Rugs From Plastic
By Tom Lassiter
A very odd thing happened on the seventh floor at Casual Market Chicago last September.
Rizzy Home, a name new to the casual industry, set up a display of its outdoor rugs. It was spacious and uncluttered, and stood out amid the scores of other vendors without permanent showrooms. The rugs were suspended vertically from those familiar overhead contraptions that let you flip through the rugs as if they were pages in a book.
The designs were fresh, the colors well chosen, and the hand – the feel of those rugs on one’s skin – was spectacular. Many rugs made for outdoor use don’t invite a second touch. Those of us in the outdoor industry have been conditioned to expect an outdoor rug to feel crinkly or crunchy, to have the hand of something akin to a plastic cornhusk. They generally don’t endear themselves to bare feet.
But these Rizzy Home rugs were different. They felt dense and soft and plush, like premium, hand-tufted wool rugs. The rugs were reminiscent of the cashmere sweater display in a fine department store. It was hard to touch just one.
But that’s not the odd part. The odd part is that Rizzy Home wasn’t taking orders. Company executives were monitoring the reactions of those who stopped by to admire, touch, and talk. They noted interest levels and whether visitors represented single-stores, small chains, mainline furniture stores, or other casual industry manufacturers.
Numerous visitors were ready to place orders, wanted to be among the first to present these striking rugs at retail. But Rizzy Home, based in India, wasn’t yet ready to fill orders. The rugs on display were basically prototypes, one-offs of a new product for an unfamiliar market, and Rizzy Home was at Casual Market Chicago simply to gauge the reaction.
The company’s conclusion: Rizzy Home’s entry into outdoor rugs has all the makings of a winner.
Steve Roan is Rizzy Home’s managing director for The Americas. The mission at the Casual Market was to see if the product “made sense.” And it did. Obviously.
“The only mistake I made was viewing that as a test market and not having a bunch of inventory to back it up. People come to that market to buy,” he says. “I was surprised at the number of people that wanted to place orders and have things shipping that fast.”
Rizzy Home took its products to the Las Vegas Market in January, and this time, orders for outdoor rugs were accepted. Roan expects to write more orders for outdoor rugs in April when Rizzy Home will add those products to the wide array of home goods shown in its space at the High Point Market. The company has exhibited its products in High Point since 2010.
“I wasn’t ready to ship in September,” says Roan, a former Karastan executive with more than 30 years in the U.S. floor coverings industry. “That won’t happen again.” Lesson learned.
A Family Business
The company now known as Rizzy Home was founded in 1971 by the father of CEO Rizwan Ansari. The business focused on handmade wool rugs, extending a tradition that went back another generation to Ansari’s grandfather, who bought wool from shepherds, hand-spun the fibers, and sold the yarn to rug weavers.
Ansari took over leadership of the company in 1992 and began expanding the product lines. Within a few years, Rizzy Rugs was the largest importer of New Zealand wool and India’s largest exporter of handmade rugs.
A younger brother, Shamsu Ansari, studied textile design and entered the family business in 2001 by launching a textile division called Home Texco. The company developed bedding, linens, pillows, throws, and other home goods. It became known for incorporating decorative handwork into its products, creating items with lush, detailed textures.
The Ansari family enterprise thrived, creating a strong export market for its products in Europe and Asia.
The Ansari companies launched operations in the United States in 2007, locating as Riztex USA in Calhoun, Georgia. That was on the eve of the Great Recession, but the company hung on as it explored U.S. markets for its home goods and rugs, handmade as well as machine-made. The current business name, Rizzy Home, debuted when the company first showed at the High Point Market three years later.
A quick look around the Internet finds Rizzy Home products for sale at e-commerce sites ranging from Walmart to Amazon to Wayfair and many more. Comforters, pillows, and bedding sell for prices ranging from the cost of a pizza to several hundred dollars. Online rug prices range to more than $1,300. The company has worked its way into multiple channels at multiple price points.
But the success that Rizzy Home enjoyed in selling rugs in Europe and Asia initially eluded the company in the United States. Sales hit a certain level and plateaued, Roan says. The same products that sold well in world markets failed to get deep traction with American tastes.
In 2016, Ansari recruited Larry Hedrick to become vice president of Business Development. Hedrick, who had started his career selling hand-knotted rugs nearly 40 years ago, knew the rug business from all sides. He had sold at retail and had once served as vice president of Sales and Product Development for Karastan, the 90-year-old brand now owned by Mohawk Industries.
Hedrick soon recruited his former Karastan colleague, Roan, to join Rizzy Home, and the two began to plot a fresh course to crack the U.S. rug market. They quickly determined that the company’s rug products were simply off the mark with regards to color and design. American tastes wanted something different from the products made for Europe and Asia, and Hedrick was convinced he could satisfy those cravings.
It was 2017, and all of Rizzy Home’s rugs were made for interior use.
“I have a pretty good eye for something that’s pretty or how to make it prettier,” says Hedrick, who makes his home in Arkansas. “I’m not some highly-qualified CAD designer with a Ph.D. in textile physics, but I know how to make a pretty rug. I love rugs, love color, love texture.
“I’m very up to date on color trends and textures, design colors, price points – things of that nature,” he says. “I know what will sell in the marketplace.”
As Roan and Hedrick began to develop rugs specifically for the U.S. market, and the sales organization to put them in multiple channels, Ansari saw new opportunities for the company’s diverse manufacturing operations in India.
A Green Story
India has the world’s largest population without access to clean drinking water. Not surprisingly, the market for bottled water is huge and growing rapidly. India’s thirst for bottled water outpaces that of any other major global market, according to the research firm Mintel.
This results in mountains of empty plastic water bottles. While the U.S. recycles just 31% of its discarded PET (polyethylene terephthalate) containers, India recycles 65%, according a PET recycling trade group based in New Delhi.
Recycled PET often becomes polyester fiber, which is perfect for making filling for cushions and pillows. With further processing, it can be spun into yarn and become fabric for upholstery, garments, and other textile products.
Ansari had become a recycler of PET some years ago, processing empty water bottles to make polyester yarn that was sold to the Indian garment industry. Hedrick recalls being with Ansari in the polyester yarn plant when the CEO suggested that the same yarn sold to make clothing might be suitable for rugs.
Hedrick replied, “There’s a big push for Green products in the U.S. I think that would be very smart. Let’s try it.”
The Ansari factories are vertically integrated, so all the necessary procedures could be performed in-house, including dyeing and finishing the polyester yarn.
From that point forward, the rug makers did what they know how to do, merely substituting the polyester yarn for wool in making a hand-tufted product sample. In hand tufting, a tuft of yarn is shot by hand with a tufting gun into a background mesh, following a pattern. A fabric backing is then applied.
The last step – unique to the Ansari rug operation – is hand washing. Each rug is then allowed to dry on a factory rooftop under the searing Indian sun. Machines are used to dry the rugs during the monsoon season. Otherwise, the drying is left to Mother Nature.
The experiment in making rugs of fiber gleaned from recycled water bottles surprised everyone.
“It feels like wool, looks like wool, and acts like wool,” Hedrick says. “It’s really crazy how good it came out. The rugs were so soft. People (in the rug business) that I’d known for 30 years thought they were wool.”
The samples looked and felt luxurious enough to be indoor rugs, but the nature of the solution-dyed polyester suggested they were perfect for use in the Outdoor Room.
Hedrick and Roan had no casual industry experience, but a little research indicated that the outdoor living category was healthy and poised for continued growth. Visits to casual furniture stores convinced them that there was little apparent competition on showroom floors. They also checked out Casual Market Chicago in 2017 to size up competing outdoor rugs and Outdoor Room design trends. They came away impressed by the high-end trends in furniture, but were less impressed by what they saw underfoot. They felt their rugs would be better than any others.
They began to see real potential in making luxurious looking, yet affordable, rugs suitable for outdoor use.
Roan recalls going into a casual store in Florida to find a three-piece, deep-seating group priced at $9,500. On the floor was an inexpensive rug, no different from one that might be found at a home improvement store. Roan fetched a poly rug sample from his car to show to the storeowner.
Roan asked, “If you could retail this for $799, for an 8 x 10-ft. underneath this set, would this make sense? The storeowner said ‘Absolutely.’
“I said, ‘Why don’t you?’
“Because it doesn’t exist. Nobody’s doing it.’”
Ansari, Hedrick, and Roan were on a conference call when the CEO made his decision. “Rizwan was in India,” Roan recalls, “and he said, ‘Get me space for the outdoor show.’”
Casual Market 2018 was just months away. It would be a challenge just to create a range of prototype rugs to demonstrate Rizzy Home’s capabilities. The show would be a market test, sort of like a pop-up store, with one notable exception: Nothing was for sale. Yet.
After Casual Market 2018 and before the Las Vegas Market in January, Rizzy Home developed three collections of hand-tufted, hand-washed, polyester rugs for outdoor or indoor use. The rugs come in three sizes: 5 x 7.6-ft.; 7.6 x 9.6-ft.; and 8.6 x 11.6-ft.
Rizzy Home has a minimum-advertised-price policy. Suggested retail for the smallest rug is $299 for rugs in the Villa and Mason Park collections. In the Metro collection, which features more “organic” designs, suggested retail for a 5 x 7.6-ft. rug is $429.
Hedrick, who has a team of 35 sales representatives across the country, makes the case that high-end casual furniture ought to be paired with a rug of comparable quality. Otherwise, he says, it’s the same as wearing a $10 tie with a $1,000 suit. The disparity is apparent.
He notes that retailers can easily raise their sales per square foot by offering rugs of a quality commensurate with that of their top-quality outdoor furniture.
“We’re creating something different that makes (money) for the retailer,” he says. No additional floor space is required to lay down a rug with a sofa or deep-seating chairs. “That $5,000 sofa customer can certainly spend $800 on a rug,” he says.
Rizzy Home, Hedrick says, “reverse-engineered” its rugs to create products to complement today’s durable, high-quality outdoor furniture. The goal is to provide a product with a perceived value that matches that of the furniture. By doing so, he says, retailers should enjoy more profits.
“If we’re not successful helping people make money, we’re out of business,” Hedrick says. “I’m a very strong customer-advocate, because if they don’t make money, we’re out.”
Rizzy Home has no required minimum purchases, which allows retailers to step lightly into its outdoor rug program. The company’s outdoor rugs currently exceed what Hedrick describes as “the industry standard” of 200 hours of UV exposure for colorfastness. Rizzy Home is experimenting with different dyes, with the goal of raising the UV exposure rating to 500 or more hours.
UV testing is carried out on the rooftops of Rizzy Home’s Indian factories.
The Education Angle
If you saw the Rizzy Home display at Casual Market 2018, you may remember some photos of young girls in classrooms. The young women attend a village school that is a project of the Ansari family business.
It’s an outreach that is particularly important to CEO Rizwan Ansari. As the oldest son, he was tapped to join his father in the business before he finished his formal education. The school is specifically for women. Roan explains that educational opportunities for females in India, especially in rural areas, are not on par with those for males.
The school is named in honor of Rizwan and Shamsu Ansari’s mother and has 1,500 residential students, Roan says. “We feed them, we clothe them, we educate them, we house them,” he explains. The school takes young girls just beginning their education and carries them through high school graduation.
The school is an important stop for U.S. employees making their first visit to the Ansari family operations, which are spread across a large swath of northern and northeastern India. “When you see all the people that are affected by the things we do here,” he explains, “it really changes how you look at how you do your job.”
Plans are under way to create a second school in another area. The Ansari family is modest and doesn’t talk up its philanthropy, Roan says. But he thinks it’s important to recognize how dollars spent in North America are helping make a difference in the lives of people living half a world away. Roan, father of adult children ages 29 and 33, thinks that message will resonate with certain shoppers. Younger adults look for socially conscious companies to work for, he says, and they look for socially conscious companies to buy from.
That just might give a person two reasons to feel good when walking barefoot across a Rizzy Home outdoor rug.