Railings and accessories provide distributors and contractors alike with profit-turning potential.
The famous fashion designer Giorgio Armani once said, “Elegance is not standing out, but being remembered.” Believe it or not, that quote applies just as much to the world of deck railings and deck accessories as it does to high fashion. After all, a deck without railings or other elements of style is nothing more than a slab of horizontal lumber. Likewise, a deck that a builder has meticulously crafted but failed to kit out in aesthetically pleasing railings or other accessories is like wearing a brown belt with black shoes.
And if you think the opportunity for railings and accessories to have a big impact on your business is low-yielding fruit, think again. According to the industry research firm IBISWorld, deck and patio construction amounted to $783 million in total revenue in 2019 alone. “We continue to see an upward trend in outdoor living, which naturally creates growth in the decking and outdoor building products market,” says Brad Adsit, director of product development for Feeney, Inc.
Lindsey Fox, product and marketing manager for RailFX, agrees. “Decking hasn’t seen a lull in the last 15 years, and it will continue to grow in 2020, from refurbishing decks that are more than 25 years old to consumers expanding their outdoor living areas in both warm and colder climates.”
Keep it stylish, keep it safe
When LBM Journal examined this category last year, a growing demand for increased aesthetics, coupled with homeowners’ continually increasing demand to move the indoors to outside, were the driving factors for new product development. Looking forward into 2020, those trends aren’t going anywhere. “There’s still a desire to expand the inside to outside, with bigger decks, adding covered spaces, entertaining, outdoor kitchens and relaxation areas,” explains RailFX’s Lindsey Fox. “With that, homeowners (and builders) are generally upgrading their decking projects from their deck boards to hidden fasteners to railings that are aesthetically pleasing.
The evolution of railing options has changed quite a bit. Generally, railing was seen as the last thing you add to the decking project, and it would come down to cost. Now, it’s part of the overall aesthetics of the deck and outdoor space.”
While wood continues to control the largest segment of market share when it comes to railings and other deck accessories, to achieve an upscale aesthetic, homeowners are turning to options such as cable railings, stainless steel and aluminum systems, along with decorative elements such as more sophisticated infield panels and incorporated lighting. “While composite decking innovation often means building out features to make boards more robust, deck railing innovation has become more about simplification,” says Jase DeBoer, senior marketing director for Deckorators. “New railing options with clean lines and contemporary finishes simplify design, while new pre-assembled railings simplify installation.”
“Cable railing continues to generate a huge amount of interest from contractors and homeowners,” points out Heather Bowman, marketing manager for Superior Plastic Products, parent company of Key-Link, “and that’s related to the desire for modern looks, unobstructed views, and the kind of building materials and appearance that customers are looking for.”
Aesthetic trends, however, are not the only factor spurring new railing and accessory products. As codes evolve and change to incorporate more stringent safety requirements, railing systems are likewise evolving to keep pace. “We are seeing some code impacts on the railing side of the market and this plays into the need for extended development time in design,” explains Toby Bostwick, vice president of product and brand for Fortress Building Products. “Deck safety and proper building practices are also driving positive change in new codes to ensure long-term performance of the deck in relation to the attachment mechanism with the house.”
RailFX’s Lindsey Fox has similar thoughts regarding codes and their impact on the deck railing segment. “New building codes within our industry play a significant role in new product development. Our team of engineers stays on top of any new code requirements, as well as the timing of new codes, to ensure our products are meeting safety features in all our designs. New codes may force a redesign or new designs of existing products, providing an opportunity to develop products with improved safety for our customers. As a result, all new product development projects are engineered to meet or exceed any new building code regulations that apply to our industry.”
It’s a synthesis of looks and overall product performance, says Superior Plastic Products’ Bowman. “Our goal, at least for our railing, is always to meet requirements for all use groups, both residential and commercial. When developing new products, we tend to over-engineer the prototypes, and then scale back until we get the final product that best balances safety, performance, and appearance.”
Become the go-to expert
So how can LBM dealers best serve their customers when it comes to deck railings and accessories? Ask the manufacturers, and they’ll say it’s through providing problems to real-world solutions and by being a knowledgeable product resource.
Obviously, builders are looking for products that help their homeowner clients achieve that afore-mentioned sophisticated aesthetic. But just as important are products that allow for quick and easy installation. In a world where labor shortages continue to be a thorn in the side of any contractor, speed of installation is just as important as style. Deckorators’ Jase DeBoer points out, “As a shortage of qualified workers continues to challenge the decking industry, the value of any labor-saving solution is elevated. Builders are looking for products that combine ease of installation with on-trend looks. A couple of good examples are sleek pre-assembled railing systems that come to the site with the top rail, bottom rail and balusters already installed together, and lighting options with simple wiring.”
DeBoer also sees overall product knowledge as vital for a dealer’s success. “Having a staff that is truly educated about the many decking and railing options is key,” he points out. “There are differences in material and technology, differences in price points and what features you receive or forfeit at each price point, nuances to how the product installs, and pros and cons to competing products in different outdoor scenarios. Truly being a knowledgeable resource to both builders and homeowners is extremely valuable.”
RailFX’s Lindsey Fox also sees being a problem solver as key to any distributor’s success. “There are so many decking and railing products that have come to the market than there were just a few years ago,” she says, “so it is important, from our perspective, to have an understanding of types of railing products available—from lower to higher, more specialty offerings, material choices and pricing. Listening to the customer and matching their needs to the appropriate solution (or manufacturer) is key, as is bringing the representative into the discussion as needed to help with the sell.”
Says Fortress Building Products’ Bostwick, “Knowledge and education are key, and has to be driven by the manufacturers to the LBM dealer base. Truly understanding and educating your customers on the key differentiators and performance factors of the products you are selling will build trust and provide a long-term business relationship between you and your customers.”
But what, exactly, is the best way for an LBM dealer to become a top-notch problem solver in the railing and accessory space? According to Superior Plastic Products’ Heather Bowman, it’s through keeping up with technology. “Anything that dealers can do, technology-wise, to make it easier for their customers to order is huge,” she says. “An online ordering site or an app are ideal. Dealers could also provide design technology, which would give customers a way to plug in their project dimensions and requirements and get a list of the needed products with part numbers. The technology is there, but we’re not all taking advantage of it.”
And the technology is most certainly there. For example, Feeney offers a wide range of technical and educational documents, including data sheets, specifications and drawings, and 3D models as well as a number of step-by-step installation videos on its YouTube channel. In fact, all the manufacturers interviewed for this feature offer a wide variety of online installation videos, technical information and design help.
Plus, new technology-based training and education tools are constantly being released by manufacturers to help distributors stay ahead of the game. For example, Feeney recently unveiled its new VisualBuilder tool, which enables professionals and homeowners to design a deck with Feeney railings in a wide variety of configurations. Users can create their own deck from scratch or use one of seven pre-built templates, Online tools within the app help eliminate any guesswork while allowing the user to explore a variety of different looks.
This is not to say that traditional hands-on training is dead. Rather, many manufacturers use it extensively, and successful LBM dealers are taking advantage of the opportunities as much as possible. “The old-fashioned hands-on and in-person methods still resonate and show to be the most beneficial,” says Fortress Building Products’ Bostwick. “Technology has brought many different avenues to deliver information; however, there is something to be said for truly understanding the business model of a builder or distribution partner. Once you take the time to understand the individual business models, as the manufacturer, you can directly train and educate your channel partners on how the entire structure becomes scalable so that all may experience profitable growth.”
So what is the right path for the successful contractor and LBM distributor? It’s staying abreast of new products, knowing when and how to implement them, and never settling for what’s been previously done. If indications hold true, the 2020 market is a promising one for deck railings and deck accessories, and distributor and contractor alike should be poised to take advantage of it.