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From Home Furnishing Business

A Sale For Any Occasion

By Larry Thomas

Whatever the occasion, occasional furniture is continuing to move steadily from manufacturers’ warehouses to consumers’ homes as the Millennial generation increasingly drives the category’s style and design directions.

Vendors say sales have remained strong despite weaker demand in the second half of last year, noting that occasional pieces can be popular even in the toughest of business conditions because they represent an easy and inexpensive redecorating option. Plus, it’s a low-risk way for consumers to experiment with a style change. If they decide they don’t like the new look, they aren’t stuck with a complete room makeover that may have cost thousands.

“By replacing an occasional chair or coffee table and updating the pillows and rugs, a consumer can get a brand-new look with the same core pieces and hasn’t made a huge investment,” said Rodd Rafieha, senior vice president at Abbyson Living.

That can make occasional pieces trendy stand-alone purchases, given that consumers increasingly are turning away from buying large numbers of items from matched collections.

“We don’t do short collections … everything is very eclectic,” said John Michaelides, senior vice president of sales at Linon Furniture. “But if a consumer wants to build a room around them, they certainly can.”

Michaelides and other executives said that, while coffee tables, end tables and sofa tables still make up the vast majority of occasional furniture purchases, items such as serving carts, bar stools, magazine racks, jewelry armoires, and even small writing desks are now classified as occasional furniture on many retail sales floors.

“Each item stands alone,” Michaelides said. “The value and the look must resonate with the consumer.”

According to research by Impact Consulting Services, parent company of Home Furnishings Business, sales of occasional tables at retail grew slightly faster than overall retail furniture sales in 2016. The research estimated occasional sales at $14.95 billion last year, an increase of 4.06% from 2016. Total furniture sales, meanwhile, were an estimated $82.47 billion, up 3.65% from 2016.

The 2016 figures represented a reversal from 2015 and 2014, when the growth of overall retail furniture sales easily outdistanced the growth in occasional sales.

The research showed that occasional sales were up 5.19% in 2015, compared with a 6.22% jump in retail furniture sales. And the gap was even larger in 2014, when occasional grew only 2.53% while retail furniture sales jumped 6.37%.

Rafieha and John Lannertone, vice president of sales at Modus Furniture, attributed at least some of the most recent growth to Millennials, who increasingly are driving sales and steering style and design trends.

“The demographics that buy furniture are shifting from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials,” Rafieha said. “They love color and the clean lines of the mid-century style, and the glamorous metallic and opulence of modern glam. Metallics have been a huge trend in fashion for several years, and it is natural for these trends to migrate to the home furnishings world.”

Lannertone said the recent uptick has supported the timing of his company’s renewed emphasis on occasional.

“We’ve always had occasional to go with our bedroom furniture and other offerings, but we were not a big player,” said Lannertone. “We put more emphasis on occasional the last three years, and our larger program has been a great addition for us.  We seem to be getting a lot of slots – a lot more than we thought we would get. It has been pretty wild.”

He said the company’s focus on solid wood construction – the same material used in its other wood furniture collections -- also has helped boost its occasional business. “We’re not using inexpensive materials, so we’re not competing against promotionally driven wholesalers,” said Lannertone. “That has gotten us a lot of attention from some very major retailers.”

Style-wise, he said rustic contemporary has been the leader, which is not surprising given Modus’ focus on solid wood and middle to upper-middle price points.

At Abbyson Living, Rafieha sees no slowdown in the mid-century and modern glam styles that are powering that company’s occasional sales.

“The mid-century trend, with its brighter upholstered pieces and clean lines appeal to a broad range of demographics,” he said. “Modern glam is characterized by metallic finishes, mirrored surfaces, tufting, and luxurious fabrics. We have seen great success here and continue to expand our assortment.”

A survey of consumers who recently purchased occasional tables showed that traditional and contemporary were the two most popular styles, by far, according to Impact Consulting. They were favored by 32.9% and 35.1% of those surveyed, respectively. Country/rustic was third at 16.2%, and no other style was favored by more than 7%.

Regarding price, the survey results were much more evenly divided. When asked what they would expect to pay for an occasional table grouping, 36.2% said $250 or less, while 32% said $250 to $499, and 28.5% said $500 to $999.

And not surprisingly, end tables and coffee tables were the most frequently purchased occasional tables. The survey showed that end tables were named by 41.5% of those who had made a recent purchase, while a coffee table was purchased by 31.9%. A sofa or console table was purchased by 17.9% of those surveyed, while nesting tables were purchased by only 8.6%.

Michaelides, for one, believes that the percentage of those buying a sofa or console table will increase significantly in the next few years, and noted that the item is now Linon’s fastest-growing occasional furniture piece.

“It’s really the hidden gem among occasional tables,” he said. “It can go in a hallway. It can go in a bedroom. You can put a flat-screen TV on top of it. You can put it in a game room to hold all the Xboxes and that kind of stuff. And you can even put it in a home office.”

And it’s that versatility, he said, that’s driving the product’s growth, noting that in several of Linon’s collections, the console table is outselling the coffee table.

“The more rooms where that item fits, the more opportunities we have to sell it,” he said.

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