The Inside is Out: Record-setting year for outdoor kitchens, TVs, and furniture

Life as we know it changed during the pandemic. Eager to escape the lockdown, people embraced the outdoors with enthusiasm as restrictions eased. Activities such as boating, golf, biking and hiking flourished.

The outdoors continues to beckon as we begin to enter an almost-post-pandemic world. That includes the way people are spending time – and money – upgrading their own outdoor spaces. It’s an aspect of life which seems to have been permanently altered.

“COVID changed everything,” said Trina Garner, general manager at Labadie’s Summer Place Casuals.

For proof, look no farther than the sales of outdoor furnishings.

“It was a record-setting year,” Garner said of sales at the popular outdoor home goods shop outside Honor.

What’s more, that was true in 2020 and again in 2021. She anticipates this year will outstrip both.

People have turned their patios, decks and other outdoor oases into an extension of their homes.

“They’re making their outdoor spaces bigger, adding onto decks and patios. They’re buying sofas and chairs, making true outdoor living rooms,” she said.

Garner said it’s a trend that has been building but was boosted by the pandemic.

“People in northern Michigan want to be outside and they want to be in a beautiful room,” she added.

That’s echoed across the outdoor industry.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth the last couple of years,” said Heather Kortokrax, marketing and advertising director at TruNorth Landscaping.

Kortokrax says her clients are making the outside a room.

“They’ve invested more in outdoor spaces,” she said. “We live life differently.”

It’s more than just setting up a couple folding chairs and getting out a grill. Patterned patios, multi-level decks and expanded green or garden areas are meant to be enjoyed throughout the day and evening, even in early spring or late fall.

Kortokrax said she’s seen an increase in the use of natural stone. Bluestone is particularly popular in making patios, as the color varies and it can be cut to fit any pattern.

“You can customize the shape and color,” she said, which is proving its mettle as more clients opt to complement the palette of both their existing home and the outdoors.

Many activities that were once indoors are moving outdoors, from lounging to cooking to watching the big game. Outdoor furniture now rivals its indoor brethren in comfort, with the added benefit of being practically impervious to the elements. Now furnishings made with Sunbrella fabrics stand up to sun, rain and anything else nature throws at them – even harsh cleaners.

“You don’t have to take them inside,” said Garner. “Being able to leave them outdoors is great.”

They have the added benefit of being able to stand up to those fresh out of the water who want to sit down or stretch out without having to first dry off completely.

Where once a grill was enough, now many are investing in full-on kitchen spaces outdoors.

“Kitchens are definitely becoming more popular,” said Angela Goodall, co-owner and designer at Kitchen Choreography. “We are doing one now with a corner pizza oven with an outdoor fireplace.”

It doesn’t stop there, as it also includes a grill, refrigerator and sink.

Garner and Kortokrax say they are seeing the same thing.

“We have a wide range. Some people went crazy with their outdoors: a deep fryer, pizza oven, a lot of counter space,” said Kortokrax.

The latter provides an element all-weather chefs typically lack when outside.

“There’s room to put the potato or pasta salad or cut your meat. Others have a grill enclosure. A warming drawer is sometimes built in along with the grill,” she said.

The desire to spend more time outdoors has also meant more business for those looking to beautify the area through plants and flowers.

“There’s been a huge demand,” said Melissa Weber, store manager at Garden Goods.

She says buyers are looking for anything and everything that makes their space their own.

“People want lower maintenance plants that are flowering. More native plantings that perform better here. And people are looking for plants favorable for bees, birds, and butterflies,” she said.

Other items that make for better living include outdoor rugs, decorative pots and tuned wind chimes. Weber said the increased interest in the outdoors as a result of the pandemic has engendered more enthusiasm among younger people for gardening, both flowers and vegetables.

“They’ve gotten a passion for the outdoors,” she said.

Garner said flexibility and low maintenance are features that are highly desired and are being addressed by the industry. Outdoor sectionals can easily be reconfigured. She said such adaptability is also seen in outdoor kitchens, where a series by the manufacturer Napoleon features sections that can be moved individually if necessary.

The trend to outdoor living extends to outdoor entertainment. Outdoor television sets may be the next big thing, though the price tag may be big as well: They can range from $2,000 to upwards of $20,000 to six figures. Josh Walters of A Better Sound has been working in the field for more than 25 years, and he said people are embracing the concept of moving the party outdoors, whether it’s watching a sporting event or having music for the evening.

Today’s technology lends itself to high-end audio and video, even outside. Outdoor televisions are built to withstand the elements, from protecting the electronics to all-weather housing.

Of course, once you start, the sky’s the limit. Walters says he has provided everything from basic TV installations to full-on audio and video for settings with multiple entertainment areas, including using in-ground subwoofers.

“The sound quality is amazing,” he said. “We can keep it simple with Bluetooth to cascading audio systems that are completely expandable.”

All without disturbing the outdoors aesthetic.

“You can do built-in speakers that look like outdoor landscaping,” he said.

With all that going into making the patio and deck appealing, people don’t want to be left in the dark. Numerous options and effects are available to provide just the right amount of light. Walters works with various contractors to provide ease of use. Audio, video and lighting can all be controlled by apps running on a phone or tablet.

“We work with lots of teams on lighting design,” Walters said.

Why do people want to splurge on something they can only use during the brief summer season? Actually, extending the season is another key consideration for many: among the most popular enhancements are heaters and fireplaces that will warm things up when the mercury dips, providing greater comfort so people can enjoy their outdoors earlier and later in the year.

“I can’t keep fireplaces in stock. Last year we sold out of patio heaters,” said Garner.

She’s not alone, as even big box stores like Home Depot and online retailers such as Amazon had a difficult time keeping the most popular models in stock.