Co-ops take to the great outdoors

As Americans have expanded their living spaces to the outdoors, the hardware co-ops have gone offshore to find better quality patio furniture at reasonable prices to help their members compete with other retailers and get a bigger piece of that pie.

The three major co-ops, as well as Orgill, have all reported increased sales in the outdoor living segment in recent years. Ace Hardware, for example, has averaged 18 percent sales increases annually for the last six to seven years.

“People are spending more time in their backyards and are willing to spend more money in the category,” said Jeff Peifer, outdoor living buyer for Ace. “The industry has grown as a whole, and we’ve taken advantage of that.”

Peifer also attributes Ace’s success to the “Living Accents Patio Program,” which gives its retailers access to exclusive offerings sourced in China and not found in other hardware stores or the big boxes. The company carries a total of 500 skus, or 200 more than it did five years ago, including 25 patio sets stocked in the warehouse that retail from $199 to $2,499.

“We have added three Smith & Hawken collections in the high end to round out our assortment,” Peifer said.

Steve Mahurin, senior vp and chief merchandising officer for True Value, calls outdoor living a “big growth category” for his company, with expanded global sourcing allowing the co-op to offer “Smith & Hawken type product at a True Value price.”

The company has developed a catalog that Mahurin says has a “Frontgate” type look, giving members access to all the products carried in True Value’s warehouses. In fact, he says True Value is carrying a bigger assortment than even the big-box competition, although many of the stores have limited room to display product and need to special order for customers.

“Some stores are bigger in outdoor living than others,” Mahurin said. “Some carry a pretty large assortment of patio furniture, heaters, firepits and other items. Others dabble in it. That’s why the catalog is so important: it shows the breadth of our offering.”

Todd Santee, outdoor living merchandise manager at Do it Best, says his company has also widened its selection in recent seasons — including the addition of four patio sets for 2008 — and the results have been very positive. Based on initial purchases from the October 2007 market in Indianapolis, he expects the co-op to experience a 10 percent to 15 percent sales increase this year.

“We saw an opportunity for our members to get into higher price points,” Santee said. “We are trying to move them into higher profit items and away from the opening price points where they compete with everyone.”

For those co-op members who don’t have the space to display many pieces, Do it Best offers a 52-page catalog with pictures of the entire warehouse program. Although the company prefers that members order upfront, they can use the catalog to special order for their customers throughout the season.

Orgill has tripled its outdoor furniture offering in the last four to five years, as more of its customers are expanding their own outdoor living sections.

“It’s a natural extension to get into patio furniture, as well as pool supplies and even Christmas items,” said Jim Wilson, Orgill’s vp-worldwide sourcing. “We’ve wrapped our arms around the category through worldwide sourcing to make the entire offering more attractive to dealers so they can compete with the big boxes and other retailers in their areas.”

Orgill gives its customers a choice of about 30 sets during the booking period and orders extra of the most popular pieces to fill in reorders and to fill late orders during the season. And while some opening price point items are available, the lineup has been upgraded toward higher-end items, including cast aluminum patio furniture, tile topped table sets, deep seating arrangements and firepits.

“Consumers are looking for continuous gravitation to higher quality,” Wilson said. “I think as customers look for a means of differentiating themselves, they’re getting into more outdoor living areas — and rightfully so.”

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