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From Home Furnishing Business

What Sells: The Good of Wood

By Jason Schneider

In the world of furniture, the term “solid wood” has undergone some transition. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it meant just what it says: solid wood. Maple. Oak. Cherry. Today, the meaning is not always quite as clear.

“The term ‘solid wood’ lost a lot of meaning during the flood of imports, starting in the early 2000s with China joining the WTO,” says Gat Caperton, president of Gat Creek Furniture. “Five to 10 years ago, many retailers would say to me, ‘No one cares about solid wood anymore.’ Today, people care again.”

High-quality, high-end American-made furniture should be in demand for a lot of reasons, says Charles Curry, vice president of sales and strategy, Simply Amish. “American ingenuity has created some of the finest products in the world. Is it all about price? To some consumers it is,” he says. “Retailers are smarter than ever, but are losing money by not catering to those buyers who want higher-end product, customized to their exact wants and needs.”

Renewed Interest

Some of the reasons for the renewed interest in solid wood, says Caperton, are quality and the growing importance of having a healthy home.

“Solid wood is still one of the best building materials ever available,” he says. “It’s long-lasting, beautiful, and repairable. The furniture makers of the past were often called joiners—these are people who knew how to join two pieces of wood together to make something functional and long-lasting.

“Healthy home is about not bringing chemicals into the home. MDF and plywood are potential carriers of formaldehyde and other VOCs,” Caperton adds. “With solid wood, you know what you get, and you know that it’s natural.”

Luke Simpson, president and CEO of Durham Furniture, based in Durham, Ontario, Canada, expects growth in solid wood to continue “as consumers want to own quality more and more.”

“We’re seeing consumers return to heirloom-quality solid wood product after experiencing the shortfalls of lesser quality product,” says Simpson. “For many, ‘solid wood’ includes those products created from wood, including plywood, medium density fiberboard, and veneer. At Durham, solid wood does not include these products—all of our pieces are pure solid wood, including end panels and drawer components.”

Furniture becomes a part of your life, says Curry, “so case pieces that are funky, askew, and aren’t even wood, are akin to putting a rusted, oily engine block in your living room, and using it as a coffee table. Although that’s being sold as steampunk.

“American companies who still manufacture domestically would be well-served, in my opinion, to focus on design, quality, and instead of bludgeoning each other, band together to create a marketing campaign that resonates with American furniture buyers, gets them excited, and gets them into stores,” he adds.

A Trend Toward Softer Woods Online

Keith Covey, president of New Ridge Home Goods, an online retailer of birch storage products, has seen a trend toward softer woods, particularly pine, in the online space.

“That is part and parcel to the fact that the price points are more important than the actual wood,” he says of the uptick in pine. “Everybody’s using pine because it gets you to the price point where you need to be.”

New Ridge Home Goods has basically one line, Covey says, and has found its greatest success in what could be thought of as an unusual space—the bathroom. “It’s kind of been an underserved room in the home, [that] the traditional furniture store has certainly forgotten,” he says.

“For us, space savers, bathroom stools, shower stools, ladder shelves, any of the occasional furniture you might find somewhere else, the solid wood end of it has been very successful.”

The Right Price

Price points for New Ridge Home Goods are fairly low. “I would say our key pieces are $99, and that really goes back to the dot-com end of things,” Covey says. “It becomes very crucial to hit those specific price points for folks—$99, $149, $199. You can certainly find products for less money, but we try to do a better product.”

Gat Creek’s bestselling line is called Vineyard. “I created it 17 years ago,” says Caperton. “It’s based on New England Shaker, Arts and Crafts design.” Bedroom cases range from $2,000-2,500 in the collection, with a dining table and four chairs around $2,500-3,500.

The Defined Distinction Bedroom is Durham’s bestseller, with the four-piece collection, including queen bed, nightstand, dresser, and mirror, retailing for $6,500-7,500.

“The combination of solid cherry construction available in multiple finishes, brushed stainless steel bases, and dealer support of the collection have made it a top seller for the company,” says Simpson.

A bestseller for Simply Amish is the casual contemporary Auburn Bay dining table, with a retail price of $3,342 and available in soft maple and six other hardwoods, with custom surface treatments available. Another of their bestsellers is the modern-style Wildwood Cross Base end table, available in walnut and six other hardwoods, retailing for $1,620.

Contemporary Styles, Customization Find Popularity

Caperton describes Gat Creek’s second best-selling line, Sabin, as a contemporary take on classic forms. Their fastest-growing collection, Monaco, is also a contemporary take on traditional.

Contemporary is a bestseller for Durham Furniture as well. “In the last year or so, our bestsellers have been more contemporary than traditional,” says Simpson. “The majority of our contemporary lines have been introduced in the last three years.”

Durham offers more than 40 finishes on their collections and has found customization helps drive sales. “There was a time when solid wood was only offered to consumers the way the manufacturer presented it,” says Simpson. “Today, consumers want their purchases to reflect themselves, so providing customization options is the biggest change we’ve seen in the last few years.”

Designs are getting very creative, Curry notes. “You’re seeing larger American companies do designs that traditionally came out of boutique builders,” he says.

Caperton has seen a shift in colors and finishes, from warm tones to cooler. “Cool tones are grays, whites, and ‘walnut’ brown,” he says. “A secondary trend is away from glossy and thick finishes. People prefer a close-to-the-wood finish. This type of finish looks and feels more natural. Thick or glossy finishes too often remind people of plastic.”

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