary to produce competitive products.

A number of furniture executives over the past year have expressed concern that veteran weavers in China have all the work they can handle and “the lack of new weavers entering the industry is making things more expensive,” says Godfrey Leung, vice president of Sales for Ratana. “The cost of making woven resin furniture is getting higher and higher because of increasing labor costs.”

Boston dining from Ratana.

Ratana is doing well these days, Leung says. “My sales are very strong, but we are aware that the future may present some challenges.”

Eventually, he says, rising expenses may cause woven resin furniture to become something of a collector’s item.

Meanwhile, Ratana is developing new aluminum furniture collections with sleek, contemporary designs reminiscent of Mid-Century Modern looks of the 1950s. “The outcome has exceeded our expectations,” Leung says.

Tom Murray, president of NorthCape International, shares the opinion that labor issues eventually will lead to major changes in the resin wicker market. “One day, resin will be one of the hardest things to get, because there aren’t a lot of weavers coming on line. We don’t feel the lack of weavers yet,” he says, “but we hear about it every week.”

NorthCape’s strategy to deal with this looming issue is to develop new designs with the flavor and appeal of resin wicker, but with less actual weaving.

Currently, resin wicker designs typically wrap the entire frame in extruded resin fiber. NorthCape is looking at creating woven components, such as side panels, that may be attached to an extruded metal frame. This approach offers the flavor of an entirely woven product with less labor.

“We reverse engineer everything to find out where the costs are,” Murray says.

New fabrics emulate the look of woven resin, he notes. “I’m excited,” he says, “because that could mean more domestic manufacturing and less reliance on weavers halfway around the world.”

Mooring dining from NorthCape by designer Libby Langdon.

Murray sees opportunity in expanding his company’s offerings in upholstered outdoor furniture. Upholstered products were among the four created for NorthCape by designer Libby Langdon and introduced at Casual Market Chicago in September.

“All four sold,” Murray says, adding that the company’s growth for 2017 is in new products. “If I had the same line year over year,” he says, “I’d be shrinking.”

There’s no doubt that the resin wicker category will one day run its course, to be replaced by the next big thing. The question isn’t if, but when.

Meanwhile, savvy manufacturers and merchants probably agree with Murray on the need to innovate and stay fresh.

“Just running the same old program isn’t a solution,” he says. “You’ll be dead in the water if you do it.”

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