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From Home Furnishing Business

Flash Points

California Is Set to Revise its Flammability Standard—the Rest of the Country Awaits.

Never underestimate the power of the media.

A Chicago Tribune investigative report last summer examining the eco-toxicity of flame retardant chemicals used to meet the State of California’s open flame test for furniture led Governor Jerry Brown to demand a revision to the law, Technical Bulletin 117.

California regulations governing substances such as formaldehyde in home furnishings products have led to national standards, so retailers need to keep track of developments in the state regarding the issue of flammability in the products they sell on their floors—and anything else that might land them in legal trouble in the future (see accompanying story, “Prop 65 Looms”).

When it comes to flammability, a lot is happening fast, and that’s one reason the American Home Furnishings Alliance made flammability a focal point of its annual Sustainability Summit last month in Charlotte, N.C.

“People doing the science aren’t talking to the people making the decisions,” said Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist who’s executive director and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, Berkeley, Calif., and a visiting scholar at the University of California’s Department of Chemistry, during her keynote address to the AHFA gathering.

CHEMICAL HARM VS. LIVES SAVED
Blum has examined the toxicity of flame retardant chemicals since the 1970s, when her research was instrumental in banning the use of brominated tris in children’s pajamas, and her studies played a big role in the Chicago Tribune’s report. She got more media attention again in November with the release of a study examining the flame retardant chemicals found in sofas purchased over the last two decades. The gist of her argument is that the long-term health effects of off-gassing from flame-retarding chemicals causes more harm than any lives purportedly saved through regulations such as TB 117.

The revised standard does not direct manufacturers to use particular flame retardants. It’s a flame test only. It also exempts items believed to be of little fire risk from labeling requirements. For residential upholstery, it calls for a smoldering test only standard; addresses the upholstery cover fabric; tests the interactions of components of upholstered furniture; and adheres to testing standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM).

Tonya Blood, chief of California’s Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Insulation, is responsible for overseeing revisions to TB 117. She presented the revised state rule  at the AHFA gathering.

“Health and safety relates to the workers in your plants and factories as well,” Blood told the AHFA gathering. “I do not test for chemicals. That is not my or my bureau’s function. We test for flammability alone. … If you want to use other products or other technology, we want to make sure our standard is flexible enough for you to do that.”
The new California standard also acknowledges the role that cover fabrics play relative to filler material such as foam in fire behavior with upholstered furniture. Why ASTM standards?
ASTM “has broad stakeholder participation … and it’s a consensus-based standard,” Blood said. “The test methods are reproducible, reliable and widely practiced.”
California work also found smoking is a huge problem in furniture-related fires. Blood cited Department of Homeland Security research showing that the fatality rate was more than seven times greater in smoking-related residential fires than non-smoking-related residential fire; and that the National Fire Protection Association found smoking materials remain the leading cause and the greatest risk factor of upholstered furniture fires and losses today.
In California, of 50 deaths related to upholstered furniture fires annually, 44 are smoking-related.

Other impetuses to the changes in TB-117:
• A Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that flame retardant treated foam actually increases the damage to cover fabrics from a smoldering cigarette relative to untreated foam.
• A CPSC study found there is no significant difference between the flame retardant foams formulated to pass TB 117 and untreated foams.
• Upholstery cover fabrics play a more important role in fire behavior performance than filling materials per a CPSC study.
• Research confirmed that when the cover fabrics were changed to less smolder-prone fabrics, smoldering resistance of the mock-up assembly significantly improved.
The new standard addresses testing materials used including standard polyurethane foam, where it narrowed the density range of the foam; specified more properties of the foam; and selected higher density foam for testing, which screens out the most smolder prone fabrics or weak barriers.
For cigarettes as an ignition source, the new standard specifies the properties and the ignition strength; reduces potential for variable performance; and allows manufacturers to procure material from various vendors.
Type II tests specify a more smolder prone fabric for a more rigorous test of the barrier material.
The proposed new standard was published Feb. 13, which opened the floor for written comments. (Written comments should go to TB117comments@dca.ca.gov by e-mail; or by mail to BEARHFTI, 4244 S. Market St., Sacramento, Calif. 95834). A public hearing is set for the changes on March 26, and adoption should take place this fall. By July 1 next year, all upholstery manufactured for sale in the state of California must be in compliance.
For inclusion in the public record and consideration in the revision of TB 117, comments must be received in writing.
“Get comments in in time for review so you can perhaps impact changes to the standard,” Blood told the AHFA gathering. “Once adopted, it’s too late to make a change.”
After the March public hearing, Blood’s bureau will spend April reviewing comments, after which it will open the revised standard to additional comment in May or June.
Blood said when it comes to enforcing TB 117, California takes about 50 sample products a month for testing—mostly from retail storefronts.
“If products are failing, we notify the manufacturer,” she said. “We’ll issue a citation, a fine, up top stopping sale of that product in California. We’ve found manufacturers are quick to want to come into compliance and address the issue.”

TALKING ABOUT THE ISSUE
AHFA assembled a stakeholder panel at its Sustainability Summit to bring further depth to the fire-retardant chemical conversation, moderated by Dr. Ana Mascarenas, policy and communications coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles. In addition to Tonya Blood and Arlene Blum, the panel included Robert Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association; Hardy Poole, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the National Textile Association; Don Coleman, president of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council; and Malin Nasman, product requirements and compliance specialist for Ikea North America.
How attentive are retailers in general to regulations governing the product on their floors?
“For Ikea, it’s in our DNA,” Nasman said. “I do think it’s very important for retailers to get educated because regulators go to retailers to get product for testing. Tonya (Blood), Arlene (Blum) and I are reaching out to many retailers for that reason.”
Ikea has trading offices worldwide working with around 1,000 suppliers to control product development from design to retail floor. The retailer’s product requirements and compliance group must comply with standards in the 41 countries where it does business. The group monitors laws and standards, safety and compliance and global testing requirements. Ikea owns testing labs in Sweden and Shanghai­—the latter facility serves as a training center for store associates and suppliers in China.
“Our policy is to minimize or completely refrain from using harmful materials,” said Nasman, who noted that Ikea has much more control over its supply chain than most home furnishings retailers.” We’ve removed several questionable substances (from our products) before they were even regulated.
“In general, our policy is when there are regulations, we go with the strictest one.”
TB 117 already has affected Ikea, due to flame retardant chemicals required to meet the state’s flammability standard.
“TB 117 requires a special range of upholstered furniture,” Nasman said. “We could never sell that sofa in Europe” because of the chemicals.
In general, she said Ikea’s avoidance of flame retardant chemicals leads to three benefits: positive effect on environment and human health; cost savings; and increased product lifetime.
UFAC’s Coleman said TB 117 isn’t the only potential regulatory issue of which retailers should be aware.
“It’s not just the flammability issue, but also what’s inside the product,” he said. “The UFAC tag can help with that. It gives consumers information on what they’re buying.”
Luedeka of the Polyurethane Foam Association warned retailers to make sure they don’t get too comfortable after any regulatory change.
“Any time there’s a change in a safety requirement, there’s a false sense of security,” he said. When it comes to furniture flammability he stressed the “importance of separating the ignition source from the fuel source” by way of example.

TB 117 Check List

Following is a check list for your vendor
partners under revised TB 117 guidelines.
n Do I have to test or re-test any
components or materials?
No, provided the material will not cause the upholstered furniture to fail.
n How will I know if a product will pass?
Manufacturers may demonstrate this by using the results from historical data OR Use a
barrier material between the cover fabric and the foam.
n When can I manufacture furniture under the new standard?
Once the regulation is adopted (Fall 2013).
n When must I manufacture furniture under the new standard?
July 1, 2014, is the mandatory compliance date.
n How will this impact me selling my
product to retailers?
There is no sell-through provision for retailers. Retailers must purchase furniture under the new standard on or after July 1, 2014.

 

Inset Story

Prop 65 Is an Issue
Don’t Look Now, But Plaintiffs Might Be Shopping
Your California Store
In October 2011, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment added tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP) to its Proposition 65 list of 800-plus chemicals “known to the State to cause cancer.”
Once a chemical is listed, businesses have 12 months to comply with the Prop 65 warning requirements, and some in the furniture business are getting into trouble. Since December, nearly around 20 furnishings manufacturers selling products in California have been listed in prospective lawsuits related to Proposition 65 labeling of upholstered furniture allegedly containing the TDCPP. AHFA offered guidance (http://bit.ly/XQKCkW) on Prop 65 labeling last October, and Bill Perdue, vice president of regulatory affairs for the association, gave an update at the Charlotte event.
The California law requires any product for sale, or that might be handled in the course of manufacture and delivery, containing a product on the list to be labeled with the statement: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
“This is a notification and warning to consumers that these chemicals are in a product or workplace,” said Bill Perdue, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, at last month’s AHFA Sustainability Summit in Charlotte, N.C. “All consumer products for sale in the state of California are subject to Prop 65,” he said.
Forget CARB, forget TB 117—this is a separate issue.

“Our suggestion is that on the label, include the language that takes care of ‘cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm,’” Perdue said. “The business must provide a clear and reasonable warning of exposure—throughout the entire supply chain.”
He advised attendees at the Charlotte meeting to make a formal communique to any of its retail customers in California and come up with a label that notifies customers prior to purchase that a product contains a chemical on the Prop 65 list; and to even label their products’ boxes so they’re protected while goods are in transit.
Stores should place appropriate signage at the entrance, and Perdue said it’s a good idea to have a “billboard” in the store along with labeling on the product itself, since a sign on the door or a poster on a wall does not suffice as a point-of-purchase warning.
“The regulation doesn’t specify where to put the label, only that the consumer can see it prior to purchase,” he added.
A big problem for retailers is that ordinary customers aren’t necessarily the ones bringing attention to the labeling requirements. “Professional” plaintiffs are hiring people to purchase products, say an inexpensive ottoman, and testing it for TDCPP. Fighting such cases can be expensive.
The choice to fighting is to settle, either alone or with a group of businesses facing the same complaint.
“We’re told this is now a cost of doing business in the state of California,” Perdue said.
He added that Prop 65 applies to retailers selling goods over the Internet to customers in California: “Put the label on the Web site’s home page, or have it pop up when they type in a California ZIP code.”

On Bedding : Justice, Fairness and Humility

At first glance, it may seem like Colorado-based bedding chain Urban Mattress is doing everything … well, wrong. The stores give a percentage of all sales to charity. They don’t do big promotions. They’re very selective in what they carry, avoiding most of the big mattress brands. They encourage employees to own their own franchises.

Thing is, these unconventional principles are working. The eight-store chain (with more locations in the works) is thriving, experiencing growth in a still-hurting economy, with no end in sight. How did they do it, and why is it working so well?

“The driving force behind what we do … our value system … it’s really about justice, fairness and humility,” said Steve Von Diest , a co-founder and franchise owner in Urban Mattress who also coaches new franchisees.

“How justice plays out in the mattress industry is fairly deceiving,” Von Diest continued. “The bait-and-switching, even the labeling of mattresses from the same vendor between two different stores is very different … so we said, ‘What products can we choose that are going to eliminate the three-to-six-year turnaround (between beds)?’ We focused on products that we believe (are) right for the customer. We may not see the customers back for 10 to 20 years. That may not necessarily be right for our bottom line, but it’s right for them.

“We’re very upfront. We don’t do sales (promotions) because we’ve noticed a pattern in the industry—sales are typically a markup with a dropdown … we’ve lowered our margins to as low as possible because we’re owner-operated and we can do that.”

As for the second part of the equation, mercy, Von Diest defined that as “the driving force for what we believe a for-profit business can do in the community. … We care about our customers—not just what their mattress feels like, but also what’s going on in their marriage, their lives, because it all fits into taking care of people.

“We also tweak their mentality on how they too can give back to the community. So our giving program is not just me and (co-founder) Ethan Rietma giving in the background. We’ve actually put it very upfront in our stores, so our customers know that 1 to 2 percent (of sales) is going to go to a local non-profit (charity), and our customer gets to choose the emphasis. … In each of our stores, there are four to five local charities that the owner or their staff is passionate about.”

Addressing humility, Von Diest said “I wouldn’t necessarily call the mattress industry a humble industry. There’s not a lot of admitting of fault and errors. Ethan and I know that many of our customers may know more than us. They’ve done research, so we’ll humbly say we’re sorry, we’re ignorant. We’ll also own our mistakes, and we’re going to make it right with the customer. If we’re replacing something, we want to be very upfront.”

A Chat Between Neighbors
Urban Mattress started out in 2008 as nothing more than a friendly exchange between neighbors. “Billy Williams, who owns the franchise, was my neighbor and a good friend, as was Ethan,” Von Diest recalls. “We all lived on the same street, and Ethan and I had done non-profit work, community development, we were former pastors. … Billy said ‘Hey, I’m going to start a mattress store and I’d love to have you and Ethan join me to infuse the non-profit values—caring for people, caring for the community—into Urban Mattress.” Williams launched the store in Boulder, Colo., with Von Diest and Rietma, who eventually started three more franchises.

To Von Diest, it was crucial that they bring in like-minded people to open new stores. He recalled, “What Ethan and I said was ‘We’re going to take on young guys—upper 20s to mid 30s—and we’re going to teach them how to do this non-profit value set/for-profit mattress business. … We’ll help them launch new stores of their own because I really believe that the owner-operated model allows for care and an opportunity to sell that’s really different than your big box stores.”

Select Vendors
The leaders of Urban Mattress bring their carefully thought-out mindset to their selection of products as well. “We’re an elite retailer of Tempur-Pedic, and we love them,” Von Diest said. “Most of our staff sleep on them. Also, we are an exclusive retailer for Vi-Spring out of England. … We carry Sherwood Bedding out of Phoenix. Those are our main manufacturers. We do carry Sweet Sleep out of Boulder, Colo.—she is the provider of most of our organic pillows and accessories in the natural world.
“We’re not in bed with Serta, Sealy and Simmons and some of the big brands, so it allows us to differentiate product in our stores. It’s very difficult oftentimes to find our product style and quality in the big box stores … we’ve chosen our product to give (customers) a wide variety.”

No Push, Push, Push
Von Diest and his fellow franchisees pride themselves on Urban Mattress’ no-pressure sales approach.
“Our new staff, we script them that ‘You have to talk very upfront,’” he said. “Let’s just use the idea that there’s going to be no additional add-on prices of delivery, set-up, removal. All of that is very clear: It’s free. … We talk about why we price things the way we do. … The product we carry is good enough to sell itself. I just want (customers) to discover the best thing for them according to their pocketbook, as well as what’s good for their body.”

Publisher's Letter : The Value of Design

While he was explaining the features and benefits of the product, I casually mentioned a feature I saw on a similar product in another showroom. The feature I mentioned is a definite benefit and could easily be adapted to most any product you see at Market.

It addresses a problem most consumers have had an issue with at some point before. The fix was a very simple one, but one I had never seen. When I mentioned this, the manufacturer said in jest, “Thanks for the tip.” When I heard his response I just paused and thought, “oh damn, I just let the cat out of the bag.” After a couple of seconds, we both chuckled and our conversation began on how long it would take before others in the industry began knocking off this particular feature.

I’m guessing I’ll see it again in High Point at the April Market, but not from my manufacturing friend. He’s far too reputable and classy to blatantly “take” someone’s idea—but there are others, I’m sure, who are implementing this into the design right now.

I’ve heard it said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”, but maybe not in this case. Designers spend months working on a concept, picking the right materials and coming up with the perfect lines to create the perfect piece.

Once they are happy with the product, work begins with a manufacturer to produce it. The manufacturer builds and markets it, with hopes of getting it to retailers and in front of the consumer.  A lot of time and effort go into this piece. It was an idea in someone’s head just a few months ago. Now the whole world can see it, draw inspiration from it and well, knock it off.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. When does a person cross the line from drawing inspiration to outright knocking off an idea? You all have seen a number of bedroom suits with similar designs and features, someone was first up with the idea, so did all others knock it off? Do you or your customer really care? 

I’m guessing the deciding factor is whether or not it moves off your showroom floor; and I’m OK with that. Maybe the original manufacturer that made this piece should have done a better job of marketing this item. They need to make the potential buyer aware of why the original design is hands down a better product.

They have to distinguish a value at that price point. Then, the consumer has a better understanding on why the price point is set as such. As they decide on which product to purchase, original or knock off, maybe that saying “you get what you pay for” will echo in their heads.

This issue of Home Furnishings Business magazine takes a look at intellectual properties and potential issues that could arise from buying and selling copyright infringed goods. Please take some time to read this issue and make sure you aren’t putting your business in a potential situation that you may regret later. 

Editor's Letter : Legal EASE?

Think about it, after all; retail has amazingly long hours, little thanks, sometimes finicky consumers.

That’s a lot to take without a love for helping people create welcoming homes.

Several conversations with retail friends have all led back to the frustration that legal topics and issues bring into their businesses. Staying abreast of changes in regulations impacting business owners is more than a full-time affair—there are hour and wage regulations; safety regulations; truth in advertising regulations and the list goes on and on.

Hint at the possibilities of a lawsuit over copyright infringement from a competitor or supplier and some retailers may break out into a body-coating sweat. Heaven forbid a legal squabble with a consumer who happened to break her arm and injure her rotator cuff when she stumbled over a low-profile cocktail table while she was admiring great artwork on the wall. (True story, by the way, that cost a retailer a good chunk of change in lawyer and settlement fees.)

In today’s world of hurry-up electronics, smartphones, the Internet and social media, copyright regs get more and more murky and indepth. It’s hard to know what is a copyrighted content, images or designs when surfing through Pinterest, Facebook and Google+. When does someone cross the line from sharing and step into copying?

On another regulation front, the industry is having to reevaluate the use of flame-retardant chemicals in upholstery and bedding. I remember stepping into this industry nearly 20 years ago when the debate over flame retardants was raging as to should we or shouldn’t we use such chemicals in home furnishings to prevent fires.

Today’s research shows the chemicals could leach and result in ill effects to people. Back in 1994, there were folks in the industry who stood firmly against  such treatments for the very reason of the unknown human impact of the chemicals. California—the state with some of the strictest regulations­­—is currently leaning toward changing its standards on chemical treatment for upholstery. Typically, as goes California, so does the rest of the Union.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin, and it’s not easy.

The legal aspects of running a retail business seem more complicated than our country’s tax code. Thankfully, there are lawyers in the world who understand the ins and outs of legal matters that mean the most to retailers.

Inside this month, we take a look at a few of the legal issues retailers face on a regular basis. By no means did we delve into every single law or nuance that you or your colleagues have to worry about. THAT would take some doing.

My advice?

Read the issue, and take some notes. Voice your concerns with your legal counsel. Make him or her a true business partner that you consult on a regular basis instead of only in times of legal crisis. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy reading.

Publisher's Letter: Employee Management

My second position was with a client that I worked with by way of the Fortune 500 that asked me to come to work for them. It was a dedicated third-party logistics provider that was privately held and employed just over 120 people. Less structured than my previous job, but attempting to become a “real” company.

This brings me to my present position as publisher of Home Furnishings Business. A team of five, the majority of us work from home, with some support from our parent company.  Each company has had its share of pros and cons, but each was driven by the fact you must have good employees to deliver on the promises you make to your clients.

At one time or another with each place I have been employed, I have hired, fired or have been counted on to keep morale up within my group of employees. I know the old saying, sh*t floats downhill but it amazes me how quickly a senior manager will run when such tasks come up.

Right or wrong here are a few things that I have learned along the way. 
When hiring, don’t try to just fill a vacancy. Use this time to find an “upgrade” and find someone that will work well within your team. If you hire a person that is motivated, smart and has a good work ethic, you can train them on the necessary skills to help them be successful in the position. They will grow into the role. Don’t rule out hiring from outside your industry, sometimes a fresh set of eyes, ears and ideas is what the position needs as a jumpstart. Explain what is needed for them to be considered successful and supply the tools to make that happen.
Firing, this is a tough one for most people. In today’s world of documenting potential issues, problems and inch-thick personnel files, it’s my thought that a person has a pretty good idea which path they are on before the firing takes place. If you have completed your supporting documentation and included it in this file, you should have no concerns about your next step. You have outlined what was needed for that employee to be successful, and they have not reached those goals. Lose no sleep when terminating an employee; you’ve had discussions along the way about performance issues and addressed this with each item that was put in the file. Cut the cord and move on, your team will be better for it.

Happy employees are more productive employees, but keeping employee morale up is a difficult task. Management needs to keep an eye on morale. Good employers will make sure an employee is feeling  happy and secure in the position, so they can focus on doing their job and not have concerns about the “what ifs”. It’s a fact that an employee will be more productive if they feel good about the company. Remove any doubts employees may have, and you will be rewarded by them. Be sure to acknowledge employees for the effort they give. Celebrate the wins and always be sure to include families in your celebration. The family may not be on your payroll, but they are a vital support for your employee. It’s important for family members to feel included and part of your team. 
This issue of Home Furnishings Business delves into these topics. Take a moment to read it and learn from others who are much more seasoned than me in what makes a successful team in the furniture industry. I’m sure you will walk away with an idea or two that will help you become more successful and create a team environment that will exceed your expectations.

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