Not Too Bad
By Tom Lassiter
Canadian patio furniture retailers who want to “Buy Canadian” may choose from heavyweight vendors with international clout to young companies seeking their niche in a world of outdoor lifestyle choices.
Among the best-known brands are Ratana, CabanaCoast, and CR Plastic Products, pioneer in building outdoor furniture in North America from lumber-like material made from recycled milk jugs and other high-density polyethylene (HDPE) materials. These three companies sell their products throughout Canada and the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum are casual furniture manufacturers with more limited product lines and more limited distribution. More than a few produce classic Muskoka chairs and related products in wood or plastic lumber. (A Muskoka-style chair is a look-alike cousin to Adirondack chairs, see photo.)
Here’s a look at three Canadian casual furniture outfits.Willow Green
We’ll call Willow Green a hybrid; it’s part retailer and part designer-manufacturer.
The company is based north of Toronto in Bethany, Ontario, and presents products online at cottagechairs.ca. Beginning in 2010, the company stopped dealing in wood furniture and limited its products to HDPE. Willow Green is owned by Darryl and Tammy Irwin.
Five different manufacturers of HDPE casual furniture supply Willow Green, including CR Plastic Products and Krahn, which makes Muskoka-Adirondack style furniture.
The Irwins designed about 25% of the products in Willow Green’s current lineup of some 140 items. Krahn produces three chairs designed by the Irwins, and Amish craftsmen in the United States make other products.
“We have very close relations with our builders,” Darryl Irwin says. “We can turn around a new product in less than two weeks, from prototype to production model. As the manufacturers of poly lumber evolved, we were able to evolve as well.”
Cove by CabanaCoast.
CabanaCoast, launched in 2002, has been selling its products through U.S. retailers for about six years. The company has a permanent showroom in the Merchandise Mart.
“In Canada, we’re an established brand,” says Lindsay Liepold, director of U.S. sales. “We’re still very much the new kid on the block” in the States, she says. The company has about 185 dealers in North America, but does not yet have a presence in every U.S. state.
CabanaCoast’s frames are made in China, the country of origin of its Canadian owners, David Wen and Catherine Peng. Cushions are made to order at CabanaCoast’s headquarters in Mississauga, Ontario.
The company prides itself on being a quick-ship, special-order manufacturer. “That’s where our niche is,” Liepold says.
It maintains in Ontario a heavy inventory of all frames and more than 200 fabrics by Sunbrella and Tempotest. “None of our soft goods are premade,” she says. “We make it all to order in Mississauga. We’re about as close to just-in-time as you can get in this industry.”
Product usually leaves the warehouse two to three weeks after an order is placed, she says.
The capacity to make custom cushions and ship rapidly from its Canadian warehouse to any retailer in North America gives CabanaCoast its market advantage, Liepold says.
“Designers love us because our fabric people are so capable,” she says. The company also focuses on the hospitality industry and has sold to clients including Marriott, Hard Rock Café, and Sandals Resorts.
Liepold says CabanaCoast has continued to grow its Canadian sales in recent years despite a slowdown in the housing market. Skyrocketing home prices have made things extremely difficult for first-time buyers and for condo owners who want to make the move to a single-family home.
“If everybody’s spending more for their house,” she says, “that leaves less money for luxury items, such as higher-end patio furniture. We’ve had dealers that have had great growth this year; we’ve had dealers that are a little flat this year.”
CabanaCoast sells into the United States in U.S. dollars at a landed cost, with no additional fees for brokerage. The company subsidizes freight on shipments to U.S. retailers. The recently published price list for 2019 did not reflect an across-the-board price increase, Liepold says. Prices on a small number of select items were adjusted.
Talk of a Canadian/U.S. trade war adds some uncertainty to how solid those prices will be in the coming months, she says. But for now, a stable price list is “definitely a big talking point.”
CabanaCoast’s products include resin wicker, stainless steel, aluminum, and faux teak. Styles include some traditional items but are mostly transitional and contemporary. Liepold calls the contemporary look “our design aesthetic, because Toronto is a very contemporary market.”
She says the company is having success with mainline furniture stores that don’t typically warehouse product. CabanaCoast’s ability to customize and ship product rapidly “fits right into their wheelhouse as far as what they’re comfortable with.”
Element 5.0 from Ratana.
Vancouver-based Ratana in 2018 marks 40 years in business. That’s a major source of pride, says Joanna Leung, vice president of Business Development and a second-generation member of the founding family.
She describes Ratana as “an international brand with Canadian roots.”
Ratana has responded to the slackening of demand for resin wicker products in North America by developing products that integrate new materials such as rope and hand-brushed aluminum.
“We cater to the different tastes and desires of our customers,” Leung says. “We’re offering a more varied line than in the past.”
The 2018 season got off to a somewhat slow start, she says, but sales picked up as the year progressed. “We had a good premarket, and we are excited for the coming season,” she says.
Labrador, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island
Canada’s short casual furniture season is especially abbreviated in the Maritime Provinces. Some shops contacted in late August were already shuttered for fall.
Stores in the Maritimes that offer casual furniture typically deal with a limited number of suppliers and don’t buy deep. Steve Clark owns Simply Furniture, a full-line furniture store in St. John, New Brunswick. He called casual furniture a “hard to sell product.”
Shoppers at Simply Furniture don’t have to take sides in Canada’s current trade spat with the United States. They don’t have a choice. All the furniture at Simply Furniture is sourced from Canada.
Clark offers only one brand of patio furniture: CabanaCoast. Most of his customers tend to be designers, he said, “because of the nature of its cost.” Tickets of $10,000 and up are not unusual.
Even so, Clark said casual furniture represents only about 5% of his annual sales.
It’s a similar story at Style 52, a design-oriented furniture store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sales consultant Ray Palmer said the shop carries only Ratana, showing a few items on the floor and placing special orders.
“Ratana is quite expensive,” he said, “so we don’t sell a lot of it.” Casual furniture, Palmer said, “is just a small piece of our market.”
MacArthur’s Nurseries in Moncton, New Brunswick, enjoyed “a very good year” with its one line of casual furniture. Manager Tony DeLuca said products by CR Plastic Products have been sold for more than a decade.
“We’ve had a lot of luck with CR Plastics,” he said of the company based in Stratford, Ontario. “We seem to have increases every year.”
MacArthur’s Nurseries has attempted to bring in cast aluminum, teak, and resin wicker furniture in years past. “But we never had a lot of luck selling that stuff,” DeLuca said.
CR Plastics’ heavy, durable furniture made of high-density polyethylene (plastic lumber) suits the area’s coastal environment, he said. “It doesn’t blow around,” he explained. “You can leave it outside for the winter.”
Casual furniture sales make up about 3% of the garden center’s annual sales, he said.
CR Plastic Products also is the only casual furniture line at Sunpoke, which also sells hearth and barbecue goods in Hanwell, near Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Rhett Wyntjes purchased the more than 40-year-old business two years ago. He quickly learned that the bulk of patio sales are made from April through June before tapering off in July and August. A few early birds shop in March, he said.
Part of the appeal of CR Plastic furniture, Wyntjes said, is that it is Canadian-sourced and made to order. But the brand’s popularity backfired this season, he said, with the introduction of a new collection called Harvest and a new deep-seating swivel rocker. CR Plastic couldn’t keep up, he said.
“They bit off more than they could chew,” Wyntjes explained. Product that used to arrive in three to four weeks took “eight weeks or even longer” this season. “We had big delays in getting stuff to our customers,” he said.
Casual furniture accounts for between 5% and 10% of sales at Sunpoke.
Despite the delivery issues, Wyntjes was pleased with how the patio season played out. Sales were “much better than last year,” he said. “It was cold then.”
Ontario and Québec
The casual furniture business can be, oh, so fickle.
If you’ve any doubt, just ask Andy Cotnam, president and general manager at The Fireplace Center & Patio Shop in Ottawa.
“Last year was a really wet summer. We had our best furniture year ever. We were up about 30%. That makes no sense,” he said. “This year, it’s been a beautiful summer, and our sales are down about 20%.”
With two stores serving the nation’s capital, Cotnam figures his annual sales are down about 10% as of late August.
Paul Anderson, general manager of Patio Comfort in Ottawa, said weather issues early in the year caused sales to stall. That lost momentum has been felt throughout the year. “It’s hard to catch up,” he said.
Ottawa businesses may have suffered a bit because of a snafu in the government’s paychecks to federal employees. Some went for up to six months without pay because of software problems in a new payroll system, Cotnam said. Other employees were overpaid. Cotnam suspects some government workers just stopped spending while waiting for the payroll issue to be resolved.
In Lachine, Québec, retailer JML Inc. was off even more. Owner Jean-Marc Legault said sales were down about 15% from 2017’s pace.
Legault put the blame on a late spring. The summer, when it finally arrived, was great, he said, but “we didn’t catch up.”
Complicating matters for JML were shipping delays from a major U.S. supplier. His store deals only in special orders, Legault said. He said Telescope, which usually ships product in two to three weeks, often required four to six weeks to ship product this season. Delivery added another week to the process.
Delays hurt, he said, because Québec’s selling season is two to three weeks shorter than in Ontario or British Columbia, which lie farther to the south.
In Montréal, Karoline Trudeau enjoyed her first season as owner of Boutique Le Balconier, an established shop. She purchased it while the business was closed for the winter (as usual) and reopened the store in March.
Warm weather teased Montréal for two weeks in March before frosty temperatures returned. “It took a bit of time to get that summer vibe,” she said.
The shop specializes in smaller-scale furniture for Montréal’s high-rise condo and apartment dwellers. The boutique’s 2,000 sq. ft. showroom features 10 terraces of various sizes outfitted with resin wicker, aluminum, and synthetic wood furniture.
A typical three-piece sectional retails from $2,000 to $4,000, she said, and she’s looking forward to a profitable first year. She expects the expanding condominium market to drive her casual furniture sales.
“That’s very good for us,” she said of the construction boom.
Lake Livin’ and The Boathouse, located in Cottage Country two hours north of Toronto, might just be the most unusual casual furniture operation in North America.
The two shops are part of Port Sandfield Marina, which, as the name implies, serves those who can afford to ply the waters of the Muskoka Lakes. The dwellings lining the shores are second homes.
“These cottages, if you can call them that, go for $2 million and up,” said Nada Blair. She and husband Jonathan preside over the family-run business now in its fourth generation.
Lake Livin’, open year-round, offers casual furniture by Telescope, Lane Venture, and Summer Classics. “We deal with the elite, the wealthy of Canada,” Blair said. “We have to have high-end product.”
The Boathouse sells a wide variety of goods including home décor items, gifts, outdoor throws, patio heaters, and barbecues. Merchandise is just steps away from two slips where classic inboard watercraft (also for sale) are a main attraction. The Boathouse closes for the season after Canadian Thanksgiving (October 8 this year).
Lake Livin’ stays open throughout the winter. Even though the lakes are hard frozen, Blair is prepared to serve clientele who may have purchased a property in the off-season and want to ready it for summer fun.
Adirondack MGP Sling Chairs from Telescope Casual Furniture.
Cottages, by the way, come with boathouses, which are not just for boats (usually at least three, Blair said). Boathouses also serve as guest houses, with quarters typically on the second level. Cottage owners make excellent customers.
“I sell them furniture for the boathouse, for the decks, plus the main cottage,” Blair said. “They need a lot of furniture.
“We work seven days a week in season,” she said. “But it pays off. We do very well.”
Many retailers found it more difficult to sell casual furniture sourced from the United States this year. The unfavorable exchange rate made it “a real problem selling American product,” Cotnam said.
The weak Canadian dollar, coupled with tariffs and rising freight costs, means that a shop must triple its wholesale costs to make a sufficient profit. An item costing a store $100, for example, must be sold for $300.
“We love our neighbors,” Cotnam said of that nation to Canada’s south, “but it certainly benefits us to sell Canadian product at this point.”
Cotnam said CabanaCoast, based in Ontario, is his largest supplier. While the product’s frames are sourced in Asia, cushions are made in Canada “so we’ve got fixed pricing.”
Anderson, at Patio Comfort, said another factor influences casual furniture sales besides the exchange rate, which is not that different from 2017.
“There’s a Canadian flavor in people’s mouths because of the threat of tariffs and the political climate,” he said. “The dollar is something we’ve always had to deal with. Now, it’s the displeasure of the political climate and the bullying.”
There was a time not so long ago when consumers entered a casual furniture store with a mission to “buy North American,” Anderson said. “But now people want to buy Canadian.”
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
Photo COURTESY: ©2018 GingerSnap Photography. www.gingersnapphotography.ca.
The sales pendulum was in full swing this season at Dinette & Patio Furniture in Edmonton, Alberta.
Up, then down.
The beginning of the year “started like gangbusters,” said Brett Belford, store manager. “And the day the Trump tariffs were announced, we saw a big decline of about 20%.
“We had the best March and April we’ve had in years,” Belford said, “then the worst June, July, and August we’ve had in years.”
Casual furniture retailers aren’t the only ones suffering, he said. “Even the big department stores have seen a big decline in the last couple of months.”
Sales seemed a bit more consistent at Golden Acre Home & Garden in Calgary, Alberta. Birgit Dermann, casual furniture buyer, credited the improving health of the local economy with boosting sales over 2017 levels. Even so, late summer’s fires to the west had a noticeable effect on sales.
“This last little bit of smoke has put a damper on things,” she said. “British Columbia is pretty much all on fire.”
Farther to the east, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Paradise Leisurescapes enjoyed casual furniture sales that edged ahead of 2017’s numbers.
Conrad Ehmann, Sales manager, described the season as good and busy. “I think we’re a little bit better than last year,” he said. “We’ve had some decent weather.”
Paradise Leisurescapes also has a store in Saskatoon. Both cater to higher-end clientele with products by Ratana, OW Lee, and Ebel. Regina customers tend to be “a little conservative,” he said, while Saskatoon homeowners lean more toward fashion-forward designs. Paradise Leisurescapes stocks the two stores accordingly.
Luxe Furniture Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was up nearly 10% for the first seven months of the year. Sales were strong in indoor as well as outdoor products. Sales cooled appreciably with August’s arrival, said owner Phil Squarie, Jr. Politics may be a factor in the decline.
Around that same time he began hearing customers ask about the country of origin for products that caught their eye. “If it’s from the U.S., I don’t want it,” Squarie heard more than one shopper say. “They also don’t want to pay tariffs.”
One common trend: The consumer’s love affair with resin wicker is on the wane.
“For us in Calgary,” said Dermann, “wicker is done. We’re selling a lot more metals. We’re selling more teak and ipé. That’s something I’ve noticed for the last couple of years.”
In Edmonton, Belford noted that half or two-thirds of woven product purchased for the 2018 season remained unsold in late August. In prior years, he said, resin wicker “has always done quite well.” Having to carry product over into next year “doesn’t allow us to invest in coming styles like we would like to.”
“Anything woven has been in decline,” he said. “We’re considering dropping maybe half of what we carry.”
Resin wicker used to account for 70% of outdoor furniture sales at Luxe Furniture, Squarie said. Resin wicker now generates about 50% of sales.
Market saturation could be one reason that resin wicker apparently has peaked. Woven products are available at lower price points through mass merchants and Big Box stores. Designs similar to higher-end products confuse shoppers and challenge more up-scale shops to explain the quality/price differential to customers. Converting the resin shopper to a resin buyer is more difficult than ever.
Belford suggested another reason that resin wicker may have lost some of its appeal, and a surprising one at that: maintenance. The Rocky Mountains run along Alberta’s western border with British Columbia. The peaks wring out much of the moisture from air currents blowing west to east. As a result, Edmonton is dry, receiving less than 20 inches of precipitation annually. The many nooks and crannies in a typical woven chair or sofa tend to trap natural debris such as leaves and twigs, Belford said, requiring “a lot more maintenance than we would like to admit.”
What are people buying instead of resin wicker? Sling and deep seating, Belford says, much of it by Telescope Casual Furniture. “Some of their designs are really unique,” he said.
At Golden Acre Home & Garden, Dermann said no particular category dominated sales.
“We tend to cherry pick the best from all the different types,” she said. “In aluminum, Mallin was very strong. In teak, Gloster was strong. In ipé, Jensen Leisure. It just depends.”
Generally speaking, she noted, “There definitely is an appreciation for things that are a little more organic.”
Squarie noted the same at Luxe Furniture. Aluminum product with teak accents, available for several years, is enjoying a resurgence. So are other mixed media products.
“Ratana has a set called Cape Town that did really well for us,” he said. Cape Town features a wicker seatback on an aluminum frame.
Aluminum deep seating is making a comeback at Paradise Leisurescapes. “Straps and slings are starting to come back as well,” Ehmann said. There’s also renewed interest in casual dining furniture.
Ratana remains an important manufacturer for Paradise Leisurescapes’ customers who prefer resin wicker. The Vancouver-based company has an advantage over U.S.-based companies in that it can ship product more quickly to Canadian retailers.
The Canadian dollar has been battered by the U.S. dollar for some time now. As this issue goes to press, the Canadian dollar equals .76 U.S. dollar, a 1.24 differential. The differential has been even greater from time to time in recent months.
This situation would appear to give Canadian casual furniture companies a big advantage over U.S. manufacturers when selling to Canadian retailers, but that’s not necessarily the case. Any advantage depends on how a shop makes its purchases.
“When we buy containers,” Ehmann explained, “we buy in U.S. funds. When we buy from the warehouse, we buy in Canadian funds.
“When all is said and done, there are some savings,” he said, “but it’s not huge. If the dollar was on par, it would probably be a different story.”
Absolute parity isn’t necessarily desirable, Belford said. “We prefer (the dollar) not to be par,” he said. “We prefer it to be $1.15 or $1.20. When it gets to be par, it creates other issues.”
The Laguna Collection by Fred Doughty from Jensen Leisure Furniture.
The West – British Columbia
The surprise of this casual furniture season in British Columbia is that it seems to have turned out generally OK. That’s somewhat amazing, considering how Mother Nature and humankind apparently conspired to put a damper on the patio furniture business.
Weather, of course, typically is the biggest variable that comes to bear on casual furniture dealers, and 2018 provided plenty of uncertainty for some, but not all, BC retailers.
Other mischief-makers joined with the weather to play havoc with furniture sales. Factors that inhibited more robust furniture sales included:
- Forest fires that turned skies smoky black for weeks on end, particularly in inland areas and expanding eastward into Alberta. More than 2,000 wildfires struck British Columbia from April 1 through August 30, according to the BC Wildfire Service.
- Threats of a looming trade war with the United States, with tariffs already affecting some casual products.
- Rising freight costs.
- Skyrocketing housing prices, particularly in the Vancouver area, and new taxes on foreign ownership have led to paralysis in the residential real estate market.
“This year has been really funny,” said Clarinda Kung, owner of Ginger Jar, a fashion-forward furniture retailer in Vancouver. “I think we are still up some, but not as much as we had hoped.”
The year started well, Kung said, but sales slowed after a change in leadership in the provincial government and the residential real estate market stagnated.
Shoppers, she said, “have to think long and hard” before parting with their dollars. “Nobody seems to know what is happening from day to day,” she said.
Ginger Jar’s casual furniture lineup is mostly European styles and brands, which is what Vancouver’s fashion-conscious, international population prefers. TUUCI and Lloyd Flanders’ products are the only U.S. outdoor lifestyle brands at Ginger Jar.
Kung said Lloyd Flanders is her “personal favorite. We stick with their signature pieces, because that’s what they’re known for.”
Sales were down at Comox Fireplace & Patio, said owner Tomi Wittwer, proprietor since 2006. “May and June were very rainy, and June was very cold,” Wittwer said.
His store is in Courtenay, about a four-hour drive north of Vancouver. Wittwer said the bulk of his annual casual furniture sales are made in May and June. Volume generally declines in July and August.
This year, the unusual weather pattern kept sales of fire tables healthy through the summer, “maybe because it was pretty cool.” Umbrella sales were also up. Wittwer places a single order with Treasure Garden each year. “When that’s all out,” he said, “that’s it.”
The favorite category at Comox Fireplace & Patio is cast aluminum “because of the weather,” Wittwer said. “Anything other than cast aluminum doesn’t work well.” Resin wicker “never really moves in our market.”
Outdoor furniture is “an off-season gig” for Wittwer and brings in about $80,000 annually. “Our main business is fireplaces,” he said.
Wittwer praised Telescope Casual Furniture’s policy of putting a cap on freight costs. Courtenay, in Canada’s extreme far West, is about 3,000 miles from Telescope’s factory in Granville, New York. Telescope limits a retailer’s freight costs to 11% on orders of $1,200 and above. That provides a level of certainty to the retailer and his customer, especially when Canadian freight costs are climbing.
“Telescope has a fantastic shipment deal,” Wittwer said.
The summer’s wildfires snuffed out buyer enthusiasm at Patio & Home Direct, a retailer in Vancouver. Impulse traffic and sales fell, said manager David Ringuette. Shoppers whose purchases were planned in advance continued to shop, he said, though the prospect of having new deep seating cushions soiled by smoke and ash cast a shadow on sales.
Ringuette noted that sales of ornamental cast iron were virtually dead, while interest in resin wicker is beginning to wane. On the other hand, sales of less-ornate wrought-iron furniture by Kettler “have been fantastic.”
Resin wicker “isn’t going away anytime soon,” he said, but “new buyers” show a preference for “sleek, clean lines” and have less interest in “the boxy wicker look.”
Patio & Home Direct carries products by Ratana, and quick access to Ratana’s Vancouver warehouse gives that brand an edge over products that may take six to eight weeks or longer to deliver. The store brought in a number of Ratana’s new collections for the 2018 season, Ringuette said, and was surprised when those products “didn’t move at all. So we’re going to stick with their classic stuff.”
Kent Melvin owns Beachcomber Home Leisure in Kelowna, about four hours northeast of Vancouver. He faced a cooler than normal June and an extremely smoky August. He expects to finish the year “about the same as last.”
Interest in resin wicker is cooling, he said, replaced by growing demand for tubular aluminum. “Metal’s starting to come back,” he noted. Fire pits remain a good category but “have definitely cooled down.”
Melvin noted that Big Box stores, such as Costco, now offer cantilever umbrellas, which previously had been exclusive to specialty merchants. The Big Box competition’s cantilever models can’t match the quality of umbrellas at a casual store, he said, but the lower prices will lead to shopper confusion. “That’s starting to bite into the cantilever business,” he said.
The Trump administration’s trade spat with Canada has shoppers acting wary and cautious. They’re concerned about how the trade war will affect prices and if it will have long-term bearing on the Canadian economy.
Costs for some products already are rising. Imported textiles are subject to a 10% tariff, Melvin said, which affects U.S.-made cushion covers and umbrella canopies. But the tariff is not being levied uniformly.
“One brand, you’ll get hit with it,” Melvin said. “The other, you won’t. I don’t know if Customs knows what is going on.”
Melvin noted that he’s seen freight costs double, from “10% to 20%. The market can only take so much.”
Consumers are taking note. “People are saying, ‘We’ll wait and see’ and hold off on their decision,” he said.