Maintaining outdoor fabrics
Ensure that your customer is getting the right information on cleaning and maintenance of outdoor fabrics.
Specialty Fabrics Review | July 2009
By Holly O’Dell
Proper care and maintenance are the cornerstones of an outdoor fabric’s lifespan—and the lack of proper care is also one of the first things that brings unhappy customers back with complaints. Unfortunately, this increasingly important information sometimes gets lost in the shuffle as a fabric makes its way through the supply chain from the fabric manufacturer to the end-product fabricator and then to the ultimate customer. What’s more, a cleaning supplier or service specializing in awnings, tents, boat covers and other outdoor fabric products adds another layer to the process, as these companies also need to know a fabric’s warranty and cleaning specs to perform their jobs well. So, how can each level of the supply chain ensure a long life for these outdoor fabrics, and reap the benefits of doing so?
Specialists in the care of outdoor fabric indicate that one of their biggest obstacles is obtaining an outdoor fabric manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning and maintenance. “Most of the manufacturers do have something to say about it, but it’s usually in very fine print,” says Scott Massey, owner of Awning Cleaning Industries in New Haven, Conn. “It’s not handed to the consumer. It’s only flip-flopped amongst the people who make the fabric to the people who manufacture the products with the fabrics. I have to go search for it on their websites or give them a call.”
Research into care instructions is a necessary part of Massey’s business. He says he has a responsibility to his customers, who range from boat owners to awning sellers. “Most of the products that come in here for cleaning are still under warranty,” Massey states. “We have to do our due diligence to make sure that what we do during the cleaning and reprotecting process doesn’t break warranty.”
Some fabric-care companies believe that the information provided by fabric manufacturers could be more specific. “Generally, they say to use very mild soap and water,” says Marianne Iosso, vice president of Iosso® Products, Elk Grove, Ill. “Sometimes they recommend to use a soapy water with bleach solution for mildew. However, bleach doesn’t work well enough on stains, and it’s detrimental to the fabric and color. These solutions won’t take care of mildew stain, leaf stain, tree sap and bird droppings without compromising the fabric in some way.” In fact, many of Iosso’s customers search out the company “when they do try the mild solutions and they don’t work,” Iosso adds.
Still others in the outdoor fabric care industry recognize that most fabric manufacturers regularly provide the appropriate care information, but that it sometimes gets lost by the time it reaches the fabricators or retailers. “Unfortunately, what is too often the case is that the customer starts looking into their textile when it becomes soiled, loses its water repellency or leaks,” says Roger Dyer, senior vice president for 303 Products Inc., Palo Cedro, Calif. “Too seldom is the case where they get paperwork that tells them what they purchased and what will be needed [for maintenance] in the future. They’ll call the fabricator and say, ‘You sold me this new awning for my backyard two years ago and now it’s dirty and leaking. What’s the matter with it?’ They didn’t get the information up front that at some point the material is going to need some routine care, which is basically a thorough cleaning and re-treating with proper products.”
To make the cleaning process easy and available, 303 Products has posted several instructional documents online. “A lot of the information we have on our website for the enthusiast or the trade is obtained from the manufacturers,” says Dyer, who adds that there is a lot of interface between the manufacturer and 303 Products.
Major fabric distributors such as Tri Vantage® in Cleveland, Ohio, are also trying to make that process of sharing information smoother. “We will provide cleaning instructions and warranty information through a variety of means,” says Drew Nelson, product manager, awning products, for Tri Vantage. “We offer it through the catalog, printed brochures and our website. Our customers can readily see this information, and they in turn will pass that along to the end user.”
Despite the challenges he sometimes faces when it comes to obtaining information, Massey acknowledges that fabric suppliers are making more of an effort to get the word out on preferred cleaning methods. “Some manufacturers will go as far as to touch base with me when a new fabric comes out and send me a sample,” Massey notes. “These companies are very open about the fact that it is going to need cleaning at some point.”
“The manufacturers are well aware that the market will be improved all the way around if the information about proper care of outdoor fabrics reaches the consumer,” adds Dyer, “and they are working hard at doing that. They’ve developed videos. They send out discs and pamphlets. They have the information on their websites. There has been a concerted effort to get this information down to the trade and the consumers. And it has had a positive effect, there’s no doubt about it.”
One way in which outdoor fabric manufacturers and fabricators are getting the word out about care is through the formation of partnerships. Although some fabric manufacturers and distributors are reluctant to endorse specific cleaning and maintenance products, others have found that such a relationship enhances customer service. Tri Vantage, for one, offers several lines of cleaning products from various manufacturers. “We found that people would come to us years ago and ask, ‘What do we clean this with?’” Nelson says. “Then over the years we’ve added different products for use in cleaning the different materials we provide. For a fabricator or an awning cleaner, it seems to be a natural fit that we would have these products in tandem with the fabric products we distribute.”
When a manufacturer does recommend a specific cleaning product, communicating that information to the outdoor fabric cleaning company is vital. “Certain fabric manufacturers want you to use a particular product or you will break the warranty,” Massey says. “Being in the cleaning business, I absolutely need that knowledge so as not to put my clients’ products into jeopardy—even if I know that the products we use are in no way detrimental to the fabric. If the warranty says so, then I have to honor that, whether I like it or not.”
For its part, 303 Products manufactures care kits for canvas shops and boat dealerships, who give them away to their customers. “It’s a nice little appreciative offer, the main gist of which, of course, is to get the customers started with products they need to use for proper care of their new purchase,” Dyer says. “Those kits are not a profit item for anyone involved, including us. It’s an investment in improved customer satisfaction that, if it all works out in the end, will increase volume in sales.”
Such relationships also afford an additional profit opportunity for fabricators. “The shops that make awnings, boat covers or seat cushions could be making additional money by diversifying,” Iosso says. “When a customer comes back to them asking what they can use to clean the item they purchased, an informed fabricator would be able to offer advice about keeping that item clean and looking good, encourage them to clean and protect it to make it last a long time, and know how the products work and have them on hand to sell. You can sell one awning every several years, but they will need cleaning products every year or so. This keeps them coming back to you.”
Dyer agrees. “Fabricators sometimes don’t have time in their day-to-day business to address proper care of outdoor fabrics, but those that do end up having fewer complaint calls and generally more satisfied customers.”