Casual Dining In Fashion With Younger Consumers

Casual dining has become more than a temporary alternative to traditional furniture for the meal occasion, and may be replacing it in many cases as furniture in the segment suits the lifestyle-oriented interior design preferences of a large, younger slice of the consuming public.

The reasons are several. For one thing, younger consumers have come of age in small spaces that prompted them to become function oriented in their furnishings even as they developed a more critical sense of home fashion. A lifestyle preference for focusing leisure and social activities in the home helped drive those tendencies as did a greater access to design media, whether magazines, topical television shows or online content. This is, as one industry source has observed, the Pinterest generation and it not only takes style seriously but also shares what it has embraced online.

When it comes to dining today, the casual part of the market has some distinct advantages, and mass-market retailers have been exploring the possibilities afforded them. In another advantageous development, e-commerce came along to provide a showcase for the depth and breadth of innovation. Taken together, their efforts have given casual dining greater visibility and support, especially as they integrate it into fresh approaches to the market, as Wayfair has done.

With the recent introduction of its Foundstone curated collection, Wayfair not only offered a variety of casual dining sets, but also tabletop and servingware goods. The retailer is deliberately moving to become more of a whole home solution. Foundstone is defined as a collection by its mid-century styling. As is often the case on Wayfair, the presentation can incorporate a wide range of products under a style umbrella and is an alternative to merchandising on narrow segment terms.

Jill Pavlovich, Wayfair general manager of exclusive brands, said including housewares in the collection provided a wider palette they can use to enhance their homes in accord with their lifestyle preferences. Shopping for the home is an emotional experience for Wayfair customers who want to express themselves but who also want to be inspired, she said, and those considerations drive how the retailer has developed its furniture presentation strategy. As Foundstone demonstrates, the same considerations are driving the Wayfair housewares merchandising strategy as it expands and raises the profile of that business.

“Our core housewares strategy has remained consistent,” Pavlovich said.

The Foundstone collection on the Wayfair site has offered some 50 dining tables in rectangular, square, oval and round configurations with wood, glass, concrete and marble tops, supported by everything from mid-century style flared legs to cage bases and pedestals. Most are dining height but one, at least in a recent review of the Wayfair site, was a countertop height table. Even the more traditional looks have a fashionable edge that creates a consistency of design throughout the presentation.

Foundation launched with an emphasis on mix and match, so Wayfair offers a wide variety of chairs, with 62 in the collection as recently merchandised on the site, and stools, 28 all told, that can work with dining tables. However, the retailer also had 33 dining sets as well as sideboards and buffets, bars and bar sets and bar carts available in the collection.

Walmart lately has scaled back what had been its in-store furniture presentation as it focuses more on bedding. Casual dining is a pretty strictly online segment for the retailer, but one of those that has benefited from Walmart’s turn toward curating and coordinating online presentations.

An important aspect of how Walmart merchandises furniture today online is its curated Shop by Style presentation, where shoppers can directly exercise their design preferences. The modern style landing page during a check not long ago promoted a casual dining set with a glass-top round table surrounded by black upholstered chairs. The dining table presentation included nine tables in round and rectangular configurations with a couple clearly designed for flexibility in function.

Although online presentations have advantages, not all consumers want to shop furniture from a photo, and off-pricers don’t invest heavily in e-commerce given their attraction as an in-store treasure hunt experience. They, too, however, are oriented toward casual dining today and presentations that reflect current design trends although perhaps a little further back on the design curve.

Big Lots is a key proponent. Unlike the luck of the draw presentation that they’ll find at other off-pricers, Big Lots offers multiple casual dining sets in a consistent fashion and features multiple style choices. In a recent store check on Long Island, a Big Lots offered eight tables and a stand-alone counter set that converted into a table. It used tabletop signage to emphasize price and style. The tables scaled from a small, round faux marble top example that could seat four to larger rectangular tables that could seat six comfortably. The tables came in styles influenced by vintage, mid-century, farmhouse and rustic design but with sufficiently transitional looks to ensure they might fit in a range of home decor schemes. Seating varied with both chairs and stool in the case of the convertible counter and the Raleigh five-piece pub height dining set which included shelf storage at one end.

Big Lots offered a range of casual dining choice on the sales floor and even a traditional dining room set nearby. It couldn’t offer online variety, but the store managed a fair amount of choice in relatively little space.

Although they don’t offer the same kind of consistent presentation Big Lots does, the TJX home-oriented retail formats do offer casual dining items on an in-and-out basis for shoppers who might be enticed to a purchase. Homestyle has more of a commitment to providing a casual dining offering, with a vintage, transitional and rustic dining set available at a recent store visit in a display approximately adjacent to a more traditionally scaled but mid-century styled table. The rustic piece was part of Homestyle’s designer collection under the Nicole Miller label.

To enhance the casual dining presentation, Homesense set adjacent floor and rack seating presentations shoppers could tap. The store also offered an array of buffet, bar cart and related items to complement the core dining furniture.

For its part, a nearby HomeGoods offered only one round dining table and merchandised on a mix and match basis with nearby seating, but it included more novel items including a counter buffet supported by a couple of faux bicycles mounting handlebar baskets that could be used for storage.

The HomeWorld Business Home Entertainment report study offers an indication of how consumers view dining in their lifestyle preference. Only 2% of respondents to the survey supporting the latest study said the dining room is the primary place they would entertain guests.

Yet, when asked what furniture items they might purchase for entertainment purposes, a quarter of respondents said they would buy a dining table. As for other furniture that might function in casual dining, 16.3% of consumers said they would consider bar or bar cart purchase and 13.3% said a stool.

When it comes to entertainment, men are slightly more likely on average than women to say they host guests in the dining room. Yet, women are more likely than men to say they would look to purchase a dining table over the year ahead at 28.4% versus 16.9%.

Still, the biggest disparity between where they entertain and what they want to purchase, as regards dining, comes among age groups. Consumers 40 to 59 in the survey expressed basically no interest in dining room entertaining, while only 3% of the respondents 60 and over and from 24 to 39 did so. However, 26% of 40 to 59 year old respondents looked to purchase a dining table, and 32% of those 24 to 39 year olds. The 60 to 73 year old consumers lagged, at 17%.

The results demonstrate that few consumers don’t equate a dining table purchase with the intention of using the dining room to entertain guests, which suggests that consumers are thinking about using dining tables more flexibly. Indeed, in the survey, about 14% of consumers said the dining room is the place they most frequently use personal electronics.

Retailers certainly recognize that dining is taking a lifestyle turn. Vendors have been offering items that straddle the line between traditional and formal dining, with tables that tend to have a somewhat smaller scale, to incorporate more up-to-date styling and to take a positioning that offers choice in finish or seating, something evident at Wayfair and Homesense. At the same time, pub-height dining with comfortable stools for seating, bars and bar carts, sofa tables and stand-alone counter pieces designed as designated eating places for spaces such as family rooms give consumers who want furniture that can work across a broad range of occasions, from family dinners to major gatherings of families and friends.

As additional evidence of how consumers today differ from those in the past, one mass-market furniture supplier commented that espoused couples no longer include formal dining needs in their wedding registries the way they once did. In the HomeWorld Business Registry Report, tabletop vendors also acknowledged a trend away from formal and toward more casual products in the choices couples have been making, particularly younger couples who are interested in personal choice and self-expression, and, as regards style, a more minimalist approach to home fashion.

Mass-market furniture vendors that offer casual dining pieces have been more attentive to home fashion sensibilities consumers hold. To the extent that dining is no longer confined to a particular space and setting, as consumers incorporate it into a broader set of home priorities, the furniture involved has to fit more precisely into a home’s decor scheme and evolve with the home. Vendors have consistently updated their designs, which lately have featured more modern and glam looks alongside the farmhouse, cottage and rustic looks that had emerged as more popular and a contrast with the mid-century looks that overtook the marketplace several years ago.

Driven by a range of consumer and industry trends, casual dining clearly has established itself as a viable alternative to the traditional, and so opportunity for the segment, as consistently designed and refreshed to address evolving consumer preferences, may be greater than it ever was.

For more on casual dining, see the full report in the April 6, 2020, issue of HOMEWORLD BUSINESS®.