An Incredible Product
By Tom Lassiter
Nothing sells casual furniture like a good story, and resin (plastic) outdoor furniture generates some of the best stories in the business, convincing stories that motivate consumers to invest in outdoor furniture suitable for the long haul.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the $5 injection-molded plastic chairs sold at the supermarket, the pharmacy, and near that roadside hot dog stand.
This plastic furniture – the furniture that creates memorable, credible stories – is high-quality stuff. It’s heavy, laughs at UV rays, and doesn’t care if you leave it in sub-zero temperatures. While being darned near indestructible, much of it is totally recyclable. When you or the grandchildren tire of it, those chairs and sofas and tables can be ground up to become a future park bench or trash bin.
This type of plastic can be fashioned by casual manufacturers to suit any taste. It may be as classically mundane as an Adirondack or Muskoka chair, or reflect the latest design trends. Increasingly, plastic components are paired with other materials to create the fresh “mixed media” looks that are trending these days.
The umbrella term plastic (sometimes called resin or polymer) embraces several different formulations. Much of it is high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which may be either virgin or recycled material, or a blend of the two. The plastic often is extruded in lumber-like dimensions that can be milled, drilled, and worked as teak or other hardwoods.
Also falling under the plastic umbrella is a high-end variation known as marine‑grade polymer, or MGP. MGP typically is produced in sheets, much like plywood, that create more options for furniture designers. Boat builders use MGP to create bulkheads, cabinets, storage bins, and other components within the hulls of sailboats, yachts, and other high‑performance and luxury vessels.
|Vintage Finish Vineyard Deep Seating from Poly-Wood.|
Selling with Stories
If you’re a retailer with plastic furniture experience, this story will have a familiar ring.
Jerry Epperson, a principal in an investment-banking firm in Richmond, Virginia, has a getaway home on Chesapeake Bay. A decade or so ago, he bought some top-quality plastic chairs and placed them near the water. Years passed, nor’easters blew through, but the chairs stayed put.
Fast-forward to a recent hurricane season. As a major storm bore down, rather than move the heavy chairs, a helpful neighbor decided to anchor them. He tied a concrete block to each chair and buried the block deep in the sandy beach.
When the storm passed, the chairs were no longer on the beach. The hurricane had pushed them back a good 50 feet and deposited them in a pond, where they were, once again, anchored by the concrete blocks.
Epperson had the chairs retrieved, hosed them off, and put them back in service – none the worse for wear.
He’s a fan of plastic furniture and, as a financial analyst who follows the furniture industry, he appreciates the resin category’s potential.
“I think there’s a huge market for it,” Epperson says, “but the consumer doesn’t appreciate it for what it is. Most consumers think you’re talking about the same (stuff) that sits out in front of Walmart in the springtime.”
A good story goes a long way toward demonstrating the difference between what a specialty merchant offers and cheap, disposable plastic chairs.
Growing numbers of consumers are getting the message. Plastic/poly/resin furniture once comprised about 2% of sales at Corner Collection on Line, a casual store in Shreveport, Louisiana. Now, says owner Reggie Grieder, plastic furniture generates about 20% of his sales. “It’s just gone crazy,” he says.
Whether sales are driven by Adirondack chairs, dining sets, or cushioned deep seating, high-quality plastic furniture shares many attributes regardless of brand.
The feature that’s most likely to grab today’s overworked, strapped-for-time consumers is this: No maintenance. Homeowners “can just leave it, and it will be fine,” says Sandi Ricke, a manager at Mulhall’s in Omaha, Nebraska, where poly lumber furniture enjoyed “a nice increase” during the 2018 season.
Plastic furniture manufacturers interviewed acknowledge that times are good; they just won’t say how good. “Double-digit growth” is about as specific as any spokesperson will get.
|Bay Breeze Chaise from CR Plastic Products.|
Two leading manufacturers recently made announcements that offer insight into the health of the plastic furniture category. A third established maker of poly furniture came under new ownership just before the fall Casual Market in Chicago. The purchase of Malibu Outdoor Living by an organization previously focused on serving the golf and hospitality industries suggests that the potential of plastic furniture is gaining notice beyond the close-knit world of the casual industry.
Poly-Wood, based in Indiana, is setting up a second manufacturing and distribution facility in North Carolina. The more than $35 million project, at the site of a former Collins & Aikman plant in Roxboro, near the Virginia line, is expected to employ more than 380 people within five years. The site is near I-85, a major north-south artery, and less than an hour from the intersection with I-40, an east-west route.
The 500,000 sq. ft. facility essentially will duplicate Poly-Wood’s operation in Indiana, says Megan Pierson, SVP Business Development. “The $35.3 million speaks volumes about the growth that we’ve seen,” she says. “We have no doubt that it’s going to continue to grow.”
The North Carolina plant eventually will recycle HDPE plastics, such as milk bottles, to manufacture the extruded plastic lumber for Poly-Wood furniture, Pierson says. At that point, the plant will be totally vertically integrated, just as the Indiana plant.
The plant will help Poly-Wood meet its commitment to ship its highest-volume products within three days, she says. The company’s longest lead time to ship orders is a maximum of 10 days.
CR Plastic Products (CRP), Canada’s leading manufacturer of recycled plastic lumber furniture, has broad distribution through casual furniture dealers in the United States. The company will be better able to serve its U.S. customers through a new distribution center slated to open in the first quarter of 2019.
|HIP dining collection from Seaside Casual.|
Coincidentally, the distribution center will be located in North Carolina. The site in Rural Hall, about 30 miles northwest of High Point, provides easy access to I-77 (a north-south route) and I-40.
Meaghan Robinson, CRP Marketing manager, says the “2018 season was really wonderful.” Growth in the category has been tremendous, she notes. The company has a new operations team that seeks to “implement new efficiencies and ways of operating to serve our customers better.”
The new owner of Malibu Outdoor Living is The Prestwick Companies. Prestwick, based in Sussex, Wisconsin, purchased the Rhode Island furniture company in September.
Founded in 1997, Prestwick got its start making golf course markers from recycled plastic, says Becky Mayer, director of Sales and Brand Development for Malibu.
Prestwick developed expertise in using recycled plastic to make other products for the golf industry, such as waste bins and benches. It later branched into products for the hospitality industry, resorts, amusement parks, and zoos, Mayer says.
“We have 20 years of experience” in making products from recycled plastic, she says. “That’s why we thought Malibu was such a good company to acquire.”
Aaron Buesing is the new president of Malibu Outdoor Living. A longtime Prestwick employee, he brings experience in Operations, Production, and Sales to his new post.
“Partnering and listening is our biggest goal for the next 12 months,” he says. “We’ve got a lot to learn. We want to listen to the consumer through our dealer partnerships.”
Prestwick already has rebranded some current Malibu furniture items to market to the hospitality industry as Prestwick Limited products.
|Mayhew Adirondacks from Berlin Gardens.|
Casual furniture manufacturers that established a niche within the polymer category are enjoying the rewards of being early adopters. One such company is Seaside Casual Furniture.
“We’re not alone in the business anymore,” says Andy Boyce, Seaside’s vice president of Sales. “It’s not like it was in the past, just us and Poly-Wood. Everybody’s got some HDPE now.”
Even so, Boyce estimates that the “HDPE business is probably less than 3% of the entire industry. This is a small category, and a lot more exposure at the higher end of the market needs to happen.”
All high-end plastic furniture shares the qualities of durability and low maintenance, so Seaside has staked out Design to differentiate itself from the competition. The company now is looking beyond the harsh coastal environments and vacation home markets, where plastic furniture got an early foothold, to break into new territory. Seaside is targeting city dwellers who value style as much as low maintenance and product longevity.
Boyce cites the new HIP collection “as something you just don’t see out there.” The furniture takes design cues from Mid-Century Modern motifs and reinterprets them for this generation of consumers, especially in urban markets.
The HIP dining table, for instance, features “hairpin” metal legs, a look familiar to Baby Boomers who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. “We’re aiming at that urban area to continue to grow the business,” Boyce says.
|The Manhattan Rise Bar Table and Bar Stool from Wildridge.|
Many makers of plastic furniture have expanded their lines in recent seasons to include deep-seating options. Berlin Gardens is no exception. “It’s been a good year,” says Sam Yoder, president. “We had healthy growth, and huge growth in deep seating.”
Berlin Gardens’ supplier of plastic lumber, Tangent Technologies, introduced new colors as well as a wood-grain finish “that looks very original,” Yoder says. He’s looking forward to 2019 to be another good year.
Dan Schlabach, president of Wildridge, says the deep-seating products introduced at September’s Casual Market Chicago had a “very good response.” So did a bar‑height bistro set with more contemporary lines. “We’ve had nice growth, year-over-year,” he says. “We attribute it to our new products.”
Bev Cooch, Customer Service manager at Breezesta, characterizes 2018 as a good year, although sales were about even with those of 2017. The company is making operational changes “to make manufacturing more lean” and has upgraded its shipping material to better protect against damage during transit.
Breezesta altered its color lineup for 2019, dropping four colors and adding two (sandstone and slate) for a total of 18. No new products were introduced for the coming season.
Most poly furniture is readily identifiable as plastic, but at least one brand has found a way to mimic the look of teak, perhaps the most preferred wood in casual furniture. CabanaCoast introduced its Sol Teak version of MGP in 2018, says Lindsay Liepold, director of U.S. Sales.
Sol Teak is available in two finishes, natural and weathered gray. “It feels like teak; it looks like teak; but it requires no maintenance,” Liepold says. “It’s wonderful for the retail customer who wants teak but doesn’t want to do the maintenance.”
Like teak, Sol Teak is dense and heavy. A sofa in the Kensington collection weighs 144 pounds, yet the furniture floats, Liepold notes.
CabanaCoast, based in Ontario, uses Sol Teak exclusively in some collections and as an accent in others. A late season introduction not seen at Casual Market 2018 is called Deco. Deco’s white aluminum frames have inlaid accents of Sol Teak.
|Durawood deep seating from The Hammock Source.|
The Pawleys Island brand of HDPE furniture, produced by The Hammock Source, was first developed for the company’s retail stores on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The brand was released to the national market about four years ago, says company president Walter Perkins III. Pawleys Island introduced its first deep-seating products in September.
The poly furniture category, Perkins says, “is a crowded space, but it’s growing so fast that it can take some crowding.”
It’s necessary for each brand in the space to develop a story that differentiates it from the pack. For instance, the Pawleys Island brand capitalizes on its use of top-grade hardware and extra steps in finishing.
“We use 316 marine-grade stainless (steel),” he says. “Many use 304. We’re beach people. We understand the difference. We round every corner and edge on our furniture. A lot of the competition does not. We like to say ours is better.”
The growing number of brands fighting for market share has led some brands to alter their channels and strategies. Highwood USA showed its products at Casual Market Chicago a few years ago, but has not returned recently. The brand, which constructs its furniture from a non‑HDPE variety of plastic, no longer pursues specialty retail distribution.
Instead, says Vicki Hofmann, Online Product manager, Highwood sells only through online retailers and its own online store.
Telescope Casual’s experience with the poly category illustrates the importance of avoiding “me-too” products and strategies when entering a new category. Telescope produced its first MGP products about 10 years ago, using “the highest-end plastic” available.
|Kensington dining collection in natural Sol Teak from CabanaCoast.|
Telescope chose MGP, says president Henry Vanderminden IV, because of its unique characteristics. He points out that it’s sourced domestically (as are most plastics that become casual furniture), and that MGP furniture may be recycled at the end of its life.
Sales over the past decade confirm that Telescope’s vision was on the right track. MGP products now account for about 40% of Telescope’s business, Vanderminden says. The material has been broadly integrated into Telescope’s product line as the primary material or as an accent. Two of the three collections introduced at September’s Casual Market were exclusively MGP.
Because MGP comes to Telescope in slabs (sheets) rather than as plastic lumber, the material doesn’t limit furniture designers. “It really gives you a lot of design potential,” Vanderminden says. “You can make straight lines as well as curves and shapes. It’s an incredible product.”