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Hearth & Home November 2018

Have It Your Way

By Mark Brock

'Mass Customization' is transforming customer choice at specialty retail.

When it comes to icons of American business, few can compete with Henry Ford. He pioneered the modern day assembly line, paid his workers a living wage, and produced an automobile that was affordable by the middle class. But when it came to catering to his customers, he wasn’t quite as innovative. Ford famously said: “A Ford customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it’s black.”

Ford’s approach of one color for all worked well as long as his company dominated the American automotive industry, but, years later, he had to relent and offer new models and color options as competition increased. In today’s retail marketplace, one of the dominant trends is known as “mass customization,” which is broadly defined as the ability of manufacturers and retailers to offer custom options to virtually every customer, best summed up by the classic Burger King tag line, “Have it your way.”

Mass customization has made its way into specialty retail through an avalanche of fabric options made possible by cut-yardage programs supported by leading fabric brands, furniture makers, and distributors. If a customer doesn’t see exactly what she’s looking for in stock fabric lines, there is a world of additional options that a casual furniture sales professional can order in quantities as small as one yard.

“Our customers don’t want their outdoor spaces to look like everyone else’s; it’s got to be unique and special and not cookie-cutter at all,” says Karen Miller, buyer for Williams Ski & Patio of Highland Park, Illinois. “The range of fabric options and the range of frame designs we have in our showroom really helps us in meeting the customer’s needs for something that’s uniquely their own. Instead of being limited to 50 fabric options, there may be 400 options. You want customers to appreciate all of their choices, but we have to be careful not to overwhelm them with too many options.”

Virtually all of today’s major casual fabric and furniture brands and distributors offer cut-yardage programs to supplement their already expansive stock fabric offerings. We contacted three industry leaders – Bella-Dura, Trivantage (Sunbrella), and Outdura to learn more about cut-yardage programs and how these initiatives are helping specialty retailers better compete with Internet sellers and Big Box stores.

Bella-Dura Achieving Double-Digit Growth in Cut Yardage

Bella-Dura launched its “By the Yard Collection” in 2011 in response to customer and industry demands for readily-available, high-performance textiles in a variety of textures, colors, patterns, and styles. The program has grown by some 20% annually with more than 230 fabrics currently offered. Changes are made to the line every other year with between 50 and 70 SKUs added or changed bi-annually. The collection is highly diverse with 40% in solids or textures, 40% in patterns (broken down into small scale, geometrics, and statement patterns) and the remaining 20% in stripes.

“We select patterns for the collection that we are confident will sell, and we focus on creating a cohesive collection that allows people to easily coordinate patterns, plains, and stripes to design an entire setting,” said Sarah Keelen, lead designer for the collection. “We achieve these goals by analyzing sales of our woven-to-order lines and by asking our top customers what items they would like to see available by the yard. This input gives us an excellent read on what will sell well in the future. 

"From that point, we review the offerings and decide what else is needed to make the collection compelling and balanced. Then we develop new patterns – usually coordinates and statement patterns that are based on trend research and some intuition on what patterns the industry will be drawn to.”  

The Bella-Dura “By the Yard Collection” features offerings as small as one yard that typically ship within 24 hours. Many of the major casual furniture manufacturers participate in the program, including OW Lee, Ratana, Summer Classics, Tropitone, Woodard, and others. It’s these furniture manufacturers that provide specialty retailers with a supply chain link to Bella-Dura’s “By the Yard Collection.”

“We have seen our By the Yard Collection become a nice percentage of our business that continues to grow, with more customers participating,” said Ari Gasner, president of Wearbest Sil-Tex Mills, parent company of the Bella-Dura brand. “It’s a way for our customers to reach more segments of the marketplace without the expense of maintaining fabric inventories. Our By the Yard program especially benefits smaller retailers who don’t necessarily have an in-house design team so we make it easy by offering a fully merchandised collection, ready to go. There is no need to inventory, so they can use their resources in other ways.”

Gasner and other industry observers view mass customization, through programs such as cut yardage, as a strategic response that specialty retailers can deploy to compete against Internet merchants and Big Box stores.

“In order for specialty retailers to be relevant in today’s market, competing against e-commerce and Big Box stores, it’s imperative that they offer their customers a unique buying experience,” he said. “Bella-Dura’s aesthetic and performance for both indoors and outdoors is becoming increasingly well known. With Bella-Dura, retailers have the ability to create a unique experience in their stores that sets them apart.”

Sunbrella Kiosks & Trivantage Distribution Support Custom Options

With the support of Trivantage, the nation’s largest awning, marine, and furniture distributor, the Sunbrella brand of casual fabrics maintains a leadership role in providing fabric options at specialty retail through its distinctive Sunbrella Kiosk cut-yardage program encompassing a distinctive point-of-sale display. The program not only incorporates fabrics in the Sunbrella stock collection, but also fabrics in the Sunbrella Select program, which encompasses fabrics available in limited distribution, including the specialty retail channel.

“Our programs for specialty retailers allow them to offer more than 500 different Sunbrella fabrics,” said Franck Seguin, Decorative Fabrics manager for Trivantage. “The Sunbrella Kiosk program is an exceptional marketing tool for retailers, not only displaying the wide variety of options, but also allowing customers to interact with the fabrics to better appreciate the soft hand and the design aesthetics.”

Sunbrella fabric offerings are based on extensive market intelligence, including interaction with specialty retailers who have insights into their customers’ wants, needs, and desires. The design team at Glen Raven works closely with Trivantage, which is also owned by Glen Raven, to offer fabrics in the Kiosk program that align with the latest in color and design trends.

“Cut yardage is growing steadily each year,” Seguin said. “Our customers appreciate how we can give them the ability to offer a wide array of fabrics without the cost and the logistics that would be required for large fabric inventories. It’s an important point of difference from the Internet and mass merchants. With distribution centers all across the U.S. and in Canada and Mexico, we can typically ship fabrics the same day.”

In addition to the wealth of fabrics offered by the Sunbrella Kiosk program, Trivantage began stocking Sunbrella Throws during 2017. The throws are made with Sunbrella acrylic fibers, which makes them bleach-cleanable, and machine washer and dryer safe. Retailers are encouraged to incorporate the throws into their merchandising schemes in creating total outdoor vignettes.

“The Sunbrella Kiosk program, Sunbrella Select Collection, Sunbrella Throws and point-of-sale collateral pieces represent the marketing and customization tools that we believe specialty retailers need to compete with Internet and mass merchants,” Seguin said. “With the support of the Sunbrella brand and Trivantage distribution teams, specialty retailers can provide their customers with virtually unlimited possibilities in outdoor decorating.”

Outdura swatch books.

Outdura Cut Yardage at 200 SKUs and Growing

As is true for all of the major casual fabric brands, the cut-yardage business at Outdura is growing steadily each year. Furniture manufacturers and their retail customers not only appreciate the great variety of fabric offerings, but they also appreciate the fact that they can have these options without the expense of maintaining large fabric inventories.

“Our customers enjoy being able to have so many different fabrics at their fingertips, but not having to maintain large fabric inventories,” said Gloria Tsocos, Outdura Design manager. “Cut yardage is growing not only with the casual furniture manufacturers and their retail customers, but also with the cushion makers we serve. They may need only a few yards for a pillow, and they know we can provide the fabric on short order.”

With the increasing popularity of cut yardage, Outdura is in the midst of producing a sample book devoted to the program. The design team at Outdura works closely with sales and marketing in determining the fabrics that will be available in cut yardage. You’ll find a mix of solids, jacquards and stripes that can be coordinated with stock offerings for a unique outdoor look. Specialty retailers often select fabrics from multiple fabric brands, including Outdura, Sunbrella, Bella-Dura, Tempotest and others.

“Our cut-yardage program is a significant investment for us in design and development, weaving, inventory, sample books, and staffing needed to ship fabric orders within 24 hours,” Tsocos said. “But this program is essential to our customers because we all know that consumers want to make a personal statement in their home décor, and they have grown accustomed to getting just about any product they want within a day or two.”

Tsocos travels frequently to stay in touch with the retail marketplace and has experienced how fabric options are empowering retailers to not only stand out from the Internet and Big Box stores, but also from other retailers.

“We can provide retailers with so many different options, including cut yardage, to make their stores look different than any other,” she said. “Not only are retail stores different from state to state, but they are different from neighborhood to neighborhood. Retailers know their customers and merchandise the stores using fabrics that will appeal to their specific clientele.”

Tsocos sees the mass customization trend becoming stronger in the future, which will challenge fabric brands to provide effective sales tools while encouraging patio retailers to offer their sales professionals ongoing sales, marketing, and design training.

“Our goal at Outdura is not to just provide a sample book, but to help our customers use these sales tools to interact with their customers so they can appreciate all of the options available and so they can make the sale,” she said.

Fabric sample rings at Leader's Casual Furniture.

Mass Customization – It All Boils Down to One Thing – Choice

Leader’s Casual Furniture in Florida is one of the industry’s largest and most successful companies in the industry with a long track record of innovation and growth. Many factors account for this success, including the ability to offer its customers a world of choices.

“One of our core values has always been to give our customers more choices; in fact, our business model is designed to maximize choice,” said Ashley Newton, Buying and Advertising director for Leader’s. “If a company is only offering four or five choices, that’s really not mass customization. You have to go much beyond that to give consumers more choices so they can create the outdoor space they’re envisioning. It takes an investment and the ability to leverage programs, such as cut yardage, offered by manufacturers and distributors.”

Leader’s typically maintains an inventory of more than 150 fabrics to support its retail sales and its cushion manufacturing business. But, even with this large inventory, Leader’s also finds that cut-yardage programs are an important adjunct resource. The company works with Trivantage and Sunbrella, as well as Bella-Dura and Outdura in tapping into special by-the-yard offerings.

“The cut-yardage programs are a nice addition to the choices we offer, particularly the Sunbrella Kiosk program through Trivantage that allows customers to see and touch the fabric. It makes quite a statement on the retail floor.”

During her 15-year career in the casual industry, Newton has seen continuing improvements in casual fabrics, including durability, design, range of offerings, and special services, such as cut yardage. These advances have translated into growth opportunities for manufacturers and retailers as consumers are increasingly aware of how elegant outdoor spaces can be created and how they can, indeed, have it their way.

“Casual fabrics today are available in a much wider variety of colors, and everything has improved in terms of durability and sustainability,” she said. “Consumers can create outdoor spaces that look better and feel better than ever before, and have an outdoor space as nice as indoors. It’s important that the casual industry continue to speak to the consumer, as Sunbrella has done, to let them know what’s available in outdoor décor. When we speak to the consumer and offer more choices, everyone sells more.”

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