Jul 01, 2023

Personalization and clean aesthetics drive deck railing and accessory product development

The phrase “form follows function” was coined by architect Louis H. Sullivan in his 1896 essay entitled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Born in 1856, not only was Sullivan the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright, he’s considered to be the father of both skyscrapers and the modernism movement in architecture. “All things in nature have a shape,” he once said, “that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.”

Similarly, deck railings and accessories help distinguish one outdoor space from another, pushing the boundaries of the “forms follow function,” with new shapes, materials and designs, all of which are enabling the aesthetics of outdoor spaces to be as unique as those who use them. With people spending time in record amounts in their home’s outdoor living spaces, homeowners are more aware than ever of the aesthetics of those spaces. The question for LBM dealers, however, is how sales of deck railings and accessories will shake out in the midst of a slowing housing market.

This year started out on a somewhat pessimistic note. Housing starts for January 2023 fell 4.5% to a seasonally adjusted pace of 1.309 million compared to the revised December 2022 rate of 1.371 million. The latest figure is also 21.4% below the January 2022 rate of 1.666 million, according to January’s Monthly New Residential Construction report released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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This doesn’t mean, however, that demand for railing systems and deck accessories will suffer. In fact, experts think this may bode well for consumer demand for these components. “It’s like that line from a movie, we should fasten our seatbelts because it could be a bumpy ride,” says Katrina Ralston, president of sales, finance, operations, and marketing for Feeney. “But who knows anymore? It is harder and harder to predict where things are going or where they will end up. One thing that has changed in the past few years, because of COVID-19 and rising interest rates, is that many people are staying put. People may do smaller outdoor home improvements or an internal ‘zhuzh,’ which could mean a great year for us.”

Don Douglas, senior product manager for Fortress Building Products, also sees the potential for optimism. “While there is a slowing of the housing market, available new home inventory still remains historically low on a national level,” he explains. “This, combined with elevated interest rates, is driving homeowners towards renovations on their current home (versus selling), with many continuing to upgrade their outdoor living spaces. New offerings can help the railing industry meet this opportunity, driving growth and differentiation for our partners.”

Ralston and Douglas aren’t the only ones feeling bullish about deck railings and accessories. “We continue to see growth (less dramatic, but still strong growth) in the remodeling sector,” points out Chris Donley, regional sales manager for Key-Link Fencing and Railing.

“Homeowners came to appreciate outdoor living spaces more than ever during the pandemic, and deck building and deck upgrades are still incredibly popular. The integration of indoor and outdoor living continues to drive growth in deck building materials.”

Even in the face of playing catch-up with last year’s unfinished projects that are the result of long-standing labor shortages, LBM dealers should still prepare for strong demand, experts suggest. “We see first and second quarter as being fairly strong with some easing the second half of the year,” says Roland Pfender, president of Absolute Distribution (ADI). “We are still seeing a high volume of quote requests for projects. Many projects going this year are due to product delays and labor issues from last year. It seems like the higher end larger deck projects are still going strong. The housing market may be slowing down but people continue to invest in their existing homes with improvements to their decks and outdoor living spaces.”

While growth seems a given across the deck railings and accessories segments, consumers appear to be leaning into certain specific aesthetic trends, many of which are tied to current events and the natural world. With homeowners spending increasing amounts of time in their outdoor spaces, they’re making purchase decisions based on what they feel might create a personal haven, manufacturers suggest.

“Looking at the color choices from industry tastemakers, there seems to be competing views on our evolving tastes,” Feeney’s Ralston explains. “Some predict neutrals will soften the blow of current events and create sanctuary in people’s homes. Others are betting that the past years of pandemic have left people hungry for vibrancy and bold statements. All the current colors of the year reference some element of the environment, whether it is a dark forest or a beetle’s wings.

“With the rise of AI in everyday life and the continued presence of technology, it seems humans are craving a little connection with the natural world to ground them,” she continues. “We have also seen a rise of design and color matching from the indoors out, which means railings and other elements have adapted to match standard hardware finishes to create a cohesive look.”

This isn’t to say that color is everything; the use of black as a trim, accent, and accessory color—along with modern lines and clean aesthetics—has been on the rise for the past few years, and many homeowners are choosing that look for their decks. “Railing products with a clean, modern aesthetic that can increase the line of sight beyond the deck with minimal obstruction continue to be in demand,” Fortress’ Douglas points out. “Matte black also continues to be sought-after, especially since black has become a popular color choice for exterior window trim on homes. Products like Fe²⁶ H-Series and Fe²⁶ V-Series steel cable railings from Fortress Building Products meet homeowners’ design-oriented preferences, making the case for wood alternative outdoor building products.”

It’s not enough, however, to merely offer products that are aesthetically on trend, say experts. Colors and styles aside, railing products need to deliver on simple or quick installation— not surprising, considering last year alone saw the building industry struggling through 440,000 open positions. “Ease of installation is a growing need in the industry,” reports Larry Boyts, vice president of sales and marketing for Digger Specialties, Inc. (DSI). “Installers are looking for railing systems that offer good installation techniques that allow for an easy and fast installation. Westbury Aluminum Railing goes together quickly and easily with some models offered in preassembled sections.”

Erica Gregory, associate product manager for Key-Link Fencing and Railing, agrees with Boyts’ prediction regarding the need for fast-installing products. “Quick, simple installation is something that contractors are always looking for, so Key-Link has put a focus on installer-friendly products backed by a strong warranty. This means savings on time and labor as well as fewer callbacks.”

It will come as no surprise that the extreme disruptions in supply chains brought about upheavals in product availability—a situation keenly felt by both LBM dealers and their customers. When looking forward, however, deck railing and accessory manufacturers express confidence (with just a touch of trepidation) that those disruptions are now fading in the rearview mirror. “The worst is behind us for the most part, which brings a sense of relief,” says Feeney’s Ralston. “But challenges remain. Some foreign entities continue to struggle through COVID-19, governments are placing embargoes on countries for bad behavior, and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine is a constant source of uncertainty.”

“Most manufacturers seem to have addressed availability and supply chain concerns, so disruptions are less likely,” agrees Key-Link’s Donley, although he points out challenges the solving of those disruptions could bring. “Dealers should be prepared to work a little harder to sell product, as it probably won’t be flying off the shelves like it has been. That means dealers might need to do more aggressive prospecting for new customers as well as maintain top-notch customer service to retain existing business.

Fortress Building Products’ Douglas shares Donley’s thoughts. “Compared to the last several years, 2023 is expected to be much less eventful,” he says. “That said, carefully evaluating your stocking strategies is still key not only for meeting demand, but to also win over customers in today’s competitive marketplace. This includes stocking product for the entire backyard package. It also helps to be well-versed in railing product categories, and to speak confidently to the value propositions that set your product apart from the competition. A little extra product knowledge will go a long way. Customers want the best product their money can buy. Be sure you can communicate why yours is better than the competitor.”

While supply chain disruptions are easing, labor shortages, however, continue to be a thorn in the sides of manufacturers, impacting the ability to deliver product in a timely fashion. So, too, are these shortages affecting contractors who are now forced to do more with fewer people.

In a recent study conducted by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), it reported a construction backlog at the highest levels since 2019—a backlog so detrimental to the industry that the ABC predicts it will take 590,000 new skilled workers to fill construction jobs in 2023. “Product availability is good for 2023,” says DSI’s Boyts. “Pricing will remain at current level or higher; we don’t foresee a drastic drop in railing prices throughout the industry. Labor shortages, however, will continue over the next 10 years especially for installers.”

ADI’s Roland Pfender also expresses concerns over labor shortages despite improvements in product availability. “Labor seems to be an issue at both the lumberyard and contractor levels,” he observes. “We see the supply chain as improving immensely with lead times for products becoming more ‘normal.’ Also, seeing some material costs coming down that will filter into the market once higher cost current inventories are depleted.”

With the continued labor concerns— and despite the easing of product availability—the potential for turmoil is still a real possibility, and LBM dealers need to have a plan in place to deal with it if it occurs. The secret, manufacturers say, lies with understanding your inventory. As Feeney’s Ralston puts it, “Everyone should follow the rule of three and have a primary, secondary and tertiary back-up plan for all critical functions and suppliers.”

Key-Link’s Chris Donley stresses knowing exactly how much product you have on your shelves, how quickly it’s turning over, and which products are your best-selling. “With tract building slowing down, consider moving your focus to specialty items instead of commodities,” he recommends. “Remodeling is still strong and remodeling customers are looking for high-quality specialty products. The good news: these are generally higher margin items that will positively impact your bottom line.”

ADI’s Pfender expresses similar thoughts regarding the importance of inventory management. “Count on your distributor partners to carry stock to keep LBM inventory investments down and focused on commodities that need to be on hand. Full rail systems can be ordered from the distributor and drop shipped to the dealer to arrive in less than three days. Use distributor sales staff to augment your own and interfacing with the contractor to pull business through the dealer. You sell what you show is the old tried and true adage. Update/refresh your showrooms and displays and count on your distributor to help with that.”

“Most distributors are right-sizing their inventory for the 2023 season compared to the previous two years, making inventory management a big issue for 2023,” DSI’s Boyts points out. “I expect dealers to have good availability of our Westbury and PolyRail products for 2023.”

Above all, experts say, maintain strong communication, both up and down the line to best balance those inventory and product need issues. “We would extend the same advice to the outdoor living market that we would give ourselves,” recommends Deckorators’ Hendricks. “Active communication early and often will help customers manage their expectations. Being realistic and conveying a sense of understanding goes a long way to show that we are all in this together. We are in regular contact with our Certified Pros because they have the pulse on what’s happening with homeowner requests and other issues that inform how we improve on the fly; a small effort to connect with each other can pay dividends.”

Despite unforeseen and unknown challenges, along with the known issues of labor challenges, it seems a reasonable expectation to predict the deck railing and accessory segments are positioned to be steady sellers for LBM dealers throughout the rest of 2023. And with an understanding of consumer trends, use of effective inventory practices, and implementation of thorough communication, dealers can expect positive results. It’s as Key-Link’s Chris Donley points out: “Don’t over-anticipate slowdowns. Building and remodeling are still happening. Be prepared and realistic, but don’t feed the problem with negative talk about how business is cratering—it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy!”

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Demand increases despite statisticsPersonal space drives purchases Easing supply, tightening laborInventory rules, always