Also in this issue...
Long Live The Outdoor Room
| Jennifer Polanz
>> Published Date: 7/26/2012
Let’s be honest. The last five years haven’t been easy on anyone. With the economic downturn, companies closed or downsized, causing more work for existing employees and stress for those in need of a job
In fact, a 2011 survey of stress in America by the American Psychological Association shows 44% of Americans say their stress level has increased over the past five years. Throw in an aging Baby Boomer population that is now pulled between children and aging parents, and you’ve got a seriously stressed out customer base. Imagine the cacophony of daily life—commuting in traffic, shuffling kids to and from activities, constant conversations on cell phones and checking email—there is little respite.
Now, drown out the stress in a quiet backyard oasis with birds chirping in the background, leaves rustling in the wind and soft music piping through an outdoor sound system. Sink deep into comfortable patio furniture and scan the yard for a firepit, maybe a pool or water feature and beautiful landscaping to round it all out.
Let’s talk about how much tranquility is worth.
“It’s Kinda Nice To See”
Matt Baglietto is the outdoor living department manager at Martin Viette Nurseries on Long Island. His customers are typically pretty wealthy, and the furniture and accessories categories have remained strong even in the past couple of years. However, now he’s starting to see even the middle class coming back around.
“The middle class, that medium income, where they weren’t spending that money on outdoor furniture they now are,” he says. “I don’t know why that is, but yeah, they’re spending the money now. It’s kinda nice to see; not sure if it’s a sign the economy is coming back. They’re splurging and making the investment.”
And while that’s definitely a positive, another bonus is the younger generation may be coming around to the category as they invest in their first homes. However, they are a different kind of customer, says Terri Lee Rogers, president of the high-end outdoor furniture manufacturer O.W. Lee.
“The younger generation that is looking for better quality goods tend to be urban city dwellers and may not have much outdoor space,” Terri says. “We have many collections that are designed to a smaller scale for these types of outdoor spaces. We also get the word out about our green manufacturing processes, the sustainability of our furniture and our manufacturing in the U.S.”
The younger generation is also more minimalist, Tom Hebel has noticed. He owns Bucks Country Gardens in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which is seeing a slow increase in furniture sales after bottoming out in 2009.
“(They) often choose clean, contemporary styles and accessorize with very functional items,” Tom adds. “Easy maintenance and hassle-free use are key selling points. They are a very savvy group and focus on durability, safety, family friendly features.
“The younger customer is also more likely to accessorize with bolder colors that may seem too much for Baby Boomers.”
This house, owned by a Martin Viette Nurseries customer on Long Island, shows deep seating, accessories and landscaping to round out the backyard pool oasis.
Sell The Benefits
Outdoor furniture has always been a tricky bag. Too much inventory and you’re sitting on thousands of dollars with no guarantee for a return. Too little inventory and customers have nothing to inspire them to buy.
And then there’s the sticker shock. A customer—who many times has already looked at big box store prices—walks in to see prices in the thousands rather than the hundreds.
Matt back at Martin Viette has two pieces of advice. One, never talk price before benefits. Two, never let ‘em shop alone. The outdoor living department has to be staffed at all times so a trained salesperson can work with the customer to find out his or her preferences and match the person to the right product.
“When I’m selling somebody on outdoor furniture I let them know [the benefits] right from the start. If you tell them the price right away, they get price-shocked, say ‘OK’ and walk away. Talk about the benefits first: what the frame is made out of, how long it’ll last, mold and mildew resistance, how quick they dry, the warranty. I really don’t go near the price until they ask.”
The newer furniture lines out on the market today can last 10 years or longer, even in tough climates like Long Island or in the heart of Pennsylvania. And accessories like firepits help to extend the season.
“Now that fire features have become so popular, the use of the outdoor room can begin in spring and last into fall,” says Terri at O.W. Lee. “Even in the dead of winter, outdoor fire features can create a visual ambience while entertaining indoors.
“Some regions do enjoy outdoor living for a longer period of time; however, retailers should not shy away from creating and displaying all aspects available to furnish and decorate an outdoor room.”
Accessories can include anything from fountains (small or large, depending on the size of the space), lanterns, the aforementioned firepits, coolers and seasonal tableware. Some retailers have been successful with items like high-end grills and outdoor kitchens, as well.
“Treating the outside just like the inside seems to be the trend,” Tom says. “A picnic table on the deck worked a generation ago, but not today.”
It’s Custom, Baby
Another way to get away from excessive amount of inventory is to place special orders—a feature that has become very popular at Martin Viette.
“We still do stock some furniture here, but no matter what we stock they never want it,” Matt says, laughing. His clientele would much rather coordinate the outdoor room furniture to the existing décor of their home—much like they would do inside.
That means much of the furniture from Martin Viette is special ordered. It takes two to three weeks longer, but in the end the customer—who received one-on-one attention during the ordering process—is much happier. And, the retailer didn’t have to stock every option of furniture taking on a ton of risk.
One of Matt’s best-selling manufacturers is called Skyline Design, which specializes in commercial-grade furniture for resorts all across the globe. So customers go on a vacation they loved, spend time in furniture created by Skyline Design, and then want to recreate that entire experience (and emotion) in their backyard.
For Tom at Bucks County, the middle-priced product mix is the sweet spot for in-store display. “Most customers buying the top end want to custom order and that business remains consistent. The low-end product competes directly with e-commerce sites, big boxes, department stores and hardware chains, and that is not our customer or our focus.
“Middle to upper-middle quality, style and price is a good fit for us and the customers we attract. We have focused on attractive price points, simpler design and more useful accessories to stay relevant in this ever-changing market.”
What About The Plants?
In the American Institute of Architects’ 2012 First Quarter Home Design survey, the outdoor feature with the greatest increase in popularity is low-maintenance, low-irrigation landscaping. “Almost two-thirds of respondents indicate that this trend is increasing in popularity, which is roughly the same level of interest seen over the past several years,” according to the report. “Low-irrigation landscaping promotes sustainability, as do other popular property enhancements. Rainwater catchment systems and gray water reuse are reported as popular outdoor features. Green landscaped fencing options (bushes, trees, hedges) are also popular and sustainable ways to maintain privacy with a smaller lot.”
This could translate into a great opportunity for a We Plan, You Plant-type of program, or a full landscaping display situated near the outdoor living department. It’s also a great opportunity to showcase those drought-tolerant ornamental grasses, shrubs and perennials, as well as educate customers about their benefits.
The Next Five Years
The future is promising when it comes to the outdoor room. In fact, Terri of O.W. Lee believes outdoor rooms will continue to be an essential part to planning any home, whether single-family, condo or other. “I think that even high-rise condos will be designed with a common outdoor room concept,” she adds. “I also think that soft goods like better quality outdoor accent pillows, outdoor draperies, screens and wall art will become increasingly popular as these items allow the homeowner to define spaces and color themes.”
Tom agrees the outdoor living trend isn’t going anywhere.
“We expect the trend in outdoor living to continue to move toward functional style with a splash of special accessories,” Tom says. “Making outdoor living spaces more livable every day will be our focus.
“Eating outside or throwing an occasional summertime party isn’t justification enough for creating exceptional outdoor living environments. Our challenge will be communicating that potential to our customers with creative marketing, merchandising and direct customer service. We need to make it easy and the natural thing to do—outside living as an essential element to a full and enjoyable life.” GP
© Copyright 2001 - 2013 Ball Publishing —