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In Depth: Deck Railings & Accessories

At our core, we as a species—when we allow ourselves—understand the importance of the outdoor world. Take for example the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Or perhaps the words of the great naturalist, John Muir, who suggested, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”

These thoughts could just as easily be describing the growing importance of outdoor living.

As evidenced by biophilic design, a concept used within the building industry
that stresses connectivity to the natural environment, homeowners are increasingly seeking outdoor living spaces that go beyond plain decks and instead embrace the elevated aesthetics imparted by today’s deck railings and deck accessories. The question for LBM dealers, however, is how sales of deck railings and accessories will shake out in the midst of economic uncertainties.

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With continued worries about high interest rates and continued inflation, it would be natural for deck railing and accessory manufacturers to feel cautious about the coming year. Instead, however, they seem to share a feeling of cautious optimism. “Despite inflation and interest rate concerns, we anticipate steady growth in the deck railing and accessory segment in 2024,” says Katrina Ralston, president of Feeney. “Homeowners continue to be eager to turn their backyards into personal retreats. That desire for customized, stylish outdoor spaces seems to be weathering the economic uncertainties quite well. We believe this enduring trend will continue to drive demand.”

Don Douglas, senior product manager for Fortress Building Products, agrees with Ralston’s sentiment. “We expect the railing category to remain strong through 2024,” he predicts. “With interest rates still high, we believe that homeowners will use their equity to further invest in their useable living space by expanding outdoors. Railing is a perfect and necessary addition to any outdoor home improvement project.”

One factor that plays into a positive growth outlook is that deck railings and accessories are not wholly tied to new construction; the R&R segment also helps drive growth. As Michelle Hendricks, category marketing manager for Deckorators, points out, “Homeowners keep demand for outdoor living products strong in several ways: when they’re buying and building new houses, they improve their outdoor environments to suit their tastes, and when they decide to stay in their homes, they remodel outdated decks, railings and other exterior items for long-term enjoyment and aesthetic value.”

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And based on what manufacturers report seeing in the field, indicators seem strong for outdoor living and deck demand this year at the dealer and installer level of the channel. “While the average homeowner may not be as inclined to make a move into a new home with the market uncertainty, it is highly likely that those who stay in their existing homes will do upgrades or renovations,” says Matthew Bruce, vice president of sales for MoistureShield/Barrette Outdoor Living. “Outdoor living is still one of the largest areas that consumers are spending their dollars. We like our positioning in the space and feel that the segment will still see growth over the next several years.”

Low maintenance, high aesthetics
One of the main driving factors when it comes to purchase decisions for deck railings and accessories is low maintenance. While certainly not a new trend, it’s one that continues to increase in importance, and LBM dealers should be prepared to offer products that deliver on that promise.

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“LBM dealers should anticipate growth in low-maintenance rail systems for their outdoor living division,” says Luke Guittar, vice president of sales and marketing at Absolute Distribution Inc. (ADI). “Metal railing products with both horizontal and vertical infill options offer the consumer affordable solutions that are both attractive and long-lasting.”

Hand in hand with low maintenance are railing products that create a more modern aesthetic. “Cable railing has consistently gained popularity in the last five years,” says Guittar. “With unparalleled views and modern design aesthetics, consumers are now, more than ever, creating their perfect back yard oasis.”

Fortress Building Products’ Douglas also sees the growth potential in railing products that embrace a modern aesthetic. “Horizontal railing continues to be a big trend item,” he explains. “As more homeowners try to take on projects themselves, products like Fe26 Axis horizontal steel railing from Fortress Building Products deliver both the modern aesthetic they are looking for combined with a straight-forward installation process. Plus, the horizontal orientation of the panels creates the illusion of a larger outdoor space, visually expanding the width of a deck or patio.”

A variation on the modern aesthetic that is gaining traction, manufacturers report, is the use of mixed materials. “There’s a growing interest in using mixed materials that combine durability and aesthetic appeal, like pairing traditional wood with modern aluminum,” Feeney’s Ralston points out. “Bold and vibrant colors are also making their way into designs, allowing for personalization that speaks to individual style.”

Kevin Mynaugh, product manager for Key-link, also reports seeing customers using mixed materials, like vinyl and aluminum combinations. “And horizontal infill is everywhere,” he says. “Cable, rod rail, fence panels—everything is going horizontal! Keylink has done horizontal cable for years and our system is consistently praised for its look and easy installation, so we’re already on that trend. And we’re releasing a rod rail infill for those who want a baluster-style horizontal system.”

Everything all at once
Homeowners don’t simply want a deck built; rather, they have become design savvy and are looking for the creation of outdoor spaces that incorporate a variety of elements such as railings, lighting, and outdoor cooking areas. These desires create unique challenges for builders, and if an LBM dealer can offer easy-to-implement solutions, they can quickly become a go-to resource.

“Now more than ever, builders are being challenged to stay competitive,” says Fortress Building Products’ Douglas. “But increased labor and material costs can make staying competitive difficult. To help builders overcome this challenge, Fortress Building Products offers a wide range of competitively priced steel and aluminum railing systems that are quick and easy to install. Using a pre-assembled means that builders who may not be familiar or comfortable with the deck railing installation process can install the product with relative ease, which saves valuable time and money. In turn, they can move on to their next job more quickly.”

Says Feeney’s Ralston, “In 2024, builders face the challenge of meeting consumer demand for products that combine style, durability and ease of installation—the triple crown of deck railing requirements. Our DesignRail and CableRail systems are crafted to meet these needs head-on. They offer a blend of aesthetic appeal and longevity, with the added benefit of straightforward installation. This approach not only addresses the immediate challenges builders face but also elevates the standard of what deck railings can offer, making projects smoother and more satisfying.”

To help offset these design challenges, deck railing and accessory manufacturers recommend LBM dealers work with suppliers who can deliver all the needed elements so that the build can be as quick and efficient as possible.

“Homeowners have gotten so savvy with how they want their backyard spaces to function,” Deckorator’s Hendricks responds. “They want a full 365 experience, with all kinds of elements for different seasons and purposes. That means projects can take longer and require more coordination with ancillary contractors. We help minimize the impacts of those challenges by saving our contractors time and labor on the job. For example, Deckorators Voyage Decking and Picture Frame Board lines now offer step treads and, what would typically to take an entire day’s worth of labor can now be completed in about an hour—without sacrificing durability and style.”

The wholesaler and dealer have a responsibility to educate the builder about the latest design trends and what’s available to them, says ADI’s Guittar. “At Absolute Distribution Inc. (ADI), we offer The ADI Advantage. ADI specializes in working closely with both the dealer and the builder to provide education on deck railings and accessories relevant to their specific markets. Lately, outdoor lighting has increased in popularity. As a result, ADI has introduced our DekPro EFFEX low-voltage LED lighting system to meet this demand. Builders now have an attractive exterior lighting option to match many deck rail systems on the market today.”

Inspire, then educate
One of the traps LBM dealers can fall into when it comes to deck railings and accessories is to view themselves simply as a selling center. For the greatest wins, manufacturers stress the importance of being an inspiration center. “For LBM dealers looking to enhance their service and become indispensable resources to their customers, embracing a holistic approach is key, says Feeney’s Ralston. “Think of your showroom as more than a store—it’s a source of inspiration and knowledge. Cultivating an engaging online presence, alongside a showroom that tells a story, can transform visits into experiences. Equip your team with the know-how to guide customers, turning every project discussion into a brainstorming session of possibilities. It’s about creating a space where customers come for the nails but stay for the narrative.”

Deckorators’ Hendricks agrees, pointing out that it can be difficult for customers to visualize decking products and accessories without context. “Showroom displays help address that challenge. By showcasing different decking materials, colors, and textures as they might be seen in the outdoor living space, where customers have the chance to see and feel the products firsthand, and can ultimately make more informed decisions.”

She emphasizes the importance of product knowledge training as well. “Dealers should ensure that staff are well-trained and knowledgeable about different decking materials, including wood, traditional composite, mineral-based composite, and other alternatives,” she says. “They should understand the pros and cons of each material, as well as their specific applications and maintenance requirements.”

“By providing materials like brochures, guides and online resources that include maintenance and installation tips, dealers can help customers understand the decking options available to them,” she adds. “It’s also great to see dealers host workshops for deck building, maintenance, and design to share insights with customers.”

In the end, it boils down to providing the best customer service, says Alicia Zywko, regional sales manager for Keylink. “Excellent customer service and responsiveness are essential to dealer success, of course. To take business to the next level, it’s important that dealers really lean into training and education for their teams, making sure that their staff are product experts who are aware of all the resources out there. And a presence on social media is also important. Use the digital space to tell your story and show what you are doing for your customers—things like events, shows, and promos—and show how you’re investing in your people and your community.”

And of course, take advantage of distributor sales staff to educate your associates to provide that top level of customer experiences, recommends ADI’s Guittar. “Update and refresh your showroom displays and count on your distributor to help with that. Make certain to choose partners who have a solid business model to help you with your marketing efforts and sales process.”

Despite not knowing what direction interest rates and inflation may trend—especially considering the impacts of an election year—deck railing and accessory manufacturers seem to share the opinion that the segment will deliver steady sales throughout the remainder of 2024. And by providing inspiration, knowledge, and product, LBM dealers can expect positive results. It’s as Trex’s Martz says: “The stocked, trained, and committed dealer with display space or a show- room provides the best service in the industry.

A balanced strategy between the manufacturer, distributor and dealer that embraces the strengths of all parties is a way to differentiate from the masses.”

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