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From Home Furnishing Business

Editor's Letter: Consumers – What Do They Want?

The current generation of senior management at least are solidly “Baby Boomers” and have forgotten the transition that they endured with the pre-Baby Boomers – those now in their 70’s-80’s. Several years ago in a senior level meeting, a new member of the executive team admitted his new fiancée was intimidated by the size of their stores and breadth of selection and they shopped at Pottery Barn. No, he wasn’t fired – he was family - but it impressed upon me the difficulty of incorporating the perspective of younger consumers.

The key challenge for traditional retailers will be to allow their retail operations to transition from the Baby Boomers that have served them well for the past 30 years and move forward to serve the next Generation (Gen X 35-45) and the generation beyond (Millennials <35).

The graphic below presents how the new and existing age groups consider furniture attributes during the shopping process.

Major takeaway: the younger generation values comfort more than price, but they still want quality and design (aesthetics).

It is not hard to understand what they want, just ask.

Cover Story: The Furniture Consumer Has A Pulse!

This growth in the short term will be fueled by Generation X (35-44), which is the fastest growing age group under 65, projected to grow 1.8% in 2019. What follows is the Millennials, which will dwarf Generation X, but for now, their furniture purchases are limited.

Why are we excited about the sign of life in the furniture consumer? Research just conducted indicates they have a “dream style” that they look forward to in the future. The results were surprising.

When we forced the consumer to choose visually and did not allow the ubiquitous choice of “transitional”, we found some interesting dream styles.

While many of the consumers were stuck with the eclectic combination of traditional, surprisingly only 31% choose that as their style of their dreams.

The challenge of the industry is to make the consumer move on to satisfy their dream of a new style. The fact is that over 50% of the households are thinking about or are in the process of shopping for furniture. Unfortunately, when these same consumers are surveyed a year later, less than half have moved on that desire.

What influences style? The industry has struggled with style designation. In the eighties, consumers moved away from the historical designation of the 18th Century or French provincial. As individuals became more inclined to express their individual styles in apparel, home furnishings were not far behind. Style performance is influenced by the lifestyle of the individual and how they want to spend their time. DesignCliq, a family of applications that captures and engages customers, has explored the relationship between consumer performance, as it relates to a style of furniture, using a series of fun questions about their preferences.

 

 

DesignCliq Questions:

  • How do you like to entertain?
  • How do you spend your ‘me’ time?
  • How would your friends describe you?
  • When in a city, it would be fun to…?
  • When looking for home décor inspiration you like the rooms to be?
  • Where do you find style inspirations?
  • Which magazine says you?
  • Which would be your dream home?
  • Who is your favorite male actor?
  • You just won the lottery, now what?

The response to these questions are statistically weighed and associated with a retailer or manufacturer’s product. The result is that 87% of the consumers agree with this match.

A national survey recently conducted identified a breakdown of consumer style preference.

The designation of style can be expanded depending upon the merchandising assortment of the retailer or manufacturer. Several manufacturers and retailers are using this research to focus their merchandise selection.

The relationship between a consumer’s lifestyle and their style preference for their furniture is illustrated by the relationship between how they entertain and their preferred furniture style.

The major concern of brick and mortar retailers is traffic or the lack of traffic. FurnitureCore (the research arm of Home Furnishings Business) estimates that traffic this year is off 7%, but this is misleading with some retailers off substantially more. The key questions to retailers are simple: Who did they consider? Who did they shop? Who did they purchase from?

Obviously, a retailer must be “considered.” This is typically referred to as brand awareness. Established retailers have achieved this over many years of advertising and providing an outstanding customer experience. For established retailers, this level could be 70%+, but retailers entering a market with a substantial advertising plan may require 2-3 years to reach a 30% level, if consumers are not focused on furniture or advertising impressions have a low penetration level. For this reason, location, visibility, and signage for a retailer entering the market is critical and worth the additional occupancy cost.

The most important objective for retailers is to make the consumers visit the Internet to research their pending purchase. According to FurnitureCore research, 77% do so before purchasing. Interestingly, from that same research just under 50% visit the store first before beginning that Internet research. In other words, for these consumers, the retailers have an opportunity to impress. The take away for retailers: Don’t let your retail sales associates ignore those “tire kickers”.

“From our experience in assisting retailers with improving their sales management, these consumers are often not included in the traffic number.”

 -Bob George, president, Impact Consulting

The buying process that ultimately occurs indicates that a consumer visiting a brick and mortar store can provide some insight to the changes in traffic coming into the store. The first recognition is that the target consumer is changing. The Baby Boomer, long the favored target for the traditional retailer, is receding into retirement. For the next decade, before the Millennials appear, the new target consumer is Generation X. Fortunately this consumer has not abandoned the independent retailer and regional chains unlike the coming Millennials.

The major challenge, as mentioned earlier, is to get the consumer to find time to purchase furniture. Unlike the older Baby Boomers, furniture is a shared desire. Interestingly, the males lead the way in initiating the furniture purchasing process. However, it is the task of the female partner to make the initial visit.

While interested in furnishing the home, the male delegates to execute a significant change from the preceding generation. 

However, the shopping process is abbreviated with the task being complete within two weeks (37.7% for 35-44 and 30.8% for 45.54) or extended out beyond three months.

The reasons for the Generation X’s (35-44) furniture purchases are significantly different from the preceding generation, the young Baby Boomers (45-54). Obviously life changing events impact the purchase of furniture.

To summarize, when the consumer reaches 35-44 it is a time for change while the preceding generation of young Baby Boomers have settled down. Only 18% of both listed desire for new furniture as their reasons for purchase.

What are retailers doing to address the changing consumer?

While other distribution channels, such as the lifestyle stores Restoration Hardware (RH) and Arhaus have adopted a more focused marketing approach to selected lifestyle segments, traditional furniture stores have continued with large selections of products and styles.

The result is a time starved, often impatient consumer being confronted with a 100,000 square foot monument only to be abandoned for the more curated approach of the lifestyle stores that focus on the style that their targeted consumer wants. The frustrated traditional retailer bemoans the fact that they have the “Pottery Barn” look at a better price – why wouldn’t they shop?

Several traditional retailers have begun to recognize the problem and are executing solutions. Morris Furniture, with their new Columbus store, has adopted a lifestyle approach. Working with , a store design firm, consumer research was used to develop the new concept. Bill Chidley of ChangeUp explained the process.

“Like many furniture retailers today, Morris is under pressure from changing consumer behaviors and an abundance of new shopping choices when it comes to furnishing a room or just replacing a sofa. We knew that merely redecorating the store, or moving categories around was not going to be enough, so we started with the notion that the Morris brand —what it stood for and why— had to be the core. We needed to relaunch the retailer, and since they had virtually no awareness in the new market we were helping them enter, there was both an opportunity and a need to do this.”

Chidley says they began by gaining an understanding of what consumers want from a retailer through quantitative research they conducted in Cincinnati and Dayton—Morris’s two markets.

“ We learned that consumers find little difference between furniture stores when it comes to rational attributes like selection and having deals, and that they find them a chore to shop,” he said. “We also learned that Morris was under-appreciated for the quality and style of the products they offered. So, we crafted a brand idea around the proposition that Morris could provide the styles and inspiration the consumer is looking for from specialty competitors like Arhaus, but at a better price-point. The result was making their shopper feel smart and savvy for shopping at Morris.”

To activate the brand idea, the decision was made to revise the name and identity to Morris Home, and create a more sophisticated logo. “We developed a tone-of-voice for the brand that insured it ‘spoke’ (through advertising and marketing communications) with a voice that reinforced a stylish, inspiring, and savvy personality,” Chidley said. Finally, the concept was brought to life with a dramatic exterior expression, and a new layout that merchandised distinct style statements through whole-room vignettes down a main “boulevard” aisle. “This merchandising approach simplified shopping by aligning with the new shoppers path-to-purchase, where they begin online for inspiration then show up in the store with a more focused vision of what they want.” Chivley continued, “Instead of a ‘sea of sofas’, Morris shoppers now hone in on a style proposition that feels like Morris knows them and isn’t burdening them with an exhausting hunting expedition.”

The new facility is just the beginning to execute change. Starting with advertising and continuing through engagement by the retail sales associate on the floor, everything needed to change.

In January 2015, Morris Furniture Company began a two-year process trying to create a better shopping experience for their customers. The old Morris Home Furnishings had struggled with showroom display; balancing manufacturer galleries, lifestyle displays and product category areas.  Owner Larry Klaben explains.  “As an independent furniture and mattress retailer we needed to better understand our customer and how she shopped. We selected ChangeUp, a full-service design agency, to help us and to create an amazing customer experience.”

ChangeUp studied the store’s current showrooms as well as competitors’ showrooms, and surveyed furniture customers and Morris associates to fully understand what creates a better showroom experience. Their findings showed that furniture shopping is not so easy and is not fun for customers especially when they are making a long-lasting large ticket purchase. They advised Morris to simplify the process and to help focus the offerings in the large showrooms.

“That data resulted in our new name,” Klaben said. “We are now Morris Home, lifestyle inspired stores with category areas for non-lifestyle products. On one side of our showroom we feature certain lifestyles; Natural Living, Urban Loft and Modern Studio. We believe that no customer is limited to one lifestyle and these three lifestyle displays appeal to a group of consumers. On the other side of the showroom we offer; Uptown Glam, Farmhouse Chic and Heirloom Classic.  Again, many customers are attracted to products within those three lifestyles to create their own eclectic look. In each lifestyle there is a selection of living rooms, dining, and bedroom along with accents to fully create the lifestyle environment. Once inside the lifestyle area there is an intimate feeling, which is mood specific to that lifestyle display. Inside each multi room area, a customer can experience the look and feel as if it were their own home.” Klaben added, “Outside the lifestyle area is additional upholstery that compliments that specific lifestyle.”

The lifestyle areas were designed to flex in size to meet expanding or contracting customer interest in a particular lifestyle. In addition, each of the three metropolitan markets the company serves have different consumer demands. Columbus is a more modern, contemporary, and urban customer than Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, which has more Farmhouse and Classic customers.

“There are three specialty areas showcased in our Morris Home showrooms,” Klaben said. “There is a Design Center featuring customizable upholstery with extensive fabric options.  Morris Home features Bernhardt adjacent to the Design Center as our best design provider. On the other side of the showroom, adjacent to the reclining category display, is the La-Z-Boy area. Our survey data showed that shoppers are often looking for these specific product categories so we located those products on the perimeter of our showrooms.  These areas feature; dining, bedrooms, kids and teen, our Better Sleep Shop, entertainment and reclining.”

Klaben continued, “To help our customers understand their lifestyle preferences, we partnered with DesignCliq, both on our website and in our showrooms. The customer can take a short quiz to determine her dominant lifestyle. This helps both her and our sales specialists determine a starting point to begin shopping.”

Klaben says retailing is all about product and lifestyle displays and requires keen focus on carefully curated product and displays. “Our displays must rival and surpass the individual ‘lifestyle’ stores. That is our biggest challenge; to offer leading fashion merchandise and to offer value to our customers. Each product is merchandised to have a specific home within the six lifestyles, in the extended area or in the product category areas.”

Morris Home is not the only retailer aggressively pursuing a lifestyle approach to merchandising. Art Van has executed new lifestyle displays for its Fall offerings using six distinct lifestyle themes: Mid-century modern, casual, urban, farmhouse, and traditional. All Art Van stores have begun reset.

In addition to the traditional furniture category, Art Van has added a new large home décor department featuring rugs, lighting, wall art, and other accents. The new home décor product will also be integrated with the lifestyle collection. From research done separately by Impact Consulting, parent company of Home Furnishings Business, the need to increase traffic to the store can be accomplished with the integration of all home furnishings products into the store. From FurnitureCore data, furniture and bedding represent only 40% of the consumers’ home furnishings needs.

While the consumer expends on average $848 per household for furniture, other non-durables in the home furnishing category exceeds that amount. While other home furnishing stores are invading our space, such as Target and Big Lot, presenting total furniture collections should traditional furniture stores not return in kind.

The sales of home furnishing stores surged in 2016 and 2017. Fortunately, furniture stores regained their growth so far this year. Much of this is based upon the recent difficulty of certain chains, such as Bed Bath & Beyond, due not to consumer preference but other external factors. However, the seasonality of this distribution channel (31.7 in 4th quarter) will even the performance.

Without a doubt, the emerging consumer is ready to furnish their homes. It is the challenge of the traditional retailers to satisfy their demand for furniture that meets their perception of style offered in an environment that matches their retail experience.

We must be able to change.

Statistically Speaking – The Changing Retail Landscape

The U.S. became over-stored in many channels during the 1990’s and early 2000’s as developers kept building shopping centers and companies continued opening retail outlets. The Great Recession was the initial economic event to impact the retail landscape, especially for furniture and home furnishings stores as the housing and mortgage crisis escalated. Then with the influx of internet companies like Amazon and Wayfair, consumers altered spending habits and priorities. Over the last 10 plus years, dramatic shifts in distribution channels have taken place both in sales and in store counts.

 

Number of Establishments

 

Some retail channels have fared well during the last ten plus years, but many have not. Many channels peaked in total establishments (store fronts) just before the recession and some continued to grow. Except for electronic shopping, mail-order stores and general merchandise (variety) stores, virtually all other retailers of furniture and home furnishings continue to close stores. Furniture, electronics and appliance stores, and home centers peaked in 2007 and continue to decline. Home furnishings stores have been on a similar path, but did increase in number slightly in 2017. Department stores, warehouse clubs and superstores grew during and after the recession, but have been victimized from the pressure of internet companies and have decreased in number in the last couple of years. (Table A)

The number of furniture stores peaked in 2007 at 27,630 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since that time brick and mortar furniture stores fell to 22,052 store fronts this year. This 20.2 percent total decline or annual CAGR of 2 percent loss represents the largest decrease of all the key channels 2007 to 2018 Q1. The announced closing of 700 Mattress Firm stores will result in another 3 percent decline. Home furnishings stores did not fare much better falling 19.4 percent in number over the 10 plus years, but showed a slight uptick in the first quarter of this year of 0.3 percent.

 

During the same time period 2007 to 2018 Q1 pure electronic shopping and mail order houses surged by 100.9 percent or 6.5 percent annual growth.

 

Warehouse stores and supercenters (i.e. Costco, Wal-Mart, and Target) peaked in number two years ago in 2016 at 6,073 locations and have gradually closed 1.1 percent of the stores over the last 15 months. Department stores (i.e. Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Kohl’s, TJ Maxx) as a group also showed strong signs of post-recession recovery, increasing the number of stores by 22.5 percent (2007 to 2015) before a catastrophic closing of 14.5 percent of stores in just over two years. Electronics and appliances stores, the largest distribution channel in number, along with home centers (i.e. Home Depot, Lowes’s) continued to remove stores throughout the recession and after, maintaining an average annual decline of 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively. At one time the electronics and appliances stores totaled 53,343 but now number 45,351 in 2018 Q1. (Table B)

Table C tracks the percent of stores closed from two historical perspectives – (1) 2007 to 2012 during the recession and subsequent slow recovery years, and (2) 2012 to 2018 during economic recovery and high growth. During the recession and the immediate recovery years, furniture stores and home furnishings stores shuttered more locations as a percent of total than any other in the key retail furniture groups, closing stores at an annual rate of 3.8 percent over those five years. Meanwhile home furnishings stores closed 3.5 percent of locations each year 2007 to 2012. But these two primary channels took their hits early due to the housing and mortgage crises as did home centers. During the last five years furniture and home furnishings stores lost less than 1 percent of its outlets annually. Meanwhile home centers closed 2.2 percent of stores annually in the five-year recessionary/recovery period and continued to lose 1.2 percent annually 2012 to 2018Q1.

Other retail channels continued to grow during the early recession and post period or had minimal store closings, but have closed stores in recent years. These include department stores and electronics and appliances retailers. The only retailers to continue opening stores were warehouse clubs and superstores, general merchandise stores, and electronic shopping and mail-order houses (non store retailers).

Retail Sales

During the recovery period from 2012 forward, all furniture and home furnishings distribution channels grew in sales, despite store closings, with the exception of electronics and appliance stores and department stores (Table C).

Retail sales from electronic shopping and mail-order houses catapulted 131.3 percent from the peak of the recession in 2009 to 2017, but furniture stores and home furnishings stores experienced a healthy growth in retail sales, increasing by 23 percent and 21 percent from 2012 to 2017.

Both furniture stores and home furnishings stores’ sales have grown a yearly average of 4 percent in the past five years. Warehouse clubs and superstores have slowed momentum of sales in the last five years, but are still growing an average of 2.6 percent each year (Table E).

The net effect, especially for furniture, is that even though industry sales slowed and stores shuttered, the ones left standing had higher sales and continued to increase their sales per store, as shown in Table F. The average annual sales per store for furniture stores climbed steadily from $1.9 million in 2009 to $2.9 million in 2018 YTD – jumping 52.6 percent. Home centers have also benefitted from the net effect, increasing their sales per store by 73.7 percent during the same time period, mostly likely as smaller stores have closed.

Many have labeled the next few years a “Retail Apocalypse” as total retail chains in varied product areas are projected to exit the market and existing retailers pare down their stores in number and in size. Some predict entire malls will continue to close. However, furniture still remains one of the products where many consumers still like to “kick the tires” before purchase. And despite the store closings, retailers are finding ways to survive and perhaps re-gain some market share.

Coach's Corner: Where Have All the Shoppers Gone? Long Time Passing?

Our very existence is based on the process of attracting shoppers and turning them into buyers. We often refer to these people looking for our products as traffic. On our websites that might be defined as clicks, whereas in our stores they would be called UPS. They are the most critical ingredient in our business because without enough of this raw material, we can not produce the sales we need to survive and prosper. Therefore, it is the consumers that we get to shop with us, or shoppers, that we really need to focus on. We like to talk about how to get more of them to visit, however, since most furniture stores (particularly smaller ones) are getting fewer then the year before, a very pertinent question might be where have all the shoppers gone?

Since I have been a musician and played guitar almost all my life, when this question popped into my head, it was quite natural for the title of a very popular folk song from my youth to come to mind. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? was written by Pete Seeger and made a hit by many others, including Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Kingston Trio in the early sixties. Seeger’s inspiration for the song came on the way to a concert at Oberlin College, which was one of the few venues that would hire him due to his politics during the McCarthy era. He read these lines from a traditional Cossack folk song: “Where are the flowers, the girls have picked them. Where are the girls, they have taken husbands. Where are the men, they are in the army”. He used these lines as the basis for his original three-verse ballad. In 1960, Joe Hickerson added the final two about graveyards and the return of the flowers, making it what’s called a “circular song”. Its anti-war message during the unpopular Vietnam War was widely embraced, and in 2010 it was listed as one of the top 20 political songs of all time.

While I am not trying to get too political here, I think it is fair to say that we as furniture retailers are currently at war, because each distribution channel is fighting for its share of the those that are shopping for home furnishings. Over the past few decades, we have seen the battle intensify as the consumer has been given more and more ways to buy the goods we sell. This huge increase in selection for both product and shopping experience has caused the demise of thousands of retailers. As people choose to shop elsewhere, revenue dries up and businesses must either change or go away.

This process has mostly impacted what used to be a once dominant main player of retail furniture distribution, the independent general furniture store. In the last ten years, we have lost roughly 21% of furniture storefronts, mostly from this segment. These entrepreneurial entities, many still family-owned, had as much as half of the business nationally in the latter part of the 1900’s, sank to 35% share in 2005 and now have roughly a third of that. Will they go extinct or will the lost shoppers return? Follow my rewrite of this great song to find out my opinion about it.

Where Have All the Shoppers Gone?

Where have all the shoppers gone? Long time passing

Where have all the shoppers gone? lLng time ago

Where have all the shoppers gone?

Small stores took them, everyone,

When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Back when my parents first shopped for furniture, after World War II, the main destination for most people to get ideas and purchase furniture was usually a small store in their community. There were a few larger chain stores and the traditional department stores which catered mainly to the “carriage trade” or higher-end customers. Selection was limited, and this was a good solid business to be in for a long time.

Where have all the small stores gone? Long time passing

Where have all the small stores gone? Long time ago

Where have all the small stores gone?

Gone to big stores, everyone,

When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

As we moved through the latter half of the 1900s, the Big Box, category-killing stores became the place to go. Good selection, quick delivery of many in-stock items and promised savings based on their big volume attracted many who would have been smaller store customers. Regional and national chains grew their share substantially, as did Sears, Penney’s and Wards, mainly at the expense of the smaller stores. In addition, we saw the emergence of specialty vertical and branded stores like Ethan Allen and La-Z-Boy that drew even more good shoppers away from the local general furniture store.

Where have all the big stores gone? Short time passing

Where have all the big stores gone? Not so long ago

Where have all the big stores gone?

Gone to websites, everyone,

When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

With the turn of the last century and the rapid growth of the internet as a retail channel for virtually everything, an entirely new dynamic hit the furniture industry. Whereas in the past nearly everyone ended up purchasing their furniture locally, now they had the opportunity to shop outside their physical market and have it delivered. Previously there were several highly successful retailers that used mail-order catalogs and 800 numbers to do this, but while they did well, it was never a huge percentage of the overall business. More recently with the growth of dedicated home furnishings sites and the advent of Amazon throwing its substantial marketing/selling power at the industry, we have seen this channel grow from nothing to roughly 15% in a very short time. Big stores have jumped on board and found some success selling online. The last segment to get onboard with it for various reasons, has been the smaller retailers. How big will it get? Will shoppers buy a “pig in a poke” as far as color, size, finish and comfort goes?

Where are all the websites going? In no time passing

Where are all the websites going? Here’s where they’ll go

Where are all the websites going?

Going to small local stores, everyone,

When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

As good as it has been over the last few years for online only sellers, we have recently seen the huge year-over-year growth slow a bit, falling from 26% in 2015 to 12.9% last year. This channel is still far and away the fastest growing one, but have they begun to tap out their available market share? Are most of those willing to purchase big ticket items for their home on the internet already doing so? While it is a given that online sales will continue to dominate in accessories, flatpack furniture and other easy to ship items, will they gain a similar piece of the action for “real furniture” and particularly better goods? I think that the jury is still out on this, but there are some indications that the party may be winding down a bit. If the Amazon’s and Wayfair’s of the world think that all of their future growth will come from people buying online, why then are they building small brick and mortar stores? Why are successful online and traditional retailers like Target and Nordstrom’s reportedly investigating building boutique size stores in smaller markets?

Where will all the shoppers go? In the future

Where will all the shoppers go? Not too far away

Where will all the shoppers go?

Going back to small stores, everyone

When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Because the best place to be in order to build long lasting relationships based on trust and value is still person-to-person and face-to-face, I believe that the local small stores will rise again! So don’t give up. Take advantage of who you are and where you are to sell the services you provide to the people you can reach out and touch. When will we ever learn that there is no place like home!

Oh wait, isn’t that another song?

What Sells: Accentuated Style

According to FurnitureCore (the research arm of Home Furnishings Business) data, accents have held their place with furniture sales (excluding bedding) at 5.56%. With all the emphasis of online marketing from manufacturers and online retail sites like Wayfair, it is likely that the percentage will continue to grow.

Why all the excitement around the accent furniture category? There are many perceivable factors that may contribute to this. Accent pieces are items that emphasize or complement a room’s décor. They are produced in a seemingly endless variety and are often a segue into emphasizing consumers’ personal style. Consumer tastes have become more inclined to steer away from matching groups of furniture, opting instead for eclectic pieces that create a bit of fun or personality in a room. Often these pieces do not necessarily have a utilitarian requirement, but simply serve as an addition to an existing space.

Accent pieces tend to be extremely versatile in terms of functionality and come in a range of affordable options, colors, and designs. According to ZUO’s CEO, Luis Ruesga, “Furnishings are fashion for every style and passion. Working with global trends we manufacture innovative, fashionable and affordable styles that can be enjoyed in any application.”

What does this mean to brick and mortar stores? It means opportunity. An opportunity to tack on the item that has caught their customer’s eye as they are making their purchase for a sofa, dining, or bedroom set. An opportunity to increase the average ticket of each sale. And, perhaps most importantly due the category’s versatility in both functionality and price, it means an opportunity to make a sale even when total sales are slow.

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