Photo illustration by Tariq Kamal

In the casual furniture market, this is a pivotal time for retailers. Thanks to more active research and development departments, the products live up to customers’ needs, says Petey Fleischut, owner of Casual Marketplace in Hockessin, Del.

“This year, I felt that manufacturers came to market well prepared for our industry and gave us so many tools to work with to be successful for next year,” she says. “They were dedicated to what they offered to us, just by their diversity of product, new introductions and new designs.”

Read on to learn more about the latest in consumer desires and product trends.

1Deeper cushions, more motion and supersized chaise lounges.

In the past, ease of maintenance was the deciding factor for consumers when it came to outdoor furniture. But that’s no longer the case. Today, comfort comes first.

“People are spending time in their outdoor rooms or living areas, and they want to be as comfortable as possible,” says Joseph P. Logan, executive

director of the Summer and Casual Furniture Manufacturers Association in Highpoint, N.C.

That’s why anything with thick, fluffy cushions — called deep seating — rules the roost. These product lines approximate indoor furniture in terms of comfort. “Anything that’s deep seating is selling like crazy,” says Cathy Galbreath-Watson, co-owner of ABSCO Fireplace & Patio in Birmingham, Ala.

Deep seating can be found on just about any type of frame, including cast aluminum, wicker, wrought iron and wood. You’ll often find it in sofas, love seats, and lounge chairs with ottomans and chaises. Some manufacturers have even rolled out modular groups with deep cushions. “I personally would have it in my own living room,” says Jennifer Bement, director of advertising and marketing for Carter Grandle in Sarasota, Fla.

Besides deep seating, people gravitate toward anything with motion. “It’s more exciting when something moves,” says Dino Luckino, president/CEO of Georgia Backyard Inc., a Suwanee, Ga.-based company with eight stores throughout its namesake state and Texas. “Everybody likes to glide, swing or rock.”

Furthermore, people are lounging larger. Chaises that are wide enough to accommodate two people are selling like hot cakes. “It’s almost like you have a bed to lie on,” says David Ghiz, president of retail operations at Paddock Pools & Spas in Scottsdale, Ariz. “You could even sleep outside if you wanted to.”

2Vibrant colors and new fabrics.

When it comes to fashion, people want their exterior designs to compete with their living rooms.

“People are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on these outdoor rooms, and they want the furniture there to look as fine as it does in their living room,” Bement says. “So there’s a lot of call for the upscale look.”

Manufacturers have obliged with colors that are more vibrant and selections that have increased in patterns and fabrics.

Manufacturers can offer more choices, Bement says, because of the emergence of new color-fast dyes and protective coatings. They’re using digital photography to replicate them, which allows them to provide more variety, according to Luckino.

This year, imitation leathers made an entrance at the Casual Marketplace — a trade show specializing in the category — and enjoyed a happy reception. “I’ve sat on it, and it has the feel of the real thing,” Logan says. And producers still make many of these fabrics easy to clean.

Interestingly, fashion trends often migrate from clothing to indoor furniture to the exterior. “What you see in fashion now, it’ll be a year before that’s in indoor furniture,” Bement says. “Then it’ll be another year before it hits the outdoors.”

Fads are no exception. Two years ago, vibrant, yellow-based colors hit the display windows of the Gap and Banana Republic, and now they have found their way into outdoor styling. Experts report a trend toward burnt oranges, spicy reds, lime greens, yellows, teals and even pink. “In the past, there were a lot of greens and darker colors, but now you’re seeing consumers be much more daring and expressive in their choices of fabrics,” Logan says.

Brown and blue combinations have moved from the living room to backyard decks. Never dismiss primary colors either, for they remain on most manufacturers’ rosters.

3Conversation pits.

Unlike days past, homeowners don’t view their backyard as a place to eat and run. They want to stay a while and relax.

“People want that little bench in the garden where you can have your child or grandchild read to you in the morning, or a little bistro table off the master bedroom where you can have coffee and read The Wall Street Journal,” Luckino says.

Casual furniture specialists say the hottest news in outdoor arrangements are chat groups. Also called conversation pits, these configurations usually include a few chairs, perhaps a sofa or love seat, all surrounding a fire pit, fireplace or cocktail-height table — taller than a coffee table, but lower than one used for dining. It’s an area designed for people to linger and unwind.

The chat group provides a place to hunker down for the evening. “A dining chair is OK, but it’s not a great thing to sit and relax in once you’re done eating,” Ghiz says. “Homeowners like the concept of having the ability to sit around a table and eat, but then when they’re done, kick back and relax.”

The key for the furniture is that it’s designed to be lower and has fat cushions. “These chairs are usually more club-chair sized: They’re big and deep,” Ghiz says. “When you add motion or action to the chair, it makes it a comfortable way to sit outside.”

The settings can be assembled by the user out of separate pieces, but more manufacturers are rolling out whole chat groups, some even with gas fire pits to go with them.

4Updated looks for wicker and wrought-iron, and inexpensive rollouts of premium materials.

A few years ago, wrought-iron furniture was struggling. “It took a beating because you can do things in cast aluminum that you couldn’t do in wrought iron,” Luckino says. Plus, cast aluminum prices went down approximately 50 percent. “[Wrought-iron sales] were probably dropping 30 percent a year,” Luckino adds.

The traditional flower patterns on the metal had largely played out, he says. People wanted something different. A year or so ago, manufacturers responded with new methods for turning the metal and, as a result, designs were created that compete with cast aluminum. “The neoclassic look is still at the forefront because it’s what people want when they’re looking at a metal product,” Luckino says. “But it’s not the same old flowers that wrought iron used to be.”

Scrolls may rule the day, but you can also find some more contemporary looks with straight slats on the back of the chair, or eclectic mesh pieces. Last year, Luckino reports, wrought iron sales ended an approximately five-year down trend and started an upswing. “I think it increased in our stores almost 22 percent last year,” he says.

The transformation of wicker hasn’t been as economically dramatic, but it has been broader. Stylistically, the pieces are more versatile. No longer typecast in a tropical décor, they can also be found in more classic designs that even fit in the Tuscan environments so popular in Phoenix and Las Vegas, Ghiz says.

“It isn’t the traditional sort of wicker that you might think in your mind,” he says. “There are so many different ways that it’s woven.” The materials range in color from the old school tan and white to deep, rich browns.

With new synthetic materials, the pieces also last longer. “You can keep it out in the sun, rain and snow and nothing affects it,” Ghiz says. “The material itself is virtually indestructible.”

These products, however, don’t look exactly like the traditional wood-based ones, Luckino says. That throws some people off. “People tell me, ‘It’s not real wicker,’” he says. “Everybody thinks it’s a plant, but wicker means to weave. There’s no material called wicker.” Once he explains it, consumers usually come on board.

More options also have opened up as overseas production has dropped price points in cast-aluminum and high-quality woods. “At one time, teak or cast aluminum was so expensive, just the top people bought it,” Luckino says. “But today they can make the products so we can retail it at one-third of the price that we used to.” Some manufacturers have introduced alternative woods that are more durable than redwood, but less expensive than teak, as well.

Moreover, wood collections have expanded to include more sofas and loveseats, in addition to the traditional rockers, benches, tables and chairs.

5New materials, looks and sizes for tables.

To accommodate the many ways that people use their backyard furniture, tables are appearing in different sizes more than ever. The cocktail-height pieces at the center of many chat groups, for instance, tend to be longer than you’d normally expect. And homeowners are beginning to shy away from the traditional four-person dining table.

“Many of the manufacturers have introduced larger tables that seat six, eight, 10 or more people, and tables in many different shapes as well,” Logan says. “With the shift toward more outdoor living, consumers want to have flexibility and the option to host a large group outside.”

The tables come in every conceivable look. The world of outdoor furniture is talking long and hard about “alternative-top tables” — meaning pieces made of anything besides glass or aluminum. Some tables have been taken to the level of art, topped with premium materials such as marble, granite, tile mosaic, teak and even the hammered copper model that Carter Grandle introduced at this year’s Casual Marketplace.

For a lower cost, manufacturers offer “faux tables” in resins that mimic stone or mosaic, or in aluminum that looks like higher-priced metals.