Outdoor furniture selling presents unique challenges, opportunities

By Adelaide Elliott, Special to Casual Living, a supplement of Furniture Today

In a trend that has continued since retail stores reopened following shutdowns in the wake of the coronavirus last March and April, home furnishing stores have reported increased consumer interest and spending across the board. And that trend has left some retailers weighing the pros and cons of adding new categories.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in being involved in several categories,” noted Erik Mueller, president and CEO of Watson’s, a Cincinnati-based chain of retail stores that carries indoor and outdoor furniture, recreational furniture, and pool and spa products. “But, it also makes things more complicated. Each one has its different problems, different schedules. It definitely keeps things interesting.”

According to research from market and consumer data company Statista, just from January to March 2020, online visits to websites selling home decor and furniture products went from 1.56 billion to 1.7 billion. Later in the year, Salesforce found that the online sales of home goods during the holiday season increased by 89%.

Now, in 2021, many industry experts and data services indicate that the market should see continued increases, citing many people’s sustained unwillingness to travel and spend money on activities outside of their home, which will in turn free up money for more spending on home purchases.

For outdoor spaces, COVID-19 has left many consumers considering investments for the first time ever, creating new opportunity for those with outdoor furniture available.

“If you would have told me last March that 2020 would end up being as great as it was for us, I don’t know that I would have believed you,” said Doug Sanicola, owner and president of Outdoor Elegance Patio Design Center in La Verne, Calif. “But it was, and it was for a lot of retailers and manufacturers. … I think that’s the optimistic message you have to move forward with in outdoor, new business or not.”

But, even for those already in the furniture retail business, adding outdoor can be complicated: Buying seasons are different, the manufacturing base is different, and the product, materials and styles are oftentimes very specific to outdoor.

When Amy Arant decided to take the leap into outdoor, she was excited about the product, but not very familiar with the specifications or the market. Arant, an accountant for more than 20 years, had gotten into retailing in 2014 when she took over ownership of Wrapsody in Blue, a Blue Ridge, Ga.-based home accessories and furniture retailer that originally opened in 2005.

“I had been in accounting for 27 years, and my daughter was raised and out of college, and everyone was just telling me I needed to do something different, and I did,” explained Arant. “So, I reinvented myself and immersed myself in the store.”

And, after a few years spent learning the ropes and trading in some of her accounting skills for lessons on gift and furniture markets, customer service and furniture manufacturing, she observed an open “niche” in her second-home-heavy area. While nearby retailers in the area offered some lower price outdoor options, there was no store dedicated to more boutique, quality outdoor living products.

“I wanted to offer the high quality outdoor furniture that was made to last and had longer warranties,” she said.

So, after spending more than three years researching the category and its product, Arant opened Wrapsody Outdoor Living as a separate store in the area in 2019.

For Arant, those three years spent researching the industry has made all the difference.

Starting with a trip to the Atlanta market, Arant said she just started scoping out manufacturers and asking as many questions as she could about their warranties, frames, etc. In addition to learning about materials, constructions and more, speaking with those manufacturers also taught her a lot about which ones she was really interested in doing business with.

“If they took the time to teach me and really answer questions before I started buying, it was a good sign,” she said.

Arant said she was really looking to find manufacturers that were willing to educate her long-term, taking time to meet and educate her staff with in-store rep visits, factory tours and more.

She also used applicable lessons from her home furnishings business when seeking out partners, noting that she already knew it was a priority for her to find a manufacturer that protected pricing online for its brick-and-mortar partners.

Arant also noted that many of the lessons she learned indoors about delivery and pricing was applicable outdoors, too, as well as the knowledge she had on her customer base. Knowing that her region had more cabin decks to fill than poolside lounges, she pulled away from “beachy” looks and colors, opting for items more “woodsy.” Being able to receive customer feedback before getting started outdoors with the indoor business was helpful in

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