In the outdoor industry, warranties act as a seal of approval from manufacturers and retailers. They give consumers a level of confidence to know that if something has been manufactured incorrectly or has a defect in any way, there’s someone there to fix it.
“We’re selling at the premium end of the market, so people are spending big dollars on a category where they probably haven’t bought a product in the last 8-10 years,” says Eric Parsons, vice president of Jensen Leisure. “I always looked at the power of a warranty as providing the level of confidence to a buyer that we, as a manufacturer and designer of this premium furniture, stand behind what we’re selling to them.”
What makes the power of a warranty on casual furniture clear is that this furniture is left outdoors 24/7, and people often pay more for outdoor furniture than they do indoor. And when competing with big box stores, warranties can become even more important.
According to Megan Pierson, executive vice president at Polywood, having a product that you can stand behind is imperative. All Polywood lumber carries a 20-year residential warranty, which covers material defects and ensures the material will not splinter, crack, chip, peel, rot or suffer structural damage from insect infestation.
“With instant access to information at the consumer’s fingertips, it has created a demand for complete transparency,” Pierson says. “The first major change that we saw with warranties was during the recession, when longer warranty periods built up consumer confidence. Today, warranties continue to evolve as material and manufacturing technologies become more sophisticated and efficient.”
According to Parsons, one of the biggest changes he has seen is warranties that are specific to materials, especially with the trend of mixed materials. “A lot of warranties are specific to the material that is having the issue,” he says. “It’s hard to lump everything into one quantified number of years, because knowingly the materials are going to perform very differently. There’s an expectation that some materials will last longer than others. That’s probably the biggest change we’ve seen at the specialty end of the market.”
Many manufacturers create their warranties based on the materials used, and the price of a product doesn’t always define how long something should live. “Warranties are an art, not a science,” Parsons says. “If you sell someone a $3,000 sofa that has a one-year warranty, that wouldn’t jive right. At the same time, if you’re selling a $3,000 sofa, you’re investing in materials that are going to last longer anyway. Something has to be driving that price, and it’s not just additional profits. We’re using manufacturing techniques and materials that warrant that kind of pricing.”
On the retail side, a dealer needs to know exactly what the parameters of a warranty are. But Chad Scheinerman, owner of Today’s Patio, says there’s a major disconnect in the casual industry when it comes to warranties on fabric and outdoor furniture.
“Many fabric providers put a five-year warranty on fabrics, but the manufacturers really only warranty the cushions in a set for one or two years,” Scheinerman says. “Fabric is an ingredient, and these fabric companies don’t make the cushions. And with a popular brand like Sunbrella, which some customers know better than the furniture brand they are buying, they think they are buying Sunbrella furniture and they for sure think they are buying Sunbrella cushions. Well they are, but Sunbrella didn’t make the cushion, they made the fabrics.”
Scheinerman says it gets confusing for the consumers and puts the retailer in a very awkward spot when there’s a problem because the consumer thinks they have a five-year warranty, but the retailer has to break the news to them that it’s only on the fabric.
“We’re constantly dealing with that,” Scheinerman says. “It becomes a game of leverage sometimes with manufacturers, and we get through it. But it’s painful. Fabric companies and furniture manufacturers need to come together to find some sort of solution where they are not putting their retailers in the middle.
Another challenge that arises on the retail side when it comes to warranties is the process of fulfilling them. In addition to gathering pictures of the defects for the manufacturer, retailers usually also pick up the product from the customer, do all of the paperwork, and the deliver the product back to the consumer.
“Can I charge the customer for going out, picking up and re-delivering their furniture after the problem has been fixed?” Scheinerman says. “I always put myself in the consumer’s shoes. If someone spends $10,000 on furniture and comes to a retailer three years later to redeem a five-year warranty and the retailer charges another $100 to have this thing brought back out to their house, it’s going to make them mad, and I would be, too.”
Scheinerman says this disconnect is an active problem in the industry, and while there are manufacturers who simply replace the cushion with no arguments, he thinks furniture and fabric manufacturers should meet to solve this issue.
As for the future, Pierson, Parsons and Scheinerman all agree that warranties will continue to evolve with the times and remain important for many years to come.
“The leaders in the marketplace will continue to improve their customer experience with a simplified warranty process,” Pierson says. “The more confidence the buyer has in the entire experience, the more likely they are to search and find that perfect item—even if it takes one or two returns to get there.”