Simple aesthetics lead the way in a marketplace that’s dealing with growing demand.
Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have once quipped, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Seeing that Da Vinci remains one of the world’s greatest artists and inventors, we would do well to respect his thoughts, as they certainly could be used to describe the current state of the deck railing and accessory industries.
With people spending record amounts of time in their home’s outdoor living spaces, homeowners are more aware than ever of the aesthetics of those spaces. So when they go about building new outdoor spaces—and statistics indicate they’re doing so in record numbers—those projects more likely than not include deck railings and accessories. For the LBM dealer, that means more sales, but only if he or she is prepared for the challenges of a volatile market.
Over the past two years, homeowners have spent significantly more time in their homes than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while people are slowly transitioning back to traditional workplace environments as the pandemic de-escalates, homeowners have nevertheless become exceptionally conscious over the last two years of the appearance and personal style of their outdoor living spaces. As a result, they’re addressing the aesthetics of those spaces with higher-end railing and accessory choices, and it’s a trend that’s not likely to change any time soon.
“We believe the demand for outdoor living and related architectural products will continue to gain traction,” says Jennifer Wilde, director of digital marketing and creative services for Feeney. “After spending so much time at home during the past couple of years, consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of their everyday living environments and are looking for ways to make them more functional, attractive and enjoyable.”
Don Douglas, senior product manager, Railing Category, for Fortress Building Products, also expects to see continued growth, both in the new construction and remodeling segments. “Homeowners are continuing to commission beautiful, functional ‘outdoor rooms’ and are looking to their contractor to recommend railing, post caps and lighting accessories to make those living spaces feel complete,” he points out.
Kevin Harris, director of sales and marketing for AGS Stainless, agrees with the predicted growth. “I’ve spoken with a number of decking and railing manufacturers, and as strong as 2021 growth was over 2020 numbers, there is a consensus that 2022 will be an even better year for the industry,” he explains. “Additionally, the research organizations that track the decking and railing industry have solid evidence that home owners are making stronger investments in their outdoor living spaces. They want to be just as comfortable in their outdoor spaces as they are in their indoor spaces. That makes this the perfect time for dealers to add railing fabricated from higher quality, more visibly impactful materials, materials like stainless steel, to their product catalogs.”
Refined, custom options dominate
Leading the growth charge for 2022 are railing and accessory products that enable homeowners to create very personalized spaces while embracing a clean, modern aesthetic. Heading up that trend is the use of colors. No longer are basic black or stark white the only options; more products are being created in bold colors.
“There is a growing trend toward creating seamless indoor-outdoor spaces that harmonize to create a cohesive aesthetic,” explains Feeney’s Wilde. “As such, it’s becoming even more important for dealers to offer building products in a range of colors that complement popular exterior and interior palettes. This gives retail customers more choices when it comes to coordinating their spaces, making it easier to achieve a seamless look.”
In response to homeowners seeking out products that deliver on the afore-mentioned aesthetic shift toward clean lines, manufacturers point out that cable railings systems are significantly growing in popularity. “Cable railing, particularly vertical cable, is an on-trend option that shows no signs of going away,” says Fortress’ Don Douglas. “Its contemporary, clean appearance is a great choice for customers who value high visibility beyond the edge of a deck without sacrificing durability or safety.”
Heather Bowman, director of marketing for Superior Plastic Products/Key-Link Fencing & Railing agrees with Douglas’ assessment of cable railing popularity. “We continue to see growth in our aluminum business, especially cable railing, as homeowners look for minimalist design and sleek, clean lines,” she points out.
Cable railing, however, is not the only option for delivering a minimalist, modern look. Growing in popularity is horizontal bar or rod railing systems. “Horizontal baluster railing (aka rod rail) appears to be the next big thing,” says Roland Pfender, president of Absolute Distribution, Inc. (ADI). “Discriminating consumers are looking for something different and like the aesthetics of the rod rail into aluminum railings or stainless steel.”
AGS Stainless’ Kevin Harris also sees a growing demand for this alternative railing style as an alternative to cable for a variety of reasons. “Although the two infills share the same overall design aesthetic, bar rail offers several advantages over cable railing,” he explains. “For example, while both infills minimize obstruction of the surrounding area, many people feel bar rail is actually a more elegant look. Additionally, bar rail does not require the periodic re-tensioning that’s necessary with cable railing systems.”
Deck accessory manufacturers also point out the growing use of decorative lighting, especially incorporated into railings, decorative panels, or other accessories. With the pandemic-driven increased use of home outdoor spaces, lighting such as stair lights, under rail lighting, accent lights, and post cap lights can be an ideal solution for safely extending that use. “Deck lighting is a growing segment because lighting really enhances both the look and functionality of the deck,” says Bowman.
Product scarcity causes concerns
While segment growth can be a great thing, inability to meet the demand of that growth is a major frustration for deck railing and accessory manufacturers. Because of widely reported disruptions in the availability of raw materials, labor shortages, and trucking/ shipping snafus, keeping enough product flowing to LBM dealers has been challenging to say the least. “Across the board, the railing segment is experiencing challenges due to increased fluctuation of ocean freight, increased port congestion, fewer trucks available to transport product from the ports and increased hard material costs,” says Fortress’ Douglas.
“Like most companies, we’ve experienced scarcity of items such as aluminum ore and ingots needed for extrusions, which has been the primary concern for us when it comes to manufacturing,” adds Feeney’s Wilde. “Supply shortages and delayed deliveries of hardware and components along with staffing shortages experienced by our suppliers and downstream customers have also been challenging.”
Obviously, any inability to deliver product is a major concern for manufacturers, and they’re extremely aware of the strain these shortages can put on both the LBM dealer and contractor.
“Supply shortages are preventing contractors from closing out jobs and getting final payment on their work,” explains AGS Stainless’ Kevin Harris. “If a lot of the contractors projects fall into this category, this can put a financial strain on their business. What’s happening is that their customers are still waiting for product to arrive and be installed. And, until everything is installed, their customers may not be willing to make final payment on the project. So where a remodeler might typically have four to five projects going at one time, today they might be forced to keep 14 jobs active. This could become a real challenge for both the homeowners, and the contractor. if the contractor is not able to manage this challenge to their cashflow and scheduling process, it could result in some business closures, further impacting our already very tight, skilled labor market.”
Fortunately, manufacturers used 2021 as a learning opportunity and took steps to avoid last year’s pitfalls as much as possible. Whether through investing in back-up suppliers, increasing inventory, ramping up manufacturing capacity or maintaining supply pricing, manufacturers feel confident they’re positioned as best as possible to keep up with 2022 demand. “We continue to invest in production efficiencies, increased capacity and meeting the demand of our valued customers,” says Jase DeBoer, senior marketing manager of outdoor living at Deckorators. “We pride ourselves on keeping our vendors up-to-date on any delays that may occur due to the global supply chain shortages.”
AGS Stainless’ Harris also is optimistic about being able to meet demand thanks to manufacturing strategies. “Because of the way we fabricate at AGS, we have largely been insulated from these challenges,” he explains. “As an example, although there are many commonly used materials in the railing industry, we fabricate our railing systems exclusively from one type of stainless steel (marine-grade, 316 stainless). Standardizing all of our railing systems on one type of material allows us to purchase raw materials in very large quantities. This helps to insulate our clients from the large price fluctuations and shortages in raw materials currently afflicting our industry.”
Still, 2022 won’t be without its share of challenges when it comes to product deliverability, and LBM dealers should brace themselves for potential delays. “We worked hard to place orders well in advance—over 12 months in some cases—and are still waiting on products to land for the 2022 season,” says ADI’s Pfender. “With longer lead times, all we can hope for is patience on the part of our customer and the consumer.”
Feeney’s Wilde agrees that patience will be a virtue for the LBM dealer. “We’ve made it a priority to proactively communicate with our clients that delays are possible and price adjustments may be required,” she explains.
“Our focus on transparency and keeping customers informed has allowed us to manage client expectations while minimizing business disruptions. As a result of this approach, we’ve earned a number of new clients throughout the pandemic and strengthened our bond with our existing clients.”
Responsiveness equals success
Because of these supply-side challenges, builders and homeowners alike are relying more than ever on LBM dealers to be solution centers, and deck railing and accessory manufacturers say the successful distributor is one who is prepared to do more than just place an order or close a sale. “Dealers are much more than a channel to sell to customers,” points out Wilde. “They can play a pivotal role in providing customers with a broad range of services before and after the sale—for example, offering advice on selecting the right product for a particular application, installation tips, financing assistance, and so on.”
To that end, LBM distributors’ success strategies need to include placing railing products and deck accessories front and center in as visible a location as possible. “Railing is an after-thought in a lot of cases, even though it shouldn’t be,” says Superior Plastic Products’ Bowman, “and a lot of installers grab what’s available or comes from a big name, even if it’s not the highest quality product or the best choice. So companies that specialize in railing need to work to make sure that builders understand their options.”
Feeney’s Wilde agrees, stressing the importance of product visibility. “LBM dealers can benefit from creating a more prominent online footprint,” she says, “for example, by creating online showrooms, incorporating e-commerce functionality, and elevating their retail location to another level by offering design services with qualified staff who understand design trends and how to create integrated spaces.”
Just as important as product visibility is the actual availability of the product, and while that’s an issue that can be out of a dealer’s hands, they should nevertheless be mindful of what they have in inventory and be ready to sell it. “The channel can stay competitive by stocking product for the entire back-yard package, and with it, railing” recommends Fortress’ Douglas. “If a customer walks onto a yard to purchase decking but can’t complete the backyard job with railing, they will spend their money at the lot down the street. Demand is higher than ever, so having inventory on the shelves is critical. Don’t let customers walk away. Lead times are significantly longer than normal, so forecast as far out as possible and order ahead of peak building season. Preparation is key.”
Obviously, part of that preparation involves setting expectations with the customer and following through with communication throughout the order/ delivery life cycle. “Set realistic expectations regarding product availability and lead times,” Pfender recommends. “Build in a cushion for unexpected circumstances. I do think that’s already happening in most cases.”
“Dealers need to be available for their customers,” says Bowman. “Contractors on the job don’t want to wait more than a few minutes for an answer. The most responsive dealers either have multiple methods available (phone, social media, chat, texting) or very accessible sales representatives to make sure they’re easily reachable if a contractor has a question or problem.”
Even when you factor in potential disruptors such as raw material shortages or shipping slowdowns from the manufacturer to the LBM dealer, it seems a safe bet to say that the world of deck railings and accessories looks to be a profitable one for 2022. But with proper planning and clear communication, LBM dealers can stay ahead of those disruptions and continue to provide profitable options to their customers.