Quality and creativity will provide future rewards for U.S. and Canadian markets.
By Jeff Rasmussen
The impact of the recession on the specialty fabrics industry has been significant, and understanding details in these developments can help businesses survive the turmoil and land on their feet when the economy recovers. This is certainly the case for the awnings market, dominated in the U.S. by small, family-owned operations. They market their awnings locally, usually within a 100-mile radius of their headquarters, and they handle all facets of the value chain—manufacturing, measuring for installation, installation, marketing and selling, and repair and service.
A short history
By the late 1970s, awnings came into fashion, propelling new growth for awning businesses. Awning covers were no longer exclusively laced on; they were screwed, riveted or even glued in place, and the enhanced, finished look found more acceptance in the architectural community. Since then, synthetic fabrics such as acrylics, polyesters and vinyl laminates have been developed, and in the past decade have produced enormous change in this market.
The architectural industry has embraced awnings as an economical means to renovate older buildings and even whole neighborhoods. This interest brought awnings and fashion solidly together, as color and design were used as the major selling features of new awning installations. The commercial awning business boomed as new shopping centers and chain stores specified awnings in their designs. The awning fabricator, once a stereotypical machine operator and pipe bender, has had to learn to deal with architects, contractors, designers and corporate planners. Where traditionally this industry was a unique, craft-oriented trade, the fabricator now has to be comfortable with elements of architecture, electrical signage and construction, as well as welding and design.
Today’s economic fallout
Overall, the awning market is in a slow cycle of decline as companies face a lingering recession and a tight credit market. In general, U.S. home values fell about 18 percent in 2008; consumers are likely to have another one to two years of low housing values. Lack of customer demand has led to deteriorating revenues for numerous U.S. companies, including the construction industry, as many homeowners don’t have the home equity for investing in home improvements, such as installing awnings and canopies. These developments caused a drop in construction spending in the second half of 2008.
The weak economy and uncertainty in the housing market remain key hurdles for remodeling activity according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. The Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) noted that homeowner improvement spending declined at an estimated annual rate of -11.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. The LIRA is expected to continue its decline by about -12 percent into the second and third quarters of 2009. Any remodeling rebound must be accompanied by stability in the housing market, which hopefully will begin to emerge sometime in the fourth quarter of 2009.
For 2008, total fabric consumed by U.S. and Canadian awning and canopy end product manufacturers was down approximately 5 percent from 2007. For 2009, IFAI’s Market Research Services Department is projecting at least another 5 percent decrease. According to the World Bank, the world economy is on track to post its worst performance since the Great Depression. That said, fabric consumption in 2009 could decrease by as much as 8 percent.
Residential awnings. Although the economy has been detrimental, lifestyle changes have had a positive effect on the residential awning and canopy market. More homeowners have been expanding their indoor living areas by investing in outdoor spaces, accompanied by awnings for shade. The awning business in the United States has for years been a predominately custom-manufacturing industry. A decade ago, most awnings and canopies were purchased the way a person buys a custom tailored suit; measurements were made, fabrics were selected from a swatch book, and the customer received a fitted product from a professional “awning tailor.” Today, fabric awnings are generally viewed as home improvements rather than part of the initial dwelling. Over the last ten years, more awnings (especially less expensive awnings) have been mass-produced and sold through large retail chains such as Home Depot, Lowes and Menards.
Commercial awnings. In 2008, nonresidential construction amounted to $712.9 billion, 11.8 percent above the $637.5 billion mark in 2007. This helped to offset a weak residential construction market in 2008, which was down 26.8 percent versus 2007. In total, nonresidential construction shed 53,400 jobs, down 6.7 percent in 2008—the largest loss since 1991. In comparison, residential construction lost 120,400 jobs, down 13.3 percent in 2008. As good as the year-over-year growth figures for the U.S. nonresidential construction sector were in 2008, the prognosis for 2009 is that they will stall, and that overall growth for nonresidential construction will increase by only 1.2 percent
Retractable awnings. Retractable awnings are growing in popularity, achieving about a 30 percent penetration rate within the U.S. residential awning market, which is much higher than the 5 percent penetration rate it enjoys in the U.S. commercial awning market. The most popular retractable awning design is the lateral arm. For more than 10 years, the lateral arm retractable has been helping to expand the residential awning market as lateral arm fabricators have distributed their products through large home improvement retailers.
The growth rate over the past five years has been about 15-20 percent per annum, with the exception of 2008 when it decreased by about 5 percent. Ninety percent of existing awnings in the U.S. deck and patio market are retractable. On the other hand, 80 percent of the awnings in the residential window awning market today are stationary. About 56 percent of today’s existing residential retractable awnings are motorized.
Outlook for 2009
Suppliers and end-product manufacturers will see an overall drop in sales revenue in 2009 due to tight credit conditions and a retrenchment in spending by customers. In fact, in an IFAI survey in November 2008, 41 percent of suppliers and end product manufacturers surveyed reported an unfavorable outlook for sales growth in 2009 compared to 2008; only 35 percent reported a favorable outlook for sales growth in 2009 in comparison to 2008.
In 2009, it is expected that commercial building construction will drop 12 percent in dollars spent. Stores and warehouses will lose their momentum, while long-time juggernauts, office construction and hotel construction, will slow down after a lengthy boom. Institutional buildings will slip 3 percent, in terms of dollars, as the financial crisis affects funding coming from states and local governments.
Prices for fabric will continue to increase. There will be more “green” business as firms seek ways to differentiate themselves from competitors. There is still a strong need to increase consumer awareness of awnings and their benefits, such as saving energy. Growth in the awnings market is very local. Certain areas of the United States are strong while other areas are suffering. Consolidation of companies will increase as weaker firms either go out of business or are acquired by stronger firms. This will lead to fewer players competing for the same, or possibly a decreasing, pool of potential customers who are looking to scale back their expenditures in 2009.
Creativity, placing an emphasis on using quality fabrics for awnings and canopies, and the use of innovative materials and technologies will reward those market players who incorporate such measures into their value proposition to their customers in 2009. If the economic climate begins to improve in the second half of 2009, suppliers, end product manufacturers and customers should begin to gain confidence in the economy, which will help to spur business investment, consumer spending, and real growth for the awning and canopy market in 2010 and beyond.