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From Home Furnishing Business

In the Dining Room, No Jacket Required

By larry Thomas

When it comes to dining at home, every day has become casual Friday.

And it has transformed what was once a niche within the dining room furniture category into the principal driver of business in the category. In fact, when retailers and manufacturers discuss the dining room category these days, it’s essentially all about casual dining. 

“Those huge dining room groups just aren’t as important as they used to be. Those sales are few and far between,” said Bob Colin, senior buyer at Indianapolis-based Kittle’s Furniture. “In a lot of houses today, there’s a great room instead of a dining room. It’s much more casual now.”

And today’s casual dining means more counter-height tables, smaller case pieces, few large china cabinets and an incredibly wide array of finishes, textures and styles that didn’t exist in the days when formal dining ruled the kingdom. 

“The more transparent the finish, the better,” said Jeb Bassett, senior vice president of Bassett Furniture’s wood division. “There’s not a lot of traditional cherry out there — even though it is available.”

Bassett Furniture, in fact, is so committed to casual dining that it has an entire factory in Martinsville, Va., devoted to the category, which it calls Custom Casual Dining. The company recently spent about $2 million to upgrade the facility, and the new equipment allows for faster drying times for the many custom finishes that are the centerpiece of the program.

But even with the upgrades, Jeb Bassett said business has been so brisk that the factory often operates 50 to 55 hours per week to keep up with demand and meet the company’s commitment to having custom-order furniture in the consumer’s home within 30 days of purchase.

“The more casual looks are more popular today than formal dining,” Bassett said. “Whether it’s a larger home or a smaller home, the living environment has all changed. The American consumer is just more casual.”

Research by Impact Consulting Services, parent company of Home Furnishings Business,  bolsters that viewpoint. In a recent survey of consumers who recently purchased dining room furniture, 88% of respondents said they most frequently eat meals in a casual dining area or room, while only 12% said they regularly eat in a formal dining room.

Respondents said they also do a variety of other activities in the dining room or kitchen in addition to eating. The most frequently mentioned activity was simply sitting at the table and talking, which was listed by 28.7% of respondents. Some 17.9% said they watch TV, while 16% said they pay bills and 15.5% said they work on hobbies. 

In addition, 12.3% said they do school work at the table, while 9.7% admitted to doing work brought home from the office.

“The open kitchen is taking on a role similar to that of a multi-purpose room, with a lot of other living activities happening in a space that was traditionally reserved for meal preparation and eating,” said Chris Henning, president of iron furniture producer Wesley Allen, which is enjoying success with metal dining sets featuring round tables that are 36 to 48 inches in diameter.

Not surprisingly, the Impact Consulting research showed that 72.8% of recent purchasers said their furniture was purchased for a casual dining area, and only 27.2% said it was for a formal dining room.

Among those who did buy casual, 45.5% said the purchase included a table, while 42.3% said they bought chairs. Only 3.7% said they bought a buffet or sideboard, and the same percentage said their purchase included a china cabinet.

Among formal dining purchasers, 13% said they purchased a buffet or sideboard, while 5% bought a china cabinet. And interestingly, the majority of those same purchasers said they didn’t eat in the formal dining room very often. Some 26.2% of respondents said they dine there less than four times a year, and another 35.2% said they eat there four to 12 times a year. Only 15.4% said they eat there daily. 

However, 45% of recent casual dining purchasers said the casual dining area in their home was within the kitchen, while another 6.7% said it was a kitchen bar area with stools or chairs. Some 45.4% said it was an area separate from the kitchen, and only 1.9% said their home didn’t have a casual dining area.

Those trends have caused Wesley Allen and many other producers to target at least a portion of their product line to Millennials, and to a lesser extent, Generation X. In many cases, that means the consumer won’t necessarily buy chairs that match the table, said Diana Zaldivar, vice president of sales and merchandising at International Furniture Direct.

“The mix-and-match trend has been around for quite a while, but it’s finally getting into the mainstream,” Zaldivar said. “We’re no longer requiring our dealers to buy a set. And we’ve designed our tables so that you can use almost any of our chairs with them.”

She said these eclectic purchasers are moving the design needle away from traditional and toward contemporary and transitional looks. “People are looking for something that’s not too traditional but not too crazy, either,” she quipped. “It’s not a look that you will get tired of seeing. It’s a nice contrast that you can live with.”

Zaldivar and other executives agreed with Jeb Bassett that there has been a significant shift away from the traditional darker cherry and oak finishes and into lighter gray and white finishes.

“Gray is growing, but not as the same pace as white,” said Zaldivar. “People just can’t seem to get enough of the white finish.”

The same is true at importer Sunny Designs, where its Bourbon County collection, which features a white finish called French Country, is its top-selling dining group.

“We’ve got that group placed coast to coast. It’s retailing everywhere,” said Gil Sturtzel, Sunny Designs’ vice president of merchandising. “When you get something that you can sell everywhere, you know you’ve done it right.”

Sturtzel said one very popular feature is a storage system for larger dining tables that allows expansion leaves to be placed in felt-lined shelves underneath the table top. And many Millennials, meanwhile, are asking for wine storage racks to go along with their dining tables and chairs.

“I think Millennials are drinking more wine than anybody in the history of the planet,” he quipped. “So, we’re adding wine storage to a lot of our groups.”

At Kittle’s, Colin said the retailer’s key vendors include Canadel, which is popular at middle to upper middle price points because of the almost infinite number of custom finish combinations that are available, and Jofran, which he said is a top-selling line at lower price points because of the quality, styling and value it represents.

“Canadel is extremely hot. Our customer loves the ability to custom order it and get it quick,” Colin said. “They’re willing to pay for quality. They’re willing to pay to customize it.” 

However, he said the number-one dining room product currently on Kittle’s floor is Klaussner’s Trisha Yearwood Home line, which he described as being styled well and priced well. “That’s about as formal as we really get,” he said of the Yearwood line. 

He noted that Kittle’s also is having success with the Rachael Ray Home dining room line from Legacy Classic. And while he acknowledged he has not always been a huge fan of licensed collections from celebrities, he said it’s hard to argue with the success of both the Trisha Yearwood and Rachael Ray products.

“Some of the celebrity products do make sense on the dining room side,” he said.

Jofran’s Studio 16

Featuring a warm, wire-brushed distressed finish and metal detailing, this stylish group is suitable for a variety of room settings, especially when paired with the genuine leather Avalon dining chairs shown here. The table and four chairs retails for about $1,099.

Caracole’s Open Invitation

A restrained yet elegant silhouette defines this statement-making rectangular mahogany table. The custom designed finish brings out the mahogany grain and offers a subtle gold fleck, which is suspended in the finish. The legs and table apron are finished in a complementary Espresso Bean finish, and a thin Gold Bullion bead delineates the table’s apron. The table is 98 inches long and can be extended to 142 inches.

Bassett’s Artisan Dining

This bench-made domestic product is crafted from Appalachian hardwoods selected for their distinctive wood grains. The hand-planed live edges and exquisite finish give it an heirloom quality. Rectangular tables that seat eight to 10 are available in 72-inch, 90-inch and 108-inch models. 

International Furniture Direct’s 962

A longtime best-seller, it features a hand-wrought iron base with metal trim and nail heads around the top. The table top features a distressed multi-color finish on solid wood, while the chairs are 100% solid wood and ship fully assembled. Approximate retail for table and 4 chairs is $1,299.

Fine Furniture Design’s Brentwood

The Brentwood Mila dining table, combined with the Mina dining chairs, feature an artful mix of styles, textures, materials and details that appeal to those who are equally comfortable at a world-renowned restaurant or eating takeout at the kitchen table. The table, shown here in a Sherwood Natural finish, has a tulip pedestal base. 

Approximate retail price is $5,500 for a table and four chairs.

Klaussner’s Trisha Yearwood Home

This popular collection includes Trisha’s Table, which features a coffee brown finish with heavy distressing and burnishing to create an uneven, relaxed appearance. It is shown here with the Nashville arm chair and Monticello Display china cabinet, which is a statement piece itself. The 102-inch table and four chairs retail for about $1,399.

Sunny Designs’ Bourbon County

The distinctive ladderback chairs, wire-brushed oak top and French Country finish have helped make this dining group a winner in all regions of the country.  Made of poplar solids, the leaf can be stored in a felt-lined compartment under the table. Approximate retail is $999 for the table and four chairs. 

Wesley Allen’s Tucson

Aimed squarely at Millennials and their dislike for formal dining tables, this is one of several casual dining sets that have become hot sellers. Made of hand-crafted iron, it is suitable for an eat-in kitchen and can double as a place for the kids to finish their homework. 

Universal Furniture’s Synchronicity

The boldness of mid-century, California coastal architecture inspires this casual contemporary group, reflecting the relaxed 1960s culture in Southern California, with strong linear forms, cantilevered and slab elements. The mellow two-tone finish features a medium brown Horizon stain and a creamy Morning Light complement. The table retails for about $1,425.

John Thomas Select 

The snow white finish of this gathering height table, paired with black onyx chairs, is one of more than 2,000 finish combinations available with this domestically produced line. 

LumiSource’s Oregon

The industrial look is in full view with this popular set, which features metal legs and backrests juxtaposed with wood-finished seats and tabletop. It is available in antique metal/espresso wood, Grey metal/brown wood, and vintage white metal/ espresso wood. Table and four chairs retail for about $679, while bench retails at $199.

Standard Furniture’s Cambria

Featuring vintage styling, this best-seller invites you to gather ‘round with friends and family. It has weighty vase turnings and a distressed two-tone black and dark toffee finish. Approximate retail price is $1,649 for the table, two armchairs and six side chairs. 

Vanguard Furniture’s Hoag Lane

From the Thom Filicia Home Collection, this table is made of Manchurian walnut solids and veneers and is available in a variety of finish options, including standard stains, artisan wood stains and premium leaf’s. It includes two 20-inch extensions, allowing the table to expand up to 120 inches for up to eight guests. Suggested retail starts at $4,497. 

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