Why the casual industry should embrace new players

In a guest column for Casual News Now, Agio President Mike Gaylord weighs in on the Apollo Awards conversation, drills down into patio store representation and offers advice to the industry moving forward.

Let me start off with a disclaimer: This observation is not in any way meant to diminish the excellence and accomplishments of those who are nominated or won the ICFA Apollo Awards, nor the importance of acknowledging all the amazing people in our business. 

I am proud to call many of the nominees among my best customers and very dear friends. 

But seriously folks, what does the ICFA’s Apollo Award say about casual retail? 

Agio’s Mike Gaylord

As the old adage goes, the first step in the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

I was recently reading The ICFA editorial written in response to the Casual News Now article about the Apollo award nominees, and it prompted me to go back and reread the article and the companion piece with quotes from industry leaders.  

I thought Alex Milstein’s article was a great conversation starter and something we need more of in the industry, which is openness and honesty about where we have been and how we move forward.    

The ICFA rebuttal editorial published during Casual Market had many “quotes” —  but I put quotes in quotations because I feel they took hypotheticals and questions posed by Milstein and contextualized them into absolutes and contradictory statements.

It’s no secret to anyone that the list of nominees and winners of the Apollo Awards has been extremely similar year after year.  

The ICFA is correct in their analysis of the last 60 years that the same 5 nominees/finalists were not exactly repeated in subsequent years but, going back over the last 30 years myself, it’s obvious there was a narrow window for a select few to make the cut.

Sure, many of the retailers that dominated the lists in the 90s and 2000s are gone now and were replaced, but the trend of very similar finalists year after year remains the same.  

However, I disagree that the problem is a “lack of successful stores to choose from.”

There are more brick-and-mortar storefronts selling patio furniture than ever before, and the pie keeps getting bigger every year.  

But I do agree that patio specialty retail has been shrinking since the 2008 crash. 

If you need evidence of that just look back to the nominee lists that I referenced earlier from the 90s-2010s. The majority of them are out of business. 

Milstein hypothesized that based on the current ICFA membership of 130 retailers, there were approximately 350 total specialty patio shops  — giving the benefit of the doubt that 1/3 of all patio shops were members. 

The ICFA responded that the number was actually closer to 21,000. With only 130 retailer members, that equates to 0.62% of the patio furniture businesses represented.   

Some in the industry have said the contention that the same people are nominated every year because there are so few good enough to win cheapens the award and damages our industry.

But with only 130 members, or 0.62%, of the retailers represented — and of that, the same 15, or 0.0007%, of the industry are worthy of nominations — what does it say about the industry unity and the organization’s integrity?

The issue, in my opinion, is that many of these new storefronts and business models are not the traditional pure patio specialty and thus not “worthy” of consideration.

In 2009,  the industry celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Awards. During the presentation, there was a slideshow of all the past winners going back to 1959.  

While sitting at the table my father Bob Gaylord turned to me and said, “Mike, almost all the winners of the award in the 60s-and 70s were full-line furniture stores.” 

I could see the gears turning, and once again he was ready to change the industry for the better.  That following Monday we got to work on a new initiative to legitimize the outdoor room as a key room in the American household and put patio back in a place of prominence in the full-line furniture stores.  

I don’t need to tell any of you what a game changer that initiative was.  I don’t need to tell you how much the industry has grown as a result.

Unfortunately, I also don’t need to tell you that the industry establishment has not done its part to embrace all these new members of our patio family.

I think that is a mistake, and I think you would all agree we have something to learn from each other — and rich diversity of options for the consumer is paramount for growth. Whether that be patio specialty, full-line furniture, big box or dot com, there is room for all to succeed and grow.

I like to use golf clubs as a comparison for the way our industry operates. Golf clubs are sold in pro shops at country clubs, but they are also sold at sporting goods stores, wholesale clubs and online. 

I can buy a $59 driver a $199 driver or go get a $499 custom driver — all of those clubs allow me to chase a little white ball around a field for 4 hours.

I believe every consumer buys the club that suits them best based on level of play, socioeconomic status, and passion for the game. 

But if the PGA only included, recognized and awarded pro shops at county clubs for selling drivers the game of golf would not be where it is today.

Our industry has gone through a renaissance with new and innovative retailers joining us both brick-and-mortar and online. Patio furniture has never been more popular than it is today.  

We must embrace the newness and invite all segments of the industry “under the umbrella” of the ICFA to promote collaboration and unity of our unique business.  

This is how we win not just an award, but a robust industry association that elevates the category as a whole.  

Mike Gaylord is president of casual furniture resource Agio. This story first appeared in sister publication Casual News Now.

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