CHICAGO - Resin furniture officials at the International Casual Furniture Market were cautiously upbeat, as specialty shops return to resin but regional mass retailers continue to struggle. Specialty shops - upset by $4.99 resin stack chairs at their local Wal-Mart - abandoned the category for a few years. Now demographics are bringing them back, as older baby boomers trade up to higher-end resin furniture, the manufacturers said.
``Plastic outdoor furniture is on its way back. It's been really hurt by low-end stacking chairs that could break and look dirty,'' said Carel Harmsen, chief executive officer of Grosfillex Inc. ``The consumer has had enough of it and is buying better-quality furniture.''
The problem for molders was how to differentiate a door-buster special from a more-expensive higher-quality chair. New ASTM quality standards for stack chairs raised awareness among buyers for retail stores that not all resin chairs are alike.
``Many buyers will not buy a chair that is not ASTM,'' said Philippe Ubaghs, vice president of sales and marketing at Bemis Manufacturing Co. of Sheboygan Falls, Wis. Additional ASTM standards are being developed for children's chairs and chairs with adjustable backs.
Specialty shop owners were the main audience at the Casual Furniture Market, held Sept. 18-22 at Chicago's Merchandise Mart. Ubaghs said they realize the resin market is simply too big to pass up. Nearly 60 percent of consumers who buy outdoor furniture pick resin, he said.
``So if you are a specialty store, and you say you are not going to be in it and ignore two-thirds of the market, I don't think it's viable,'' he said.
Meanwhile, baby boomers continue to age. Resin chairs with matching cushions and higher, adjustable backs continue to be popular. Kettler International Inc. of Virginia Beach, Va., showed a monoblock Regent chair with a contoured lumbar back support.
While specialty stores are selling resin again, regional mass retailers continue to struggle against national players such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corp. Several have filed for bankruptcy protection, including Caldor Corp., Bradlees Inc. and Jamesway Corp.
``It's what I call the taffy pull, where you've got the big and you've got the small and nothing in the middle,'' said Richard Losciale, vice president of sales and marketing at Euro United Corp. in Oakville, Ontario.
A number of resin players have created different product lines for each market, specialty and mass merchant.
Grosfillex of Robesonia, Pa., took that approach several years ago. Its high-end Boutique furniture goes to specialty shops, while the Grosfillex brand goes to big retailers.
Syroco Inc. of Peabody, Mass., a major supplier of lower-end resin chairs and tables to mass merchants, reaches the specialty market through its venture with Dutch molder Hartman Group BV.
``This gives us a step-up advantage,'' said John Fravel, Syroco president and CEO. Syroco molds some Hartman products at its plant in Syracuse, N.Y., and imports others, he said.
The strategy paid off when Syroco won a 1996 Vendor of the Year Award from H. Fortunoff's of Westbury, N.Y. Casual Living magazine named Fortunoff's as the largest specialty retailer, ranked by sales.
Syroco also created a position, hiring Jett Anderson as senior vice president of marketing and business development. Ander-son, who worked at Rubbermaid Inc.'s Home Products and Specialty Products units for 17 years, will coordinate forecasting and consumer research. That will free up resin-furniture veteran Norbert Lyons, Syroco's senior vice president of sales, to focus on selling. Lyons handles both Syroco and Hartman products.
Two other perennial issues - the weather and prices of polypropylene - also impact resin furniture.
Resin accounts for more than 50 percent of the cost to produce a chair, Grosfillex's Harmsen said. Yet molders have a hard time passing price hikes through. PP prices are fairly stable, although much higher than 1994 when they began to climb. More capacity is scheduled to start next year, but much of the new resin could be consumed by growing PP markets such as automotive and packaging, officials said in Chicago.
Weather this year was not the best.
``I've always been one to say that people put too much emphasis on the weather. But here in the Midwest we had several weekends that were cold and wet and rainy,'' said Barry Kushnir, national sales manager of Lawnware Products Inc. in Morton Grove, Ill.
The formula is simple, said Ubaghs of Bemis: ``When the sun shines you sell more.''