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Hearth & Home October 2019

Photo: ©2019 Brandon barre photography.

Not the Greatest

By Tom Lassiter

Patio furniture sales were impacted by the weather (surprise!), a weak loonie, and the U.S. president’s tariffs.

Some casual furniture seasons are memorable because business was so, so good. Other seasons, when sales dip like the mercury in January, casual merchants would rather forget it ever happened.

Canada’s 2019 casual furniture season appears to be neither.

Call it so-so. Call it flat. For most specialty retailers, call it marginally different from 2018, perhaps up a hair or maybe down a tad.

Call it just another year in the uncertain world of retail.

Mark Van Zoost, president of Holland Home Leisure in New Minas, Nova Scotia, spoke for many when he summed up the 2019 season this way: “I would say it was an off season, which started off with a slow spring then never caught up.”

Winter lingered far too long this year in much of Canada, squelching those crucial, early-season patio furniture sales. The cold and wet just couldn’t seem to say good-bye.

“We struggled to get going this year, for sure. It took a long time to get warm,” said Phil Squarie, Jr., owner of Luxe Furniture in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “When it’s cold, people don’t go outside and start cleaning off their decks and patios.”

When summer finally did arrive in Winnipeg, the tables turned. “We had a really good, hot, and dry summer,” Squarie said. “Good for patio furniture.”

Gross sales will probably tally as down a bit from 2018, but Luxe Furniture will fare well anyway. Squarie said he expects net profits to be up, thanks to “doing a better job of pricing.”

Bad weather sometimes seemed to be eyeing the calendar to achieve the most impact, said Sean Batt, whose family owns Crystalview Pool, Spa & Patio in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “A lot of bad weather has been on the weekends,” he said, “when people are shopping for this stuff.”

Casual furniture sales at Crystalview “are definitely down from last year,” Batt said, which smarts, because “we had such an excellent year last year.”

Weather was “a big deal” said Ian Beck, manager of Fresh Home & Garden in Toronto, Ontario. “We had a terrible spring. In May and June the weather was not really great, either.”

A little to the east, in Waterloo, Ontario, business fared better at Sherri’s Living Large. “It was a real slow start, a very wet spring,” said Peter Marshall, who owns the shop with his wife, Sherri. Yet once the season did finally arrive, he said, “It’s been good. We’re up over last year. It’s been a hot summer and (in September) people are still thinking patio.”

A good June and July were welcome after a slow launch to the season in Delta, British Columbia, said Allen Cameron, owner of Sun Gallery Patio Furniture. Sales in August slowed down again; Cameron attributes that to so many people taking a lengthy holiday (U.S. readers, that means vacation) and making the most of summer before school reopened for the fall.

Rolling into September, sales of patio furniture continued. “We’ve got people buying now, because we’ve got great weather,” Cameron said, “and people are taking advantage of the end-of-season sale.” Even so, he said, “We’re down a little bit from last year.”

Brougham Interiors, a full-line store in Vancouver, British Columbia, has a 5,000 sq. ft. casual furniture showroom. The store concentrates on upscale outdoor lines such as Gloster, DEDON, Brown Jordan, Kingsley Bate, Cane-line, and Janus et Cie. Casual sales are up a bit this year, said owner Mark Panther.

“Each trading area has its own dynamics,” he said. “For the most part, things are going well.” Good weather early in the season helped.

Terry Gelowitz.

The year has been surprisingly good for Gould Billiard & Patio in Regina, Saskatchewan, considering that “the economy in our province is kind of in the stinker right now.” That’s the appraisal of Terry Gelowitz, one of the owners who manages the casual furniture side of the business.

The Saskatchewan economy, Gelowitz said, is heavily dependent on natural resources. Prices for “all the things we sell – oil, potash, uranium – are a little below average,” he said. New-home construction is “down immensely.” The impact for his store is that walk-in traffic and patio furniture sales are down, though he didn’t have final numbers at press time.

Special projects, Gelowitz said, more than made up for soft retail furniture sales. Gould Billiard & Patio landed a couple of large condominium jobs, supplying casual furniture for the common areas. “These were high-end, retirement condos,” he said, with budgets to accommodate the high-end casual furniture that his store features.

Gelowitz said Gould Billiard & Patio landed the projects because, “We’re in touch with designers all the time. We know what jobs are available for our types of furniture.”

In the neighboring province of Alberta, Backyard Leisure enjoyed a bounce in casual furniture sales that pushed its numbers ahead of 2018. But Lindsay Foreman, Patio Sales manager, said he expected the season to fall short of 2017.

“It’s all about the weather,” he said. “We started out pretty nice this spring, with some great weather. Temperatures cooled off a bit during the early summer months, and so did sales, before picking up again.”

Backyard Leisure is in Lethbridge, in southern Alberta, not far from the U.S. border and Glacier National Park.

Hudson dining chairs with Hyannis dining table from Kingsley Bate.

Itemized Sales

Fire pit tables continued to be popular with consumers, Foreman said. “We were a little surprised at how many people were interested,” he noted. Backyard Leisure carries OW Lee fire pits.

The store introduced resin furniture by C.R. Plastic Products this year, which satisfied two growing concerns expressed by shoppers: Use of recycled materials and interest in where products are made. C.R. Plastic Products, a Canadian company, makes its furniture from post-consumer and industrial waste plastics, such as milk jugs.

Sales of all-weather wicker furniture (Ebel) were strong, he said, as were sales of Mallin sling and swivel dining sets with room for lots of place settings. “A lot of our best customers are farmers who have lots of kids and grandkids,” Foreman said.

Dining sets also sold well at Gould Billiard & Patio, perhaps because shoppers could pay less for a nice dining set than a full chat group. In September’s closeout sale, he said, a dining set at 50% off was $3,600. The shop’s major brands are Homecrest and Ebel.

“We had a really good year with Home­crest,” he said, noting that the Minnesota-made products held a tariff-free advantage.

CabanaCoast is the main brand at Sun Gallery Patio Furniture. The brand’s new Ibiza Collection, which features moisture-shedding Rain fabric by Sunbrella, garnered attention. “We do a lot of cushion,” Cameron said.

Tofino Deep Seating Collection by C.R. Plastic Products.

Also popular with shoppers this season: Italian-made FIM umbrellas and Flexy shade structures.

Shade products are the main line at Sunguard Awnings and Patio Furniture in Mississauga, Ontario. Patio sales were off a bit this season, said Michel Bernard, an owner. The company carries furniture by Enclover, Cabana­Coast, and Telescope.

“Even wet weather doesn’t stop people from wanting shade products,” Bernard said. “If I were not in the awning business, I’d definitely be crying the blues.”

Metal-framed outdoor furniture with clean, modern looks generated more interest this season at Crystalview Pool & Spa. The shop’s brands include Kingsley Bate, RATANA, Kannoa, Telescope, Seaside Casual, and OW Lee.

Faux teak resin furniture, and aluminum furniture with teak accents (faux or natural) performed well for Luxe Furniture. A 2019 introduction by Ratana “had that look, and we had really good success,” Squarie said. “We’re ordering more.”

Deep seating from C.R. Plastic Products gained in popularity, while interest in top-quality resin Adirondack chairs declined. Squarie attributed that to less expensive, widely available products of lower quality.

Shopper tastes in Toronto are shifting away from woven resin casual furniture to more contemporary looks, said Beck of Fresh Home & Garden. To his dismay, “the gray tones” remain dominant. He describes them as “urban colors, drab garden.”

Zuni Table with Durawood Top by Ratana.

Dollars and Sense

In addition to the weather, Canada’s casual furniture retailers this year were saddled with the continuing weak performance of the Canadian dollar. The disparity in the exchange rate added at least another 25% to the cost of goods imported from the United States. If those products originated in China, U.S. tariffs piled on even more additional costs.

The ongoing tariff spat between the U.S. and China forced Peter Marshall’s hand, he said. “Next year we will not be dealing with any U.S. companies” that import China-made products into the U.S. before shipping them to Canada, he said. “It’s getting out of control and out of reach. Until things smooth out, we’re pretty much sticking with Canadian companies.”

Exceptions may be made, Marshall said, for container purchases that can be directly imported to Canada without passing through U.S. ports and customs.

The move, Marshall said, is one way to put constraints on costs. “You’ve got to look at the bottom line,” he said. At some point, customers will balk “and say it’s out of their price range.”

In Toronto, Beck has noted a general uneasiness, even among the most affluent demographics. “They are not as spendy as they have been in years past,” he said.

Luxe Furniture’s Squarie plans to buy containers from China to avoid paying tariffs, or deal with companies such as OW Lee that manufacture their products in the United States. Such moves are necessary to hold down pricing fluctuations and maintain margins. Cost increases in 2018 were “a big shock,” Squarie said. “We sort of ate too much of it, and it hurt us on the bottom line.”

Luckily, he said, Manitoba’s economy is diversified and fairly stable compared to some other provinces. “We don’t seem to have the ebbs and flows,” he said, “but we’re also a lower-income province.”

Sean Batt.

A second year of exchange rate swings challenged margins at Crystalview Pool & Spa. To control costs, the merchant stocked up on Sundance and Jacuzzi spas (both made in the United States) and limited special orders. Sean Batt observed that more shoppers are taking advantage of financing “to finish off purchases.”

Any sort of uncertainty can dampen retail sales. Elections are scheduled for October, he noted, which typically “will slow things down. People are a little nervous.”

Tariffs haven’t seemed to have much of an affect at Vancouver’s Brougham Interiors “and the brands that we carry,” Panther said. “Canadians have been dealing with them for a long time. They’re part of our world.”

Yet Canadians don’t live in a bubble. Shoppers are in the habit of going online and checking U.S. prices for goods they are interested in, Gelowitz said.

“It causes a huge amount of confusion and doubt in the customers’ minds when they have to add 35% to it, or more,” he said. “You’d be amazed how many people don’t understand that the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar aren’t the same thing.”

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