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From Home Furnishing Business

Cover Story: Competitive Battlefield Is it Time to Begin Again?

As the storm raged outside it was easy to believe that furniture retail as we knew it would never return. Traditional furniture retailers emerged from an imposed shutdown to find unprecedented demand from consumers for furniture. As can be seen from Graph A, demand far exceeded the previous year.

However, traditional retailers soon realized it was not a level playing field. First, being designated as “non-essential retailers” forced many to resort to selling by appointment, essentially entering the store via the side door. At the same time, other furniture retailers that had appliances in their merchandise assortment continued with business as usual. Many retailers reacted by adding a few appliances to their mix to game the system and remain open.

Already carrying some furniture, mass merchants and home improvement stores expanded their assortment to meet significant demand from customers. After experiencing the gross margin potential, these retailers are now committed to the furniture category. A major question for traditional furniture retailers is, how were mass merchants and home furniture stores able to source products so easily?

Even before the pandemic, general merchandise stores such as Big Lots were venturing into furniture. Armed with the Broyhill brand, sales exploded up to a reported $400 million in the first year and forecasted to be a billion dollar contributor in the next few years. Based on the financials, Big Lots’ commitment to furniture will continue with other “value retailers” to follow.

And then there was e-commerce. While confined to the home, traditional retailers watched as delivery trucks went to neighbors to deliver that must-have new recliner. Without a doubt, the traditional furniture segment did not get their share of the home furnishings boom. In fact, many were lucky to reach 2019 levels. While written sales exploded, the lack of product resulted in significant backlogs. Graph B shows the comparison.

By year-end equilibrium appeared to be restored, but continued supply chain issues still plague the industry. The thought is whether all channels will be impacted the same.

Over the last several years, industry focus has been on the competition within the traditional furniture retail sector. While the threat of e-commerce has been recognized, the prevailing thought was the level of penetration would level off as did with the 1-800 retailers of the 1980s. Ultimately, the threat of retailers such as Blackwelders, Roses and others finally disappeared. Only Furnitureland South remains with a substantial regional presence, but it still has remnants of the 1-800 model.

The enforcement of sales tax laws and physical purchase presence dampened the growth. However, just as important in the decline was that local retailers recognized the retail experience delivered by the new model was what consumers wanted. Definitely there was a price differential, but to paraphrase one of those local retailers:

The imposition of sales taxes for e-tailers has slowed the growth of e-commerce. However, the consumer still wants the convenience of anytime shopping, the range of selection, and the availability to get knowledgeable assistance through chat features.

We cannot dismiss the digital challenges furniture and other consumer products must accept and join. Twenty years ago, e-commerce retailers were still in their infancy. In 1999, only one major consumer product, clothing (including footwear) posted over $1 billion dollars. By contrast, only $350 million was sold for furniture and home furnishings.

As with the death of the Great Recession, we can only surmise that the pandemic will cause a similar growth. The largest furniture e-tailer Wayfair posted revenue of $14.1 billion in 2020, up 55% from the previous year. More troubling is the jump of 34% in Wayfair’s customer base to 20.3 million. No longer can the industry say Wayfair is not profitable, as they now have a net income of $185 million.

However, it is not only the e-commerce distribution channel that is eroding the traditional furniture retail sector. In the 1970s, brick and mortar furniture stores controlled more than 70% of sales, sharing with department stores and mass merchants like Sears, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward. These mass merchants have disappeared from furniture and department stores and are struggling to find their place in the product category. Furniture stores, those that derive at least 70% of their revenue from furniture and bedding now attract 42% of the consumer expenditures. Graph D presents the historical data.

We have estimated that e-commerce represents $84 billion, so where does the other $127 billion reside? The lifestyle stores with both Retail Verticals such as Restoration Hardware (RH) and Manufacturer Verticals such as Bassett are a significant presence, primarily in the upper/premium price points. This retail sector represents $8.7 billion in sales (Figure 1).

However, this sector has embraced the omnichannel experience with a balance between online and brick and mortar. Due to the pandemic many retailers in this sector were forced to close stores. The projection is that many of these stores will never reopen, accelerating the move to e-commerce. The vertical manufacturers are an important part of this retail sector with the largest participant being Ashley Furniture. The company just passed the 1,000 store marker and has estimated sales of $5.5 billion (Figure 2).

Emerging in this sector, are small startup manufacturers that are bypassing both brick and mortar and e-tailers by selling direct to the consumers. Attracting the attention of venture capitalists, these new industry participants could become the disruptors of the next decade. The traditional furniture stores represent over $110 billion in sales and are segmented into Regional Chains, retailers that have a presence in multiple states; Large Independents, retailers serving multiple markets in the same state; and finally, the Independents, retailers serving one or more markets but earning less than $50 million in sales. While these retailers still represent a significant portion of the traditional furniture stores, they are declining.

The regional chains have been in a growth mode for the last decade. For early regional chains: Havertys in the South, Raymour and Flanigan in the Northeast and Rooms To Go on the East Coast, expansion has slowed while others have picked up the pace. Fueled by real estate made available from the demise of some big box retailers, large independents have expanded. Regional chains control $ 17.1 billion of the total market and 43.2% of the furniture store sector. While significant, the regional coverage is short of national retailers. Out of all 404 markets (MSAs), only the promotional/middle retailers approach a third of the total markets (Figure 3).

There are some regional retailers content to remain within state boundaries. However, through expansion or acquisition many of these retailers will become regional chains in the near future. These retailers represent $3.7 billion of the total market (Figure 4). It should be noted a number of these large independents are in Florida. While a large state, many of the markets are getting very competitive.

While the pandemic put a halt on expansion plans, projects already underway continued and many traditional retailers expanded their footprint in 2019/2020 as Figure 5 quantifies. As expected, many of these expansions did not increase market share. How will 2021 translate into expansion among an abundance of retail space? Caution should be encouraged as all retail is exploring omnichannel distribution as a dominant expansion strategy. Furniture industry beware.







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