A Retail Perspective
By Mark Brock
Each season specialty retailers anxiously await new fabric introductions because of the essential role that fabrics play in merchandising showrooms and supporting marketing and sales. What will be the latest trends in colors and textures? Where are the tastes of consumers headed, and how can retailers meet the needs of multi-generational buyers?
While the casual industry depends on the fabric houses to be thought leaders, it’s also valuable to reach out to specialty retailers and designers concerning the trends they are seeing in their showrooms every day. What are consumers actually buying? What are the issues that retailers and designers face in marketing, merchandising, and selling fabrics?
We spoke with specialists who are in close contact with consumer preferences, and here are some of the dominant trends they’re seeing:
- Neutrals remain the big sellers (no surprise there), but beige tones are competing with gray in the neutral category. Will gray become the new beige?
- Blue is one of the strongest color trends, continuing from previous seasons and ranging from navy to a full range of lighter tones. Some view navy as a neutral, similar to black, but not as dominant in an overall setting.
- While there are always predictions of brighter colors, retailers report that stronger colors are primarily used for accessories, rather than major pieces such as chairs and sofas. The overall color palette is broad with subtler colors being well received.
- Texture is more popular than ever with consumers. Neutral fabrics in particular take on added dimensions and an increased look and feel of luxury when textures are added.
- Geometric patterns continue to be popular, reflecting the clean, straight lines of the latest in furniture frames. More intricate and bold patterns appear to be popular for accessories, such as pillows, but are much less common for larger cushions.
- Traditional stripes seem to be out of vogue, but new generations of stripe-like designs are popular, and there are always traditional buyers who like the classic look of stripes.
- Indoor and outdoor décor continues to blur, and it’s essential that fabrics for the outdoors complement the indoors and create a seamless
- connection. Many of the fabric houses emphasize performance first, allowing consumers to decide whether their fabrics live indoors, outdoors, or both.
- Customization is important with consumers who want to make a personal statement with their outdoor living spaces. Fabric manufacturers continue to emphasize cut-yardage programs that make it easier for retailers to create customized looks for homeowners.
- Guiding consumers through fabric selections can be a lengthy process, and specialty retailers applaud fabric makers who provide merchandising tools that make the selection and display of fabrics easier. Easy access to larger fabric samples is popular with sales associates and designers at retail.
- Finally, fabrics are central elements in any well-merchandised showroom, offering an opportunity for specialty retailers to distance themselves from the Big Box stores and online merchants.
Here is some of what fabric experts are saying about casual fabrics, the leading trends, and the role of fabrics in marketing and sales.
DSA Showroom, Dallas
Dennis Sales Associates (DSA) is a manufacturers’ representative firm that also operates a trade-only showroom in Dallas focused on working with interior designers. Leslie Crocker, showroom manager, has been with DSA for five years. Her career has also included sales in natural stone hardscapes.
“Fabrics are extremely important to specialty retailers who are selling quality furniture. With the right fabrics a retailer can help consumers reach the level of quality that they won’t find at a Big Box store. It’s essential to showcase high-end fabrics that complement the quality of the furniture.
“We definitely see a desire today for more texture in casual fabrics; texture is really a stronger trend than color right now. Fabrics can seem very one dimensional, but when you add texture they become much more interesting and add a luxurious feel to your outdoor furniture. Sunbrella and Bella-Dura have introduced fabrics that offer more of a textural feel and have a softer hand, similar to chenille and velvet.
“In terms of patterns, the most popular right now in my showroom are geometrics that mimic architectural elements. These fabrics reflect the leading trend in the design of casual furniture frames toward clean, straight lines. A new generation of buyers is emerging, the Millennials. These are the Ikea kids and minimal is what they have grown up with.
“Baby Boomers are also still out there and buying, maybe for a new smaller home or for a second or third home. They tend to go with more traditional looks. They may say they want contemporary, but what they are really looking for is traditional or transitional.
“There’s really not anything new and exciting taking off in colorways. Neutrals in beige and gray tones are still the most popular, and blue has been popular for a while now. Blue colorways, turquoise, light blues, and pastels are doing well. We also see some increased interest in light yellows, and green is coming back with some really beautiful colors. A new “cast” color collection from Sunbrella features muted versions of colors that allow a consumer to put a toe in the water with the use of color.
“People are investing in their outdoor spaces, spending as much money on outdoor furnishings as they are used to spending on the indoors. The goal is to create an outdoor space that complements the interior and gives you a great view when you’re looking outside.
“My advice to specialty retailers is to improve the merchandising and visibility of high-end fabrics which will make them easier to sell. Consumers need to see what these fabrics have to offer, especially if they’re not working with an interior designer.
“Retailers can really dress up their showrooms with fabrics and use accessories to bring color to each setting. Accessories are a great way to create repeat business from consumers who purchase a neutral fabric for their frames and later come back to change the look with new pillows, rugs and pottery.”
Maschino’s, Springfield, Missouri
Maschino’s can trace its history to a hardware store opened by George Maschino in 1903 in Springfield, Missouri. The company has evolved over the years, and today Maschino’s is a regional store specializing in outdoor living products and fireplaces and wood stoves. Joan Nutting wears many hats at Maschino’s, including assistant manager, buyer, grill island and patio designer.
“For many years, the leading fabric color was canvas heather beige, but today there’s a strong trend toward gray colorways. Gray works great with so many different colors, including beige, and we’re seeing a variety of gray tones from the fabric companies. We help our customers focus on how they can tie the colors inside their homes to their outdoor spaces, and gray works well in doing this.
“We see a lot of different accent colors, and blue has been a big seller for us lately. Blue is really hot. We just sold a large sectional sofa in regatta blue before we could even get it onto our showroom floor. The blue colorways that work for us have tended to be clean, bright, crisp blues and not the deep blues, such as navy. For a while green was really popular; we couldn’t keep it on the floor. While in the past our favorite green, Spectrum Cilantro, saw a lot of action, this year people are walking away from it.
“When it comes to patterns, they’re tricky and really hard to work with. Most customers are reluctant to put a pattern fabric on a chair or sofa because it makes a strong statement that they’ll have to live with for a long time. There’s really no set pattern to patterns, but they are mostly used for accents such as pillows.
“Stripes are a very special form of pattern, with thin stripes and traditional wide stripes. While the wide stripe has a more coastal flair, combining the two, as in the Milano Chair, provides a timeless blend. There is really no rhyme or reason when it comes to which customers will be drawn to stripes.
“Some of the furniture lines provide fabric samples on rings that we can open and take the fabrics out. This is a fantastic feature. There is nothing more difficult than going through fabrics in a swatch book and not being able to lay them out together for the customer to get a grasp of the concept you are showing. I often grab two books of the same vendor to lay fabrics next to each other. While this works, it can be quite a shuffling act.
“One of the best improvements we made here at Maschino’s was moving our Design Center to the front of our store. We have 12-ft. tall plate glass windows and the light is such a benefit in looking at colors.
“Customers want outdoor spaces that reflect their individual tastes, so we offer a design service through which I’ll go to the home, take pictures and measurements, and look at the style of their house to learn about their lifestyle. Back at the store, I lay out their patio area on a room planner program with furniture, TV, grills, accessories, and sometimes fabric choices. Then I meet with the customer to present the plan.
“I cannot stress enough the first steps – getting to know your customers. That’s so essential. This is not about what I like, but what my customer needs.”
Emigh’s Outdoor Living.
Emigh’s Outdoor Living, Sacramento, California
Emigh’s Outdoor Living encompasses more than 12,000 sq. ft. of retail space that not only features casual furniture, but also includes substantial offerings in grills and fire pits. Every November and December the store becomes a holiday shop. Stephanie Everett has been a patio furniture buyer for six and a half years.
“Fabric trends start with interior furnishings, and it can take a few years for those trends to migrate to the outdoors. People want spaces that are calm and soothing, but also with pops of color. A big part of my job as a buyer is to find out what consumers want and what excites them, and then find a way to bring that together in our store.
“Gray has become a primary color for us; it’s a neutral color, but more than just a neutral. Gray colorways have been very popular for interiors for many years and are now leading in the outdoors, which is a refreshing change from all the years that beige was the most popular neutral color. We actually find that gray and beige work well together and can really warm up a setting.
“We have featured coral in our store because it is a bright color for spring that we’ve seen in a lot of housewares. Green has done well in a classier colorway, more toward lime green, and blue is a popular interior color that’s also doing well outdoors. We do better with brighter blues rather than navy, which is more traditional and coastal.
“Colorful pillows and accessories continue to be popular as a way to add color to a set. A pillow in a bright fabric can have a huge impact against a neutral background. Sometimes pillows will influence the selection of an entire collection.
“I like what Elaine Smith has been doing with pillows. We can take a sofa in a neutral color and add Elaine Smith pillows and create quite a fashion statement with huge impact because of the pillows.
Customers will sometimes go with a less expensive fabric for the cushions in a neutral such as heather beige and then splurge on expensive accent pillows. Another great thing about pillows is you can change them out season-to-season for a new look.
“I pay close attention to all sorts of trends, things that are new and exciting and go together well. When I go to market I look to be inspired, which I found with Outdura displays in their showroom at the last market and with Elaine Smith pillows. We also enjoy the special books from Sunbrella. Inspirations are everywhere, and if I see something in a hotel or at retail when I’m traveling, I’ll track them down for our customers.
“I do like it when the fabric mills come out with new ideas. The throws made with Sunbrella yarns are a good example. We also like having access to larger fabric samples and materials that help customers understand how the fabrics are made – the carrot and radish story from Sunbrella for example.”
Out Back Casual Living and Fence, Comstock Park, Michigan
Michelle Miller has been with Out Back Casual Living and Fence for 23 years in a job that encompasses buying, sales, and financial management. Based in Comstock Park in western Michigan, Out Back Casual was founded in 1995 and specializes in patio furnishings, backyard playgrounds, and fencing.
“I really enjoy outdoor living and the places that we can create for people to enjoy being with their families and friends. The business has changed quite a lot over the years, and there is always something new and exciting. We all look forward to the new fabric introductions each spring.
“Over the years, the fabrics we offer are so much better. The colors don’t fade and the fabrics last so much longer. Some of the latest innovations, such as Sunbrella Rain, mean that cushions dry faster and people can enjoy their outdoor spaces more. Fabrics are very important to our marketing and sales.
“It’s really all over the board in terms of what customers are looking for in fabric colors. Neutrals, of course, are the leaders, but we are also seeing lots of gray tones this year and navy has been very popular. Solids overall are very popular.
“For our merchandising in the store, we stay with neutrals that make everything more appealing. Most of our customers are attracted to neutral colors – I would say 90% – with only maybe 5% interested in bright colors. When it comes to colors, most customers will add color through accessories, such as pillows and rugs.
“Most of our customers usually start by selecting the frames and then look for cushion fabrics. We offer so many fabric choices that it can be quite a process for a customer to make up their minds on fabrics. It can take a few hours actually.
“One thing that the fabric manufacturers could do to make our jobs easier would be to provide materials that show how their fabrics can complement each other – solids, stripes, and patterns that go together. We can certainly help customers with coordinating fabrics, but if the fabric manufacturers provided more of these types of tools it would speed the process and make things easier for everyone.
“The majority of our work is special order – consumers want their own personal look and they enjoy the process of creating that look with frames, fabrics, and accessories.”
The Bruce Company.
The Bruce Company,
Gloria Stagmer enjoyed an 18-year career in interior furniture before joining The Bruce Company in 2009, attracted to an opportunity to become a buyer. Founded in 1952, The Bruce Company offers landscape services to both residential and commercial customers in southern Wisconsin through its garden center in Madison. The company also offers a full line of patio furnishings as part of a comprehensive approach to creating outdoor spaces.
“I think the fabric mills are doing a great job of presenting color pallets that appeal to multigenerational consumers. Fabric companies we work with are also willing and able to provide us with larger samples that can help a customer make a decision on fabrics for larger projects. We have so many fabric options today, and the fabric mills are so much more flexible in supporting us with programs such as cut yardage. It’s so much easier today to get the fabrics you need for custom orders.
“Greens and blues are popular with our customers right now. The green colorways trend toward “grassy” greens rather than hunter greens, and the blues are generally in shades of aqua. Of course, customers overall prefer neutral colors for larger pieces and use color to spice things up with accents.
“Patterns are just not as popular as before. People shy away from bold patterns both inside and outside of their homes because these are fabrics they will live with for a long time. Patterns tend to be limited to pillows.
“The look of the fabric is certainly important, but our customers, particularly our commercial customers, want fabrics that are also durable and easy to clean. We’re growing our contract business, and ease of maintenance and fast drying after rain is very important to them. Outdoor spaces can be very important for country clubs and restaurants in terms of business, so they want fabrics that will dry quickly after a shower. Contract customers tend to go with solid colors, particularly colors that match or complement their corporate identity colors.
“It is amazing how many fabric choices there are today. We have to come back two or three times to make decisions on what we will feature in the store; it’s quite a process. We try to match a fabric to the frames so that they are complementary in the store’s merchandising. Typically in the store we go with neutral fabrics because a color that is too bold could turn a customer off from the frame; we look to add color with pillows, rugs, and pottery.
“Selecting fabrics is also quite a process for our customers. They tend to pick the frames first and then we go to the fabric books; we try to give them some direction based on the interior and exterior colors of their homes and their landscaping and gardens. Consumers see the Outdoor Room as an extension of the home itself.”