Casual furnishings execs talk strategies to engage consumers

HIGH POINT — The contest for consumers’ disposable income will continue to be competitive this year, and keeping outdoor furniture top of mind in 2024 requires an expanded focus on product, marketing and messaging, say casual furnishings executives.

Noting that maintaining and growing business will demand innovation at each stage of the buying journey, casual industry leaders are focused on differentiation and strategies that will help them tell their stories, across platforms and to an audience with a continued interest in outdoor spaces.

Multiplatform marketing messages

Capturing the attention of a technology-saturated consumer audience dictates a creative marketing approach, according to several.

Bew White
Bew White

To boost excitement surrounding our outdoor collections, our overarching strategy includes a multifaceted approach to heighten the consumer and buyer experience,” said Bew White, founder and executive chairman, Gabriella White Brands (Summer Classics). “Starting from the conception of our campaigns, lifestyle photography is one of the most important facets, in not only showcasing our products in an aspirational setting to connect with our customer base, but to also show the quality of our products through this content. This content flows into our larger social media and digital campaigns as well as newsletter distributions designed specifically to highlight the new product and offerings.

“From a B2B perspective, we ensure our dealers have these updated marketing assets and resources to effectively promote the new collections and for cohesion across our channels,” he continued. “We work with them to showcase our products so each customer feels that they are experiencing the Summer Classics lifestyle, although they may not at our Gabriella White brand stores; we like to add the personal touches that our customers are familiar with, while welcoming new customers to discover us as well.”

White added that the company prioritizes in-store events and activations to “bring these collections to life,” providing hands-on interaction with the product and insight and expertise from the team. The Gabriella White brand stores reflect the community in which they are located, he said, integrating local partners into the stores and inviting customers and friends to engage in weekly events.

Another new strategy for 2024 revolves around product, according to White. At the Casual Market Atlanta in July, Summer Classics will introduce new products, part of the company’s goal to have new items at all markets and expand offerings at a more frequent rate for enhanced selection.

“A new strategy that we are working on in 2024 is exploration of mixed materials in the creation of products and collection, which is new for us,” White said. “We are excited to present mixed mediums on a single product. We can share that we are introducing pieces that feature a medley of these materials such as teak, brass and rope all combined together.

“Classically our products have not ventured into this territory previously, so we are looking forward to continually reinventing ourselves and offering a new approach for our customers.”

Universal Furniture entered the outdoor category after building a strong retail and designer audience for indoor. For the April High Point Market, Universal is introducing two new collections in the outdoor category, part of the company’s initiative to offer complementary design aesthetics for interior and exterior spaces.

Neil MacKenzie 2019 cropped
Neil MacKenzie

“Consumer engagement for outdoor really starts with our licensing partner, Coastal Living,” said Neil MacKenzie, senior vice president of marketing, Universal Furniture. “Having them as part of our product story really assists us where the journey beginsLonline and on social media.

“We’ve also been able to work with influencers to create content that pulls the end user in to learn more. We are seeing short form video also support this effort.”

Universal’s multiplatform strategy for the Coastal Living line includes showhouses, influencers, print, digital and social content, MacKenzie said. He added that the comprehensive marketing strategy for the line allows Universal to meet consumers wherever they are spending time in brand exploration.

“Outdoor has been an emerging area of our business, and now that we are in-stock on our designs, we can better support our customers including the end consumer,” said MacKenzie. “Coastal Living is a lifestyle brand that automatically connects consumers with bringing the coast home. Through their magazine and social efforts, we are able to extend our brand and products to their readers.”

Fresh product, fast lead times

Henry Vanderminden IV
Henry Vanderminden IV

Henry Vanderminden, president at Telescope Casual Furniture, said that greater importance, focus and budget are being given to outdoor spaces, and he anticipates consumer interest will continue to grow. He added that outdoor designs are becoming more complementary to indoor, supporting floorplans and designs that are cohesive inside and outside.

For 2024, Telescope will introduce new product, but also remain focused on lead times and supporting the company’s dealers.

“For almost three years, retailers and consumers have dealt with price increases, long lead times, delayed shipments and excessive stock,” Vanderminden said. “Long lead times force retailers to take higher stock positions, and the customer has less options to special order and is encouraged to buy from inventory.

“It might not scream excitement, but our No. 1 goal for the spring is fast and reliable lead times for special orders,” he added. “We want to reduce the retailers’ reliance on inventory, allowing them to freely sell our entire line and giving the customer endless options to buy exactly what they want. Reliability and consistency are not exactly synonyms of excitement, but the benefits of stability, lower inventory levels, and high variety of offerings gives retailers the opportunity to do really exciting things.”

Vanderminden said that Telescope Casual is already preparing for July’s Casual Market and is bringing new product to refresh and improve the lineup for retailers.

“We are excited to be offering full new collections at the July market,” he said. “New product development has been light the past few years, and we have had designs in the pipeline we are ready to launch.

“In addition to new collections, we are focusing on cohesion within our offerings. All collections offer the same variety of colorways, allowing dealers and customers to coordinate multiple collections and styles throughout a property,” Vanderminden continued. “We also have expanded color offerings so that people can now coordinate their indoor color palette with their outdoor areas.”

Both seating and dining are doing well in the outdoor category, Vanderminden said. Like many in the outdoor industry, he thinks product variety is important to future success in the category, as is the ongoing exploration of how to use technology to increase demand and efficiency.

“We are seeing ample demand in both seating and dining, The traditional four-person dining table is far less popular than it was in the past, and people are looking for large dining to entertain six, eight and even ten people at a table. Our 120” extension table is one of our most popular items. Less formal conversation sets with deep seating and coffee or fire tables are also popular. More recently we have seen balcony height dining for condo living grow in popularity.”

Technology is in ever-higher demand in new products.

“It seems inevitable, and eventually will be the expectation of the consumer, that technology is integrated into their lifestyle pieces — cars, furniture, appliances, etc.,” said Vanderminden. “That said, how to design and integrate technology for outdoor furniture presents a lot of complications. Currently it’s a bit cost prohibitive compared with indoor (furnishings), but I believe it won’t be long until it becomes more mainstream into design.”

Flexsteel Inds. is planning for new product to take center stage in its outdoor category. Tim Newlin, vice president of strategic business development, said Flexsteel sees the trajectory of outdoor increasing faster than most other categories over the next five years.

Tim Newlin
Tim Newlin

“People remain excited to transform their outdoor spaces,” he said. “The excitement around this category will come from differentiated, comfortable and well-built products and great support materials to promote them. Every collection has a story, and the digital materials will allow our partners to help tell those stories in whatever channels they advertise in.”

Newlin added that outdoor seating is a hot product category for Flexsteel in 2024. The company will produce more fully upholstered outdoor seating this year, as well as line extensions to the initial three collections.

“Seating definitely resonates for a Flexsteel buyer because of our history of comfort and quality, but the dining products have resonated with those looking for something different,” he said. “Our unique materials and sourcing from Poland with a warehouse model to support added a lot of value in the category.”

Focused on ‘new’

Sunset West will add to its product line in 2024 as well. Items including the Grigio highback chair add a seating option that complements numerous existing collections as the company’s take on the classic Adirondack chair.

Wes Stewart, web
Wes Stewart

“Our focus is on new,” said Wes Stewart, president. “We are working on some very exciting new introductions to be unveiled at Casual Market. Expect to see new silhouettes and compelling textures, across multiple lifestyles for next season.”

Agio USA recently entered the hospitality and commercial outdoor segment, and the company will bring new product to both residential and hospitality in 2024, according to Doug Peppler, president.

“There’s really been only one segment that we’ve seen grow or stay robust, and that’s the hospitality and commercial side of the business,” Peppler said. “At Agio, we’ve just launched a new division of our company — Agio Hospitality — to service the hospitality and commercial demand segment. We’re excited to enter this market and are putting a lot of effort into maximizing the potential of that division.”

One of Agio’s recent best sellers was the Cove collection, a seven-piece dining table set with four stationary and two swivel chairs. The collection features Resysta, a material that will be part of numerous new Agio products in 2024 and beyond.

Doug Peppler
Doug Peppler

“Our product development team has done some amazing work with our proprietary Resysta product that resembles molded wood and lends itself to bending and tapering elements,” Peppler said. “It’s something that makes our product collections really stand out, and we’ll continue to do more and more with it moving forward.”

Peppler believes slow housing starts will impact industry growth in 2024, as will lingering effects of the pandemic.

“Retailer purchasing patterns still haven’t fully shaken the effects of the interruption caused by COVID,” he said. “They haven’t returned to a buying cycle that you might expect for our business. Even now, many retailers still have excess inventory, and not all of it good inventory, to sell through. And so, until that works its way through, we’ll continue seeing a somewhat depressed demand for new stocks.”

Despite the challenges, Agio is planning to offer retailers products designed to create excitement on the retail floor at Casual Market.

“We’ll have something for everyone when we introduce our new 2025 collections at the July market in Atlanta including Blake, Florence, Mia and Thurston,” Peppler said. “Blake is a casual classic once again featuring Resysta-wrapped metal. Florence is a traditional wicker with beautiful shaping. Mia is a traditional collection with an open cane weave, and Thurston is a beautiful cast classic collection that retailers will love.”

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