Buyer's Guide: Solex is the trade show for garden furniture suppliers

Matthew Appleby discovers why Solex is such a lucrative show for garden furniture suppliers.

Furniture and barbecue companies have had outstanding years but 2011 looks more uncertain. Price rises and supply issues are probable, while economic uncertainty continues. Nevertheless, garden centres that used up 2009 stock at the start of 2010 and ordered late will not want to be caught out in 2011.

Solex, the Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association (LOFA) show, now in its third year, has found an audience with dedicated buyers from garden centres.

The show was expected to be bigger this year and to introduce several new initiatives. But in the run-up to the event, held at Telford on 5 to 7 July, it was the good season that dominated talk among exhibitors.

Norfolk Leisure Acamp chief operating officer Debbie Waudby said her company was 50 per cent up by the end of June 2010 on 2009 and had new ranges coming in for 2011.

She said under parent company Acamp brand, Norfolk Leisure would launch steel mesh, wicker and resin furniture as well as new parasols and cushion ranges.

"Compared to last year this has been a good year - though last year was dire," said Waudby. "We can usually expect orders to finish at the end of May with garden centres trying to sell what's left, but they carried on ordering."

She said supply problems had hit the industry: "Lots of our products are not from the Far East unlike many others, so we've not had the same problems as everybody else. Estimated deliveries expected in February were coming in July. But the industry has caught up now."

Problems included worker and container shortages in China - and they have yet to be fully resolved.

Acamp sources its main range from Austria and got product early from Indonesia and China, beating the rush.

Waudby predicts for 2011 there is "obviously" going to be price increases, which she estimates at 15-20 per cent industry-wide. Waudy also has concerns about the VAT rate rising to 20 per cent. She says this is "a little bit scary.

"My experience is garden centre customers want suppliers to absorb increases and still make their big margins. It has been difficult to work out prices as the dollar has been falling through the floor."

Waudby praised Solex as a good smaller show where you see everyone. "People want Solex earlier but we would struggle to be ready. The end of July would be better."

She also lauded Glee, in September, as hers is one of the few furniture companies to do both shows. "Solex is important to the industry. I have a lot of support for Glee but for us we're handling them as two different things. Solex 2011 is for launches; Glee is more for more clearance lines and promotions.

For the top 20 garden furniture suppliers, key buyers will pick the ones they want, said Waudby, adding that while those buyers go to your showrooms, Solex offered opportunities to speak to everybody, particularly specialist furniture buyers from big groups.

Smaller centres with buyers for gifts and furniture were more often seen at Glee, where it was more difficult to pick them from the crowd.

In barbecues, BarbeSkew's success with its rotisserie-style products has led to the company selling out this season. BarbeSkew did not plan to exhibit any new products at Solex, however it reported "phenomenal demand" in 2010.

Good weather in March and April, the World Cup in June and using multiple internet sites to sell through, as well as its own website and garden centres, helped bring record sales. A representative said: "It's all from China, so takes a long while for things to come through - up to two and a half months. We quality-check every product."

The World Cup boosted sales, too, as barbecuers left food to cook on the rotisseries while watching football.

Flogas showcased a new range of Marco Pierre White barbecues and grills from its HeavenChef division at Solex this year. The collection is the celebrity chef's first range of barbecues, and includes the portable MarcO-Grill, in addition to gas grills.

Flogas and HeavenChef managing director Henry Cubbon said: "We are delighted to be partnering Marco Pierre White and to be expanding the MarcO range, which is powered by Flogas. Marco's professional experience and personal lifestyle are closely reflected in the features of the range, and we look forward to working together in the future to develop and grow the collection.

"We encourage anyone interested in stocking the range to talk to our experts about the latest barbecuing trends and our exciting product developments."

The MarcO range also includes the Carry-O, a heavy-duty canvas bag specifically tailored to transport the MarcO-Grill and the MarcO-Dock, a foldable table. O-Gas, a disposable canister of propane gas which can be directly and easily inserted into the grill, is also available.

Neptune's Cadiz range of armchairs and dining chairs for outdoors was also due to be on show at Solex. The products are made from Neptune's new all-weather wicker with 10mm-thick glass tabletops.

Cadac planned to show the Braai Maxx, a new barbecue with interchangeable cooking surfaces and heat-controlled dual-hooded burner boxes allowing grilling, frying, baking and oven cooking.

Cadac is a South African company that until now has distributed in the UK via its European head office in Holland, which set up Cadac UK in Sheffield in January 2010 with big ambitions for the future.

General manager Charles Conder joined Cadac late last year, having previously worked for Scotts and Interpet. He said: "Cadac has a unique range of camping and day-trip barbecues, currently only stocked by independent camping/specialist retailers, yet with the increase in the 'staycation' with the economic downturn and current exchange rates, this is an easy way for garden centres to extend the category.

"We are also launching a revolutionary premium patio barbecue called the Braai Maxx, which offers a completely different way of barbecuing, in a category where innovation is quite elusive. We will back this up with a national PR campaign.

"Another of our products, the Leisure Chef, is the nearest equivalent to a gas kettle barbecue, but with interchangeable cooking surfaces that give a wide variety of cooking styles. This has now appeared on The Gadget Show and on GMTV, and is likely to feature on a BBC programme shortly as well.

"We are also launching a mid to premium range of European-designed barbecues called Meridian, with six models and four colour combinations."

Leisuregrow, meanwhile, expected to exhibit its LG-645 600 Series 4 Burner Roaster and the LG-63 600 Series 3 Burner Roaster. And in garden furniture, Barlow Tyrie was planning to show new designs for 2010/11. New designs under the Aura brand name feature aluminium-frame stacking armchairs with seats and backs made from Textilene and teak armrests.

These chairs come with square and rectangular dining tables with aluminium frames and slatted teak tops. The company has also added to the Equinox stainless steel collection a range of rectangular and circular dining tables with high-pressure laminate tables in slate grey.

A new lightweight linear armchair made from teak has also impressed customers, as well as new horizon teak dining tables in 150cm and 180cm models.

Mercer Leisure planned to show its MCA-089-BP Summer Sunrise Set at Solex with a RRP of £1,999. Its MCA-094-WR Spray Set has an RRP of £999 and the MC1637 is the Octagonal Fire Pit Set with an RRP £1,299. All are made from 100 per cent recycled aluminium and they all have a 10-year structural guarantee, stainless steel bolts and fittings.

SOLEX HIGHLIGHTS

Solex (Summer Outdoor Living Exhibition for Furniture & Barbecues) was due to feature 13 first-time exhibitors and an extra 1,000sqm of pavilion space as well as these three initiatives:

1. Virtual Solex - an online 24-7 virtual trade show for buyers to find products from Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association (LOFA) members throughout the year.

2. Made Aware Scheme - this LOFA environmental accreditation scheme was due to launch at Solex 2010. Members were encouraged to sign up to the charter and to understand the environmental and the ethical issues associated with the supply of outdoor furniture and BBQs.

3. Enterprise Arena - a new initiative to encourage and help new companies to establish themselves in the garden & leisure market. LOFA and Telford International Centre will be offering Enterprise Arena space at Solex 2011 to attract creative product ideas and new companies to the exhibition.


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