Finding the right shade and weather protection for a customer may mean assembling the right combination of products.
By Jamie Swedberg
Sometimes it’s relatively easy to figure out the shade solution that will suit a customer’s wants and needs. “There are people who have been getting the exact same awning for years,” says Andy Morse, director of operations at Ohio Awning and Manufacturing Co., a custom awning shop, and Reed Awning Co., a distributor of retractable awnings, in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s the same people with the same old brick houses, and that frame has been up and has been recovered six or seven times in the homeowner’s life there. We do a lot of those, where the awnings are the old style with those old-feeling fabrics.” But not every job is so clear-cut. Just as often, Ohio Awning will be called to work on a newer home where a retractable or a set of solar screens, perhaps operated on a timer, might be just as appropriate.
“It is so dependent upon the person’s situation and lifestyle and environment, what the actual product is,” says Morse. “From our standpoint, we’ve got a big giant toolbox of things, but it’s really ultimately dictated by what they’re trying to achieve and what their environment will allow us to achieve.”
The outdoor life
As much as the SunSetter® ads have helped the awning industry, they have also caused some customers to gravitate toward retractable awnings when they might be better served with another solution. It’s the old adage: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you know about is retractables, every shade problem looks like it might be best solved with that type of structure. But in reality, retractable awnings are mainly about sun control, blocking light and UV rays from both indoor and outdoor living spaces. Like the sun, they move and their angles change.
Jackie Beals, sales consultant at Custom Awning Inc., Osceola, Ind., says that often when customers come in looking for a retractable, what they actually want is to sit outside when it’s rainy or windy or to leave their furniture outside and have it stay clean and dry. They may end up with a stationary canopy with a fixed frame instead.
“When people talk about awnings, so much of it is focused on retractable awnings and shade,” says Jerry Makos, president and owner of Lehrman & Lehrman, Allentown, Pa. “We never talk about the rain. People will say, ‘I want to sit out in the rain and read, so I want a retractable.’ But you don’t really want a retractable if rain is your issue, you know? So the question really often is what is it you want to accomplish?”
Morse says sometimes it can be difficult to mount a retractable on a house with few flat exterior surfaces. “There are plenty of old buildings with bay windows and turns and whatnot, where building in something custom that follows a nonlinear or straight mounting surface allows you to create something that will be able to succeed, where with a plain retractable awning, you need that flat mounting surface, otherwise things go a little bit wonky.”
Drop curtains represent an extremely useful shade solution that is little known to most customers, according to Makos. “A lot of times people will call, and the problem they’re describing is exactly a drop curtain, but they don’t know that’s what it is they want,” he says. “They just know they want something that will go up or down. They want to block the sun but they only want to do it part of the day. Otherwise they want to be able to see out. What they’re really describing is a drop curtain, and having several here for them to look at certainly helps in terms of selling them, so they can see what they’re getting.”
The sun doesn’t always come from above. Especially in houses with western exposures, there are times of day when the angle of the sun is too low for a traditional or retractable awning to handle.
“People want to block the sun because it’s glaring on their television,” says Morse. “Or they can’t see into the sink when they’re washing dishes at dinnertime because the sun’s shining in. Or it’s fading their furniture or, for example, it’s melting the chocolate in the front window of their chocolate shop.”
Makos says customers will often request a valance or an awning because they want to block the setting sun. They don’t realize that to be effective, those structures would have to cover the entire window.
“I’ll often tell people to get newspapers and tape it up and see where it is when they’re sitting that’s the best blockage for the sun, because what they want often isn’t going to accomplish what they want,” he says. “We do a lot of drop curtains for these people. And we do them quite a bit for privacy.”
Some customers are cognizant of the energy savings shade structures can provide, says Morse. For others, he says, “You can lead them down that path, and you kind of see the light bulb go on. It usually becomes the arguing point for one spouse to the other who says, ‘Well, honey, this will help pay for it.’”
Which solution is best for energy savings? Usually an awning is the way to go because it keeps the heat of the sun from ever touching the window, but drop screens can also work.
“Ultimately, it comes down to what they want to achieve both physically as well as visually and aesthetically,” Morse says. “Some people like the look of that arm. Some people like the clean look of a drop screen where it’s not in the way. It kind of depends on the location too. If you’re putting it on a deck where you’re getting a bunch of traffic, having a drop-arm there is just going to get in the way and make things inaccessible. A drop screen is flush against the wall and it achieves the same thing without the space requirement.”
Sometimes a combination of solutions achieves the best overall result. “Many times we’ll combine either mechanical exterior shades or conventional drop-curtain systems with awnings,” says Beals. “The awnings will protect them overhead. Let’s say you’ve got a western [exposure]. In the early part of the day the awning would protect you. In the latter part of the day, you would want the mechanical drop shades because as the sun drops in the sky, depending on what period of the summer season you’re in, you may need some entirely vertical protection.”
Combining shade structures can also help with architectural challenges, says Morse. “Sometimes it’s a split solution, where this half of the deck is going to be a fixed awning or traditional canopy, and this part’s going to be the retractable so it has the ability to go in and out,” he says. “Or we’ve done [jobs] where partially it’s all fixed, and then it’s retractable off the front side of it. The framework is just built to be able to support holding a retractable awning on the front of it. Or you might do a fixed canopy and then a couple of retractable screens or drop-arms.”
Knowledge is power
The best solution to a customer’s needs is not always what the customer thinks it is. But how can you change their line of thinking when they may have some preconceived notions? Makos says that it helps to shift the conversation from what structure they want to what they want to accomplish. Help them to think about the application, not the thing they saw on TV or on their neighbor’s deck.
In some cases, computer mockups help—although they take a long time and don’t always lead to a sale, Makos says. Beyond that, it helps if the customers can see all the different shade structures in the showroom.
“My marketing is geared to get people in here, because I have samples of so many things I can show them,” he says. “A lot of the drop curtains we do are a woven fabric, and there’s different openness to the weave, so they can see when I put it down, looking through it, what kind of view they’re going to get, what kind of light’s going to come in.”
Beals also has a variety of shade solutions on display in the showroom. She says if she can get customers to come in, it’s always helpful because people like to see, feel and touch. But before she ever gets to that point, she says, she tries to understand what their preconceived ideas might be, what their actual needs are and what limitations will apply.
“I try to prequalify people,” she says. “On my initial appointment, I try to find out what kind of problems they’re having, if they have seen anything that they thought might help and what their budget is.” That gives her an idea of what she’s working with, and then it’s just a matter of finding the best shade solution for the situation.