Sling's Hot

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Despite a proliferation of casual furniture types and styles in the past few years, sling remains king of the outdoors.

"It's definitely the meat and potatoes of our business," says Bill Ryan, owner of Seasonal Pool & Patio in Burlington, Mass. "We also sell some cushion and a fair amount of jarrah, teak and wrought iron."

Consumers appreciate sling furniture for its durability and low maintenance, retailers say. It also looks great poolside for years, providing a comfortable place for friends and family to gather.

Because of its popularity, manufacturers spend considerable effort to keep the category fresh by adding new groupings as well as bringing out new frame colors and fabric styles. A continuing trend blends extruded-aluminum frames with mixed-media accents, such as teak arms or cast-aluminum finials.

Making a splash in the sling category is a new emphasis on alternative tabletops, everything from aluminum to slate to faux stone. It's one trend untouched by mass merchants, and another way specialty retailers can differentiate their product offerings.

A Touch Of Cast

Irvine, Calif.-based Tropitone Furniture Co. is among companies that have found success blending extruded aluminum frames with cast accents in such collections as Trevi, San Miguel and Somerset, says Mike Echolds, Tropitone's president. "We've had a lot of success with that approach," he says.

The combination provides the comfort of sling with the beauty of cast, Echolds adds.

Terra Furniture, City of Industry, Calif., has also found success with its Renaissance Sling collection, modeled after its successful cushion group of the same name. The cast-aluminum group is available in 22 frame finishes and eight fabrics. [A distinctive emblem on the chair back creates an elegance not typically found on sling chairs, says Ken Burrows, Terra's president.]

"It was a natural extension for Terra, the result of a trip to New England retailers," Burrows says of the sling collection. "The first thing out of retailers' mouths was, 'Where's the sling?'"

The sling category is also fairly new for Rogers Gardens stores in Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach, Calif., says Ginger Evans, sales manager and buyer. The store carries higher-end sling with cast-aluminum elements from Terra, Tropitone, AluMont and Mallin. "We're using companies that can mix pieces," says Evans, noting that pieces from different collections can make an interesting statement in the backyard.

Carter Grandle is introducing three new sling chairs for the upcoming season, says Sarasota, Fla.โ€“based Ruth Grandle Carter, who's in sales and marketing at the family-owned company. The Edgewater and Bridgeport collections feature all-cast sides and classic detailing. The third offering, Weston, is a stackable tubular sling chair at an opening pricepoint.

Competition

Dale Campbell of Lloyd/Flanders says tubular-aluminum sling is facing stiff competition from cast aluminum, teak and the nostalgia of wicker. "Cast sling offers the beauty of cast with the comfort of sling," says Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing at the Menomonee, Mich.-based manufacturer. "Tubular still is the main seller, but the landscape is changing rapidly," Campbell says.

Mixed-media furniture and cast sling are represented in the Lloyd/Flanders lineup by such collections as CrossRoads, Barrington and Woodbridge. "Cast elements and complete cast have changed the outlook of sling," Campbell says.

Frames And Fabrics

Earthtone frame finishes have broken the decade-long stranglehold that green frames had on the marketplace. In response to that trend, manufacturers are adding frame finishes and complementary fabrics.

Telescope Casual recently added a brown/black frame called Espresso in March and will introduce a light earthtone called Desert to replace its Sandstone finish, reports Henry Vanderminden IV, president of the Granville, N.Y., manufacturer. It also has a lighter green frame finish (Fern) to complement its hunter green offering. To support these new frame finishes, Telescope is increasing its sling fabrics from 70 to 82, bringing out 30 new fabrics while dropping some others.

"We had tremendous growth through the '90s through 9/11, then we had the year without a show," Vanderminden says of the reduced, then rescheduled Casual Market in 2001. "It changed the buying habits of our customers.

"Now we have to make major changes to address the design trends," Vanderminden says. "To do three finishes in a year is a major endeavor, and adding cast is a bit more aggressive."

The Carter Grandle fabric lineup encompasses 218 fabrics โ€” 74 exclusive to the manufacturer and 96 of those slingable, Carter says. The company also has added a new frame color, cahaba, a deep rich brown hue with an interesting interplay of colors.

Black and earthtone frame colors are top sellers at Seasonal Pool & Patio, Ryan says. But the store also sells a lot of gloss white frames in the Telescope line. In addition to Telescope, the store stocks sling from Winston and Suncoast Aluminum. The sling category accounts for 55 groupings in the showroom and more than 50 percent of furniture sales, Ryan adds.

He also notes that furniture sales are moving beyond a table and four chairs to larger tables and six or eight chairs. "People have bigger families and are entertaining more," he says. "Outdoor dining, outdoor entertaining are becoming a bigger part of our lifestyle."

Another dealer, Pensacola Pools, has also found success with sling styles, which account for 60 percent of furniture sales at its six stores in northwest Florida and southern Alabama, says Debbie Stoddard, a buyer for the company.

"Low maintenance is the No. 1 thing that people are looking for, then style, cost and durability," she says. "Sling fits that category very well." In aluminum, Pensacola Pools carries Homecrest, Telescope, Carter Grandle and Windward Design Group.

Lighter frame colors are common in her market: white, sand and green. "We don't do well with bronzes and blacks," she says. Among fabrics, neutral colors such as sands, beiges and tans are popular, as are striped fabrics. Bold, tropical colors don't work in the market, Stoddard notes.

Stand Out In A Crowd

Rogers Gardens has been bolstering ticket prices by offering tumbled marble tabletops from Ancient Mosaics. "If we sell glass, it's clear," says Evans. "If not, it's tumbled marble." Glass tables retail for between $400$1,000 vs. tickets of $800-$3,000 for marble, she says.

Touches like alternative tabletops and the breadth of product categories help specialty retailers sell against mass merchants.

"People want quality and durability. They don't want the cheap imported furniture from China that comes from Lowe's and Home Depot," says Jeff Black of California Home Spas & Patio, Cerritos, Calif.

California Home, where sling makes up 90 percent of sales, shows 50 sets of furniture in its 10,000square-foot showroom, along with 30 spas and 20 barbecue grills. Black makes it a point to merchandise with a variety of chair heights, alternative tabletops, deep seating pieces and other items like chaise lounges, ottomans and bar stools. Tropitone is the store's top casual furniture brand, but it also carries Brown Jordan.

"I can outfit their entire backyard," Black says. "That's the key to selling premium furniture. People really like to go through the swatch book and make their backyards special."

Pensacola Pools has seen a rising demand for side pieces such as gliders, recliners and ottomans, says Stoddard. Alternative tabletops also are hot, she notes. "People are getting away from glass tops."

Casual furniture manufacturers have also noticed the trend toward alternative tabletops.

"On a recent trip to New York retailers, 50 percent of the tops I saw were cast aluminum, faux stone or some type of stone, from shale to marble," says Campbell of Lloyd/Flanders. Next year, the retailer will have three alternative tops in its line.

Homecrest offers tops in marble, slate, granite and faux stone in various sizes, says Mark Fillhouer, director of sales and marketing for the Wadena, Minn., manufacturer. "Alternative tops are growing, I expect within two years they'll be our No. 1 table option," he says.

Fillhouer also sees a trend toward larger tables. The 54-inch table has surpassed 48 inches as a standard size, and the company sells tables as large as 44-by-96 inches.

Faux-stone tops have been in Telescope's lineup for two years, and aluminum-top tables are a staple item for the manufacturer. Earlier this year, Telescope brought out a cast tabletop with a basketweave center. The company is also looking at a South African slate top table and a molded top.

New Products

After bringing out 15 new products at mid-season, Telescope is concentrating on sling for 2004, introducing three new collections, says Vanderminden. Two are cast-sided and the third is a cast combination. The company derives 85 percent of its sales from sling, Telescope's president notes.

For the 2004 season, Tropitone is bringing out one of the largest new product offerings the company has had in years. The company will introduce more than 100 new items including seven new frame finishes and many new fabrics.

"We want to move beyond product to sell lifestyle," Echolds says. "That's how you get big tickets."

Carter, from Carter Grandle, says the company is "very upbeat about the 2003-2004 season," noting the company has added four collections to its lineup and three to its privatelabel line.

"We have more new dining groups and occasional pieces than we've had in the history of the company," Carter says. "We're relying a lot more on design."

Homecrest is also readying its most ambitious product release in recent memory with the eight-collection Karen Ashley group. Manufactured in China, the collection includes cast sling, cast dining and deep-seating pieces that will include a new fabric swatch book and frame finishes.

"It will be really interesting to see what the market bears in 2004," Fillhouer says. "There are a lot of companies making a lot of changes, and we're one of them."

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