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The retractable awning boom

June 1st, 2009 / By: / Awnings & Shades, Feature

Why it still hasn’t happened…and why it could happen any day.

For as long as there have been retractable awnings, there has been speculation on when they’ll really catch on in the United States.

From the point of view of a company like SunSetter® Awnings, Malden, Mass., the answer might be that they already have. Thanks in large part to its internet sales and lower price points, the company has doubled the number of retractables sold in this country within a space of five years. SunSetter’s advertising budget alone, as included in its printed promotional materials, probably exceeds the total sales of most, if not all, retractable awning manufacturers in the U.S.

But that’s a very limited view of the situation. Overall, retractable dealers in the United States achieve only a fraction of the market penetration that their European counterparts have had for decades. That huge sales increase of SunSetter’s? If not for that, U.S. retractable awning sales would show zero growth over the last five years.

That would seem to imply two things: first, that there is a market for the product. Second, that most awning shops are not reaching that market.

It would be a mistake to believe that the U.S. retractable awning market is the same as Europe’s. A few major economic and cultural differences divide the U.S. from its neighbors across the pond.

Energy and education

“In Europe, your energy cost is in the neighborhood of 5 to 5-1/2 times your unit energy costs in the U.S., on a kilowatt-hour basis,” says Kevin Kelly, MFC, IFM, CPP, president of Globe Canvas Products Co.., Yeadon, Pa. “That’s a significant factor when you begin to look at cost benefits for some of these products. It explains why somebody would be jumping through hoops to get them in Europe, where the number of units is 10 times greater than the number of units sold in the U.S.”

Many Europeans experience milder summers than we are used to, and they have learned to deal with heat in a different way.

“Europeans have used awnings for many years,” says Carolyn D’Amato, advertising manager at Tri Vantage LLC, Cleveland, Ohio. “They have just been a natural attachment to most of their shops and their living quarters. Here, on the other hand, we just flick on a switch called air conditioning. We invented something else to cool our houses. I guess Americans are not always terribly practical—but we’re inventive!”

But that’s not the entire reason retractables are less successful here. The other part of the equation is marketing and education. Giglio Awning LLC in Harvey Cedars, N.J., has been a retailer for Sunesta® retractable awnings since 1981, but president Dave Voris still finds that potential customers are unaware of some important benefits of the product.

“The market is poised for significant growth,” he says. “But about 83 percent or so of the consumers have never heard of a retractable awning, so it’s a matter of getting the word out. We’re doing it by referral, one at a time. We tell people, ‘Tell a friend.’”

Manufacturers and suppliers like Durasol and Tri Vantage are trying to spread the word, and are offering tools and training for their retailers. But Kelly says awning shops themselves need to be more proactive in bringing retractables to the public.

“Everyone thinks everybody else is going to build the market for them,” he says. “When Sunbrella and Somfy ran their national promotional campaign in the early 1990s, [which shops] buttressed that with their own promotional programs? Everyone sat back and waited for Sunbrella to send the lead. Every time someone says ‘Where’s the boom?’ I feel like asking, ‘What have you done to make the boom happen?’”

Surrounding the market

Because retractables are not usually manufactured in-house, it is relatively easy to invest in the market. There is no inventory to maintain; there are no upfront costs beyond purchasing showroom samples and traveling to a couple of educational seminars. While some awning shops might shy away from adding new product lines during a recession, manufacturers and the shops that do carry them say there’s no better time.

“If shops aren’t carrying retractables, I would say they are missing a great way to cover their market area,” says Dan Fouratt, market manager, sun control, at Tri Vantage. “By taking on this line of products, they certainly can expand their opportunity for making a sale.”

In fact, all kinds of sun control products can help increase the odds of hitting the right note with a potential customer. Radial retractable awnings, a new product manufactured and marketed by SeaShell Awnings USA Inc., Vista, Calif., were invented in Australia about 10 years ago and came to the United States market in mid-2008. The quarter-round, half-round, 270-degree and full-round retractables can be placed in positions where rectangular retractables wouldn’t fit and a fixed cover would be obstructive.

Director of marketing Charles McEntire says the economy has not affected sales of the structures, because they are in a niche of their own and appeal to early adopters. In fact, SeaShells can be a way for awning shops to better weather the economic storm, because they will have products that will appeal to an even broader group of end users.

“Our provider network is finding that this new product is either replacing a 20 to 30 percent loss of sales that they had the previous year, or it is the 20 or 30 percent growth that they were trying to get and maintain,” he says. “So we’ve had a very positive response in a down economy.”

There are customers, too, who might be better served with exterior vertical screens. These products reduce heat gain in much the same way that awnings do, but they have a high degree of invisibility, making them more appropriate for modern-looking structures, or for homes in communities where covenants restrict awnings.

“Why make it a question of either-or?” Kelly asks. “In the past, the retractable people have had a history of promoting the retractable at the expense of the stationary, and the stationary people have had a history of promoting the stationary at the expense of the retractable. That has, in my opinion, completely messed up the chances for both of them to grow. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to carry both so that you can be able to direct a customer knowledgeably to the solution that works best for their situation. And if you add vertical screens and possibly some interior treatments to your bag of tricks, even better. You are not limited to one style.”

In fact, a single customer may be best served by a combination of several sun control solutions. Most retractable manufacturers carry mini-retractables for windows. Imagine a job in which you install these, a large patio retractable, and one or more stationary awnings, all in coordinating fabric.

“It gives the house a nice clean look,” says Fouratt, “and very stylish, too.”

Kelly says it may pay to diversify your offerings not just in terms of product type, but in terms of price point. Many awning shops target customers with incomes above $125,000. But what are you going to do for the average Joe who has only a couple thousand to spend on a retractable? There’s no point in being snobbish if a more economical product would fit the bill. Don’t worry: None of your customers will forget that you sell Cadillacs just because you offer a Fiesta as well.

The markets and the message

SeaShell’s radial retractables are unusual in terms of their target market. Instead of being made of solution-dyed acrylic, like other high-end retractables, they’re manufactured in a limited number of colors in Dacron®-coated PVC. McEntire says it’s partly because the material stands up extremely well to high-heat and high-wind situations, but also because the company is targeting marketing applications. You could say it’s an evolution of the traditional use of stationary awnings as signage.

“The ability of the material to be custom printed is a very unique feature,” McEntire says. “For example, for the [San Diego] Padres, we’re able to print segmented sections of logos, and even a simulated baseball. We’re getting an incredible response from the commercial side of things.”

Other retractables are aimed at a slightly different customer mix. While they are well suited for businesses and can vastly increase useable outdoor dining space, they are still purchased primarily by affluent families. Voris, whose shop is located in a resort community, says 80 percent of the retractable awnings he sells are installed on secondary homes. In fact, his sales are very strongly seasonal—something he tries hard to remedy by running year-round promotions.

Some customers are starting to gravitate toward retractables because of health concerns. The 55-and-older community may have been warned by their doctors, but it’s the young parents who are the drivers of this trend, Voris says

“They don’t want their babies in the sun when they are eating lunch out on the back deck,” he explains. “I have the 30-something couples coming in saying, ‘Look, I don’t want my kids in the sun because my mom got skin cancer.’ It’s not a closer for the sale by any means, but it’s part of the story you should be telling.”

What is a closer is the idea of more outdoor living space. On one hand, consumers are understandably wary of spending money right now. On the other hand, there’s a good argument to be made that a retractable is a lot cheaper and easier than a brick-and-mortar addition to the house

“Very few of our customers have said that they thought about a room but decided on an awning,” Voris admits. “But once in a while, it will happen. If they were to build, they’d need permits, they’d need electrical, and they would end up spending $25,000. On the other hand, for the price, an awning is an incredible benefit to the consumer.”

And even though our energy costs are relatively low compared to Europe’s, the environmental factors are still important to a lot of people. Retractables can be put up or down at any time to help warm or cool a room.

“I can present material to a homeowner that shows that you can potentially take four to five hundred dollars a year off your peak air-conditioning loads [with a full suite of patio and window awnings],” says Kelly. “Over the course of five to six years, that goes a long way toward making the customer realize that this is not just an out-of-pocket expense. Now you’ve got awning materials with 10-year warranties. And then, for a typical residence, you’re also getting a layer of aesthetic benefit and comfort-of-living benefit on top of it. It’s a persuasive argument.”

“It’s not so much that you can say to the customer, ‘This will pay you back 100 percent,’” says Voris. “It’s more than that. We have hundreds of testimonials saying ‘I can’t believe how much cooler it is inside the house. And we were able to use our outdoor space, and we had a birthday party there. We’ll never forget it.’”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer and former editor based near Athens, Ga.

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