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From Home Furnishing Business

Cover Story: Merchandising THE EFFORT that CREATES THE MAGIC

Let’s explore the four “P’s” of merchandising with the first being PERSISTANCE. That is what it will take as the merchandising team balances short term profitability with long term BRAND that is the percentage of consumers in your market that will consider you when they started the shopping process. The table below present 2023 results by distribution channel.

Over half (53.9%) of consumers did not consider independent retailers while shopping but 46.1% did. 16.2% of consumers considered shopping at independents but didn’t follow through. and 16% shopped but did not purchase. Thankfully 13.9% did. Compare the many competing distribution channels – more on this in the next issue of Home Furnishing Business. What does this mean to the merchandising team? EVERYTHING. Merchandising influences all the factors that drive success – driving the consumer to consider to shop and to purchase.

This article is focused on the traditional furniture sector including both manufacturers and retailers. However, we realize that some traditional manufacturers and retailers are exploring other strategies as as illustrated in Figure 1.

Industries are always in a state of transition. With furniture manufacturing centers shifting from Jamestown, New York to Grand Rapids, Michigan to Western North Carolina. Likewise, distribution channels move from department stores and national chains to independents and regional chains to retail verticals and e-tailers. (Table B) But returning to the traditional channels, what can reverse the downward trend?

In the last 30 years we have seen the second generation expand the family’s single store/single market business to multi-markets, with many stores becoming corporations. Unfortunately, several have moved on to venture capital or public ownership with mixed results.

While the Commerce Department still recognizes over 20,000 furniture stores and home furnishing stores as shown in Tables C and D, the majority of the TRADITIONAL RETAILERS revenue is generated by the top 300 retailers (20.9%) of the TOTAL industry.

After the significant increase in revenue enjoyed by independent retailers, which created a financial windfall during the pandemic, many independent retailers are closing. The main reason for exiting is the lack of a family transition plan. PRODUCT – “THE FOUNDATION OF RETAIL“ There is much confusion about the definition of furniture store and home furnishing store. Here is the official definition from the Commerce Department:

Well, that didn’t help much. However, it does give some guidance to the revenue statistics shown in Table E. For traditional furniture retailers currently, the products would be defined as shown in Table F. It is interesting to note the merchandise line-up difference between the total industry and the larger stores as well as the change from 2017 to 2023.

If we went further back, we would see that other product categories have disappeared from the traditional furniture stores – small appliances, linen, dinnerware and so forth. Why? The most common response is competition from discounters. It is true that the “category killers” become part of the retail scene and drove many products from furniture retail stores. Recently these same “category killers” have met their demise, Babies R Us and Bed Bath and Beyond, to name a few. Today, the category killer is the INTERNET with the focus on the rug, accessory and bedding category, and yes furniture in 2023 with 18% of furniture sold on the Internet according to FurnitureCore, sister company to Home Furnishings Business and its research arm.

Today, there is much discussion about store traffic or lack of such. If we are limiting the reasons for shopping to items that are only purchased every two or three years, what is the impact? Even with a loyal customer base the time between purchases is significant. Consider Table G with 25%± of purchases beyond seven quarters. We should consider the RETAIL VERTICAL distribution channel that now provides 28.2% of all furniture sold. New entities such as Arhaus have 16,000 sq. ft. stores selling on average $10M per store by merchandising the total home. Difficult to execute, but so is a GOB. Harsh? But true. The industry’s emerging customers, the millennials and Gen Z, want more than just a sofa. Shop a Home Goods store and see the “lookers.” Wouldn’t you like that traffic in your store? Maybe they would discover that sofa that they couldn’t live without.

It may be time to take our product categories back. Should we reconsider infant furniture? PRICE POINTS – WHAT WE CAN AFFORD OR WHAT WE WANT? It took a pandemic to allow the furniture industry to attain a price increase. For decades the industry has bemoaned the fact that in 1964 a new Mustang cost $3500 and a sofa was $300 and now a Mustang is 15x that and the industry is still selling $399 sofas. The Consumer Indexes graphic (Graphic 1) illustrates.

Yes, the industry got a bounce, but so did the automotive industry. The price increase obviously accelerated industry growth after the initial shock of the pandemic store closures as can be seen from Graphic 2.

Where this situation resulted in a price increase driven by increased transportation cost, material cost and yes, an increase in gross margin at retail. Gross margin per square foot of selling space accelerated from the $6/sq ft level to the $10/sq ft level in 2021 peaking in 2022 at $12/sq ft before beginning to stabilize at $10/sq ft in 2023 as seen in Graphic 3.

Obviously, this was an increase in revenue but not units sold. However, the pandemic did cause a shift in traditional retailers’ merchandising price points measured by units sold by price point. Using upholstery/ stationary/sofa-love/fabric as a datum, the % of units sold in promotional drop from 24.2% in 2019 to 8% in 2023. This shift caused a 45% increase in average unit selling price of stationary-fabric sofas ($704 --$1027). Graphic 4 presents the comparison.

There is a reason that the furniture industry has been able to continue in existence without any significant price increases – the most frequent answer is the transition to offshore manufacturing. Yes, there was a cost savings after factoring in transportation cost. Now imports represent 26.9% of all furniture sold in the United States. The pandemic disruption caused a reconsideration of the offshore model. However, the many barriers of reshoring are significant. However, the major reason is the gradual reduction in quality. We say gradual because the consumer has a general perception of quality decline but not specific. How or why did the industry pursue this strategy? Gradually the marketing of furniture moved away from quality statements such as “EIGHT WAY HAND TIED” and discussion of wood species – “pecan/cherry/solid oak” to mixed hardwood or construction of “dovetailed drawers.” To illustrate the 2018 consumer awareness of eight way handtied at “did not know” at 41% in 2013 declining to 64% in 2017 and probably nil now. The results are the consumer not being educated about quality differences to justify the price differential. There is a difference between a $399 sofa and a $999 sofa, but does the consumer know or for that matter, does the retail sales associate know? The results are consumer’s purchase without a quality differential. The influence of the consumers income has little impact on the purchase. In fact, currently, in 2023 if the consumer’s household income is $100K - $150K, the probability of purchasing a $400 - $999 sofa is 1.7x compared to 2.1x for purchasing a $1000 - $2000. Graphic 5 presents the percentages.

The retailer’s communication of price/value is critical in the selling process. How important, on a scale of 1-5 of importance? PRICE/VALUE as would be expected ranks 4.55 no matter the age or income. As can be seen from Table H. The distribution channel that delivers the best price/value by far is regional chains as can be seen in Graphic 6.

But concern should be noted about the consumer’s perspective of mass merchants, Internet compared to the independents.

SELECTION - FOUND WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR
The concept of selection has emerged as a focus. The question is HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? No matter the breadth of selection it is important with all ages and incomes. From consumer surveys in 2023 it was the number two behind price/value. (See Table I) While many retailers still have 100,000+ square foot stores, using a destination store strategy, in the last decade others have reduced their store footprint and moved the stores closer to the time starved consumer. The results have been an increase in occupancy cost offset by a reduction in advertising expense reflecting the retailer’s presence in a retail shopping area. Currently (2023) for traditional retailers, the performance is averaging $204/square foot (annual). Graphic 7 presents the monthly statistics.

This performance measure has increased since 2019 due to the average unit selling price the performing values between smaller independents ($145/sq ft) the larger regional chains ($275/sq ft).

The question is —store size versus consumer’s drive distance. The retail/ manufacturing verticals have more stores per household in the market but smaller stores (15M – 35M). However, the stores perform. Consider Arhaus store at 16,000 sq ft on average producing $625 per square foot, a statistic that makes traditional retailer’s question – how can they provide enough selection in that small footprint? The answer is simple. Arhaus focuses on a smaller segment of consumers (29%) than the typical regional chain serving 77% of the households in the market.

The major challenge in merchandising is the generation shift as the Baby Boomer exits and the next two generations become our prime customers. In fact, it has already occurred in 2020 when Generation X surpassed the Baby Boomers. (Graphic 8). With each generation comes a demand for a new style. In a recent survey, we compared from the consumer’s PERSPECTIVE their current style to their dream style. The results are shown in Table J.

While this is a significant challenge for the merchandise team, the extent of the challenge is to compare the dream styles of the Millennials to the Baby Boomers as shown in Graphic 10. Obviously, from the graphics above, retailers must get MODERN and INDUSTRIAL ready for the Millennials. The challenging merchandising question is, what is the definition of style from the consumer’s perception? Remember, it is in the eye of the beholder. Style quizzes have been overused and abused as website interceptors. However, those that are based upon research can help refine YOUR definition of style. Using your buyers’ perception of style as the product is placed in the merchandise lineup, survey your target consumer. When you present your style interpretation and they concur, the process of style refinement begins. (Graphic 11).

The ultimate measure is what sells. In most retailers, a “war room” exists displaying best sellers. A digital version of best sellers for upholstery/ stationary/sofa-line/fabric. (Graphic 12). Note that only one of the SKUs that are best sellers for Millennials are in the Top 5.

PARTNERSHIP - A REAL SHARING OF OBJECTIVES
What is required to reverse this downward trend? -- Simply put, PARTNERSHIP. A return to sharing between manufacturer and retailers, specifically.

The industry is undergoing a generational shift. This shift from the Baby Boomers that fueled the transition from department store and national chains to independent furniture stores has been unstable for the past decade with Generation X now generating 36.7% of the industry revenue and their children, the Millennials, following close behind. (Table K)

The feature article in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue of Home Furnishing Business addressed the consumer. Now we will address the most critical component, the product, and how retailers and manufacturers can address the merchandising task.

It has been a long time since the term “product maven” and “merchant” have been used to refer to furniture leaders. The truth is, it was never the individual that produces the magic, but a team that includes the manufacturer, retailers and the sales representative. For traditional manufacturers and retailers to reverse this trend requires getting the team back together. So, now let’s begin the process of sharing to create improved performance for both manufacturer and retailer. Just follow the red arrows below.

What Sells: Waking Up to Better Sales

The opportunity to tie mattress sales to health benefits is top-of-mind for today’s mattress manufacturers and suppliers. From new yarns and fibers to innovative adjustable bases, product features are being developed and marketed to entice consumers with health benefits. At Therapedic, these advancements are in the form of copper yarns and copper-powered fabrics proven to be absorbable by the skin for wellness benefits. “Our Immunity collection contains the highest copper content of any mattress made for consumers; it consists of copper woven into the fabric cover and infused in the mattress foam,” says CEO and president Gerry Borreggine. “Research shows that copper is anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, reduces inflammation, and may increase circulation, all benefits that appeal to consumers.”

At top price points, luxury models continue to benefit from this wellnessdriven market dynamic. “The consumer’s quest for a healthier sleep experience elevates the importance of the luxury mattress segment,” says Bill Hammer, president of Shifman Mattresses.

For Norway-based Stressless, its newest model—Sky—reflects decades of product knowledge and innovation. “At Ekornes we are not new to the mattress category,” says Peter Bjerregaard, president. We’ve been producing mattresses since 1937 and have a deep understanding of the factors that account for good sleep, and why it is essential for a healthy life. We have combined our extensive sleep insights with the Nordic lifestyle, which promotes good health in harmony with nature, to create the Stressless Sky.”

According to industry research and estimates from the FurnitureCore model developed by Impact Consulting Services, parent company to Home Furnishings Business magazine—sales in the bedding category declined in 2022. At year end, 2022 finished at $17.8 billion compared to $18.51 at the close of 2021. This 3.8% decline contrasts with the preceding 21.6% annual growth of the segment from 2020 to 2021.

Mattress sales in 2022 appear to be lost to other home furnishings categories as bedding’s percentage of total furniture industry sales also declined from 12.9% in 2021 to 11.8% in 2022. The downward trend continued in 2023, with sales down 3.5% year to date at the close of third quarter, with $13.44 billion in sales compared to $13.93 for the period in 2022.

Statistically Speaking: U.S. Furniture Manufacturers Feeling the Slowdown

How Manufacturing Performed in 2023 Figure 2 summarizes the more current data from last year through October. This data highlights two time periods: (1) the first 10 months of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022, and (2) the most recent month-to-month comparison of October 2023 to September 2023 (one month). Shown are shipments, new orders, inventories, and unfilled orders for the two time periods. Also included are import numbers.

Over the last year, manufacturer’s shipments, new orders and inventories have slowed, and growth has been flat. Meanwhile over the year, unfilled orders are down 6.4%. This is against a backdrop of U.S. imports that were down 22.8% during the first 10 months of 2023 over the same time period in 2023. Data month-overmonth for the most current month (October versus September 2023) shows a similar picture with shipments and inventories down, but only slightly, and new orders up 1%. Unfilled orders growth is also flat. Meanwhile imports for October rebounded to grow 11.1% over September. Consumer spending has slowed, but for how long? And when it picks back up, will the consumer be forced to return to long wait times.” The road getting here has been interesting, with furniture manufacturers enjoying the backlog of consumer demand created during the pandemic. Table A shows that quarterly furniture and related products shipments peaked in the fourth quarter of 2022 at $20.78 billion but really began to slow in the second half of 2023, (down 2.9% by the end of the third quarter).

Along the way, U.S. manufacturers caught a break as foreign imports, Chinese in particular, struggled to keep supply chains up and running. Available data through the first three quarters of last year show foreign imports peaking at $15.4 billion in the second quarter of 2022 then ultimately falling over 30% to $11.01 billion in Q3 of 2023.

Monthly data in Table B details furniture shipments and imports December 2022 through October 2023, adding the extra month into the fourth quarter. For U.S. manufacturers, the final dip began in February of 2023 and has not yet recovered. Between January and October of last year, U.S. shipments fell 3.7%. Meanwhile, imports continued to struggle, falling 14.5% January to September last year, but rebounded 11.1% in October over September 2023.

Over the last 10 years, domestic manufacturers’ shipments of furniture and related products peaked in 2022 at $82.1 billion and are expected to be down less than ½ of 1% in 2023 (Table C).

The value of shipments began to decline in 2019 by 3.6% and fell further in 2020 by 5.8%. Shipments began to rebound in 2021 by 7.5% as shutdowns continued in China, and grew further by 8.5% in 2022. At the end of last year, domestic shipments were down 0.04% through the third quarter (Table D).

Also detailed in Table D is a comparison of the growth in manufacturers’ shipments to the growth in the producer price index for furniture 2014 to 2023 October. This graphic shows that until 2019, when inflation was low, manufacturers’ shipments grew faster than price increases/ inflation. However, the pandemic upended that trend somewhat. In 2021, when inflation surged, demand stayed high and ahead of price increases. Since that time, inflation has outpaced the growth in shipments, especially in 2023 when producer prices/inflation for furniture grew 4.5% while shipments have shown no growth October year-to-date.

Table D shows the annual dollar shipments since 2014 with preliminary estimates of $82.07 billion for 2023 yearend. Although not an exact apples-to-apples product comparison, the tables have turned for manufacturers and retailers when it comes to inventory levels. Throughout 2022 and the first half of 2023, furniture and related product manufacturers carried a much higher ratio of inventoryto-shipments compared to retailers’ inventory-to-sales ratios (furniture and home furnishings products) (Table E).

But by the summer of last year, retailers’ inventories stayed stable as manufacturers declined, with consumer demand eating into manufacturer’s inventories as imports dropped sharply. By October of last year, the ratio of inventories to dollar shipments for manufacturers was similar, 1.56X for manufacturers compared to retailers at 1.53X.

After unfilled orders increased consistently month-to-month throughout most of 2021, manufacturers began to whittle down the sizable backlog in 2022 and picked up more steam in the second half of last year. Coming out of the plant shutdowns in 2020, unfilled orders grew a total of 27.9% in 2021 and 3.8% in 2022 before going negative by 8% in the first 10 months of 2023. Table F details the reduction in unfilled orders.

In the years leading up to the pandemic (2018 – 2019), manufacturers’ monthly unfilled orders/backlog was mostly consistent at 130% of the value of shipments (ratio 1.3X). The ratio peaked in December of last year at 1.87X as unfilled orders approached double the shipment volume. In May of 2022, the backlog ratio dropped to 1.66X before popping up slightly to 1.69X in June (Table G).

New orders, the life blood of manufacturing, grew throughout 2022 finally peaking in January 2023 to a onemonth high of $7.01 billion. Then between January to July, new orders fell to $6.48 billion before rebounding in August of last year and growing monthly to $6.74 billion in October, the most available data at press time (Table H).

While manufacturers’ shipments grew consistently coming out of the Great Recession, the number of manufacturing establishments declined rapidly (Table I).

In 2011 the number of companies manufacturing furniture and related products totaled 18,985 before falling 7.2% over the next five years to a low 17,623 in 2016. A small two-year uptick that began in 2017 didn’t hold through 2019 and 2020 during the pandemic. But since 2020 the number of manufacturing establishments grew to 18,346 by 2023 Q2, an increase of 14% (Table I).

But while the number of stablishments was falling, employment was growing by 12.2% by 2012 to 2017 peaking at 93,100 employees. But by the end of 2018, employment was declining and has not recovered, even with the growth in establishments. Between the peak of 2017 and June of 2023, the most recent data, employment fell to 360,900 which is 8.2% below the 2017 peak.

Annual hourly wages for all furniture manufacturing and related product employees have increased every year over the last decade but the biggest gains were made in 2020, 2021, and 2022 growing 4.6%, 4.3%, and 4.8% respectively. In June of last year, average annual wages totaled $54,549 an increase of 1.35% over 2022. Wages last year were 39% higher than 2012. (Figure 3).

One of the major problems facing many U.S. industries is the slowing of worker productivity. And this is true as well for furniture manufacturers. (See Figure 4 for a definition.) The productivity index shown in Table K, indexed to 2015, indicates that over the seven years ending 2022, the most recent data, productivity has declined 10.5%. Meanwhile wages increased 26.8%.

In December of last year, the Feds announced that inflation was cooling and promised to reduce interest rates in several stages this year. Election years are usually stable for the economy. Yet with the turmoil of a contentious election coupled with international conflicts and a crisis deepening on our border, there could be surprises in store for the year. American Furniture manufacturers may also be sitting on pins and needles wondering if China will get its act together with imports and begin to take sizable share of the market away from U.S. manufacturers again.

 

Editor’s Letter: Time for Introspection

While the industry, at least the traditional industry, is experiencing a downturn, the total industry including furniture and bedding sold through all channels is holding steady, as can be seen in the graphic above.

The product sold through furniture stores, those retailers that derive at least 70% of revenue in the furniture/bedding products are declining at a greater pace than total consumer furniture purchasers. The graphic here compares: The first consideration in your market: what percentage of your target consumers consider you when they start the purchasing process (57.7%); what percent follow through and shop (48.3%); what percent fail to purchase (48.2%); and what percent purchase (51.3%) reflecting your market share? The statistics are for regional chains nationally.

The next consideration is what percent of your sales are to Millennials (26.9% nationally); to Generation X (36.7% nationally); or Baby Boomers (29.5% nationally)? Simply put, if you are not performing. First examine your operation before saying it’s the industry.

Cover Story: Consumers are Demanding but they are the Customer

Figure 1 summarizes all factors. As you can see, many of the factors are POSITIVE and few are NEGATIVE. However, much of the recent comments in the industry are about the impact of housing starts and inflation on the current performance.

For example, do you remember what happened when Reagan was elected? After Carter, inflation came down and mortgage rates declined. Yes, the industry accelerated. However, it began with Carter and only accelerated Table A.

The point is that the industry must recognize what drives it. If we recognize those factors that impact the industry and adjust our plans accordingly, performance will be maximized. Easy to say, but hard to do. Company management goes through distinct phases; DENIAL – It is just a temporary blip; ANGER – It’s the supply chain; ACTION – I must do something; and finally, RESOLVE – I will wait it out. The alternative is to have a fact-based plan. While the industry, at least the traditional industry, is experiencing a downturn, the TOTAL industry including furniture and bedding sold through all distribution channels is holding steady as can be seen in Table B.

Something’s Happening Here – What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear However, we have a conundrum. While the industry appears to be stable if not improving as illustrated in Table C, the reality is that the TRADITIONAL furniture industry is faltering. It is not a typical industry rumbling, but a fact that since April TRAFFIC has plummeted. However, increased CLOSE RATES and maintained AVERAGE SALES have minimized the impact to written sales. The key performance indicators from top quartile retailers from FurnitureCore, a sister company of Home Furnishings Business, illustrate’s the trends below.

The question is, what caused the deviation in 2023, as illustrated by the furniture store results (retailers that derive at least 70% of revenue from furniture) and the KPIs of FurnitureCore’s top quartile? To understand, we must go to the consumer, the foundation of all retailing efforts. The following section examines TRADITIONAL retailers focus on the generational shift that is occurring; specifically, where they want to shop and what styles they desire, but most importantly, how do they perceive furniture in their priorities?

FURNITURE CONSUMERS – WHO ARE THEY? Times, they are a-changin’ It couldn’t last forever. The United States market has enjoyed the consumer consumption driven by the Baby Boomers. The population expansion that occurred after WWII resulted in one of the largest groups of consumers that wanted to spend. Without the constraints of wartime memories of their parents, and the “depression” of their grandparents, they were ready to consume, and they did. The HOUSEHOLD FORMATIONS is one of the prime drivers of the furniture industry. Table E presents the historical statistics. Each generation has different characteristics that influenced HOW THEY SHOPPED and WHAT THEY PURCHASED. And with each generational shift, retailers had to change the way they “retailed.” With each generational shift came different distribution channels that served the demands of this new generation. Table F illustrates the transitioning. It would obviously be easier if retailers could stop one generation and begin another. However, the transitions are the most difficult. Now we have a trifecta with three generations almost equally spending at the same time. The graphic below illustrates the expenditures and households.

This issue’s STATISTICALLY SPEAKING article provides additional information on the generations and their impact on the industry. The most important understanding is the consumers attitude toward decorating/home furnishings. As with other consumer products, the differentiation between “need” and “want” has shifted from a few product categories to many, especially among generation segments. When we asked the question, “WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS BEST DESCRIBES YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD DECORATING/HOME FURNISHINGS?” Figure 2 provides the response. The industry should be delighted to see that the coming generation is positive about our product and services. However, both retailers and manufacturers must interpret this attitude. The industry must gradually move away from “price” as a motivator to QUALITY and STYLE. The consumer does not want to communicate cheap and practical, but UNIQUE, STYLISH AND SUSTAINABLE. The marketing message must convey the same with quality visuals. Please note the caution related to the word gradually mentioned above. While the desire is there, the pocketbook may be reluctant to follow. When we analyze the survey results by income, we see the hesitation as shown in Figure 3.

This purchasing (expenditure) barrier is reflected when the purchase, by age/income of the majority of independent furniture retailers as well as regional chains. Figure 4 below presents the industry statistics for the past 12 months.

As can be seen in Figure 4, while traditional furniture retailers sell all demographics, their sweet spot is above $75K in income. The challenge is to return to communicating “Furniture is an investment – that will last for many years” and stand by that promise. Now traditional furniture retailing is focused on less than a third of the nation’s households.

There are distribution channels – value retailers, such as Big Lots, which are targeting the middle-income demographics, $35K - $75K. The use of retailer credit cards and revolving credit at the department stores can address a need and build loyalty. How has the purchasing process changed from the Baby Boomers to their children?

As can be seen in Table G, the initial shopping is NOT a family outing with partners on a shopping expedition. The impact of dual income families creating busy weekends, along with additional research on the Internet has led to delegation. Also, home furnishings are no longer the domain of the female with the male participating. However, the female/spouse is 3x more likely to take the lead.

When the consumer shops for furniture, what are they looking for? Interestingly, there is no significant variance between generations, as can be seen in Figure 5.

Now for the actual process of purchasing. With the limitations of the pandemic, you would expect a significant change, however not as much as expected. Figure 6 compares the length of the shopping prepandemic and post-pandemic. The table compares the shopping time by generation currently.

As can be seen from the graphic the shopping process is not savored as it was in the single income family time period (1980 – 1990) when the decorating project was a timeconsuming project. Figure 7 shows, the number of retailers shopped did not vary significantly by generation. Rest assured that the United States will remain a “shopping” nation.

During the pandemic, consumers were reluctant to travel great distances to shop or travel at all. However, furniture retail shopping has returned to normal with the majority of consumers driving 10-24 miles to shop. Table H presents the pre/post pandemic comparison.

As can be seen, there is no generational differences as to willingness to travel. This is important for future expansion plans to determine the number of stores in a market (Table H).

And finally, was the consumer satisfied with their shopping experience and if not, why not? When we solicited the consumers input, we got the following results as shown in Figure 8.

For the most part (30-40%) of consumers were extremely pleased with their experience. The most negative area was “good decorating advice from the retail sales associate.” This finding caused us to reflect on the growth of designers/personal shoppers.

In the last decade, the traditional furniture retailer has been under significant pressure with the disruption caused by the deterioration of the national chains; Montgomery Ward, JCPenny, Sears, Levitz, Helig, and Myers. While the decade, beginning with the year 2000, saw the decline of the national chains with many bankruptcies, other retailers that continued as more shadows of the concept of a national furniture chain also vanished. However, this disruption gave rise to the next generation of the family to expand the single-store independent to regional chains, such as ROOMS TO GO, RAYMOUR AND FLANIGAN, and HAVERTY’S, and later BOB’S DISCOUNT. Again, financial difficulties, often fueled by venture capitalists, led to the failure of ART VAN, FURNITURE FAMILY OUTLETS (FFO), and others. Furniture retailing is a tough business impacted by the ever-changing consumer purchasing and style preference. One furniture retail solution, after the deterioration of the national chains was the opening of dedicated manufacturer brand stores such as THOMASVILLE, LANE and BROYHILL driven by the conglomerate FURNITURE BRANDS. Most of this distribution channel has disappeared except for the ASHLEY brand that is now the largest furniture manufacturer/ retailer with more than 1,000 stores in 60 nations. There are other manufacturers that have pursued a combination of retail and wholesale such as LA-Z-BOY and BASSETT INDUSTRIES to name some of the larger retailers pursuing this manufacturer direct strategy.

Larger general retailers such as COSTCO and TARGET and more recently BIG LOTS attracted by the high margins embraced the furniture product. With the creation of offshore manufacturers capabilities new retailers collapsed the channel and began to design and produce their own product line. Led by entrepreneurs CRATE AND BARREL, RESTORATION HARDWARE, and POTTERY BARN, these major players developed product and a retail experience focused on a specific consumer group. And finally, the most recent retail challenge is the move to ecommerce in 2010 with WAYFAIR who after an experimental beginning as CNN STORES in 2002, became a threat to traditional retailers. Wayfair has been joined by general retailers and other ecommerce players such as AMAZON. The digital retail presence for furniture is here to stay. In fact, furniture manufacturers following their sister manufacturers in bedding, are beginning to sell direct to consumers (DTC). As always entrepreneurs are filling the space with no prior furniture experience and launching successful companies such as MAIDEN, BURROW and ROVE CONCEPTS.

This is the challenge for traditional retailers – can they change the product they merchandise and the buying experience to maintain their market share. Table I presents the historical transitions: The pandemic caused disruption in the furniture industry distribution channels with many furniture stores being declared “non-essential retailing” while other retailers continued to sell furniture along with other products. Retailers such as home improvement stores gained market shares.

Figure 9A and B compares distribution channel preferences before and after the pandemic. While ecommerce experienced an initial bump it was short lived. The major recipient was other alternative distribution channels such as home improvement stores and value retailers. While this temporary change in purchasing habits, driven by demand, many returned to their pre-pandemic preferences. A recent national survey shows the results. Driven by demand, long term consumers will return to their preference based upon lifestyle. A recent national survey measured this preference by generation.

Currently (2023), the traditional furniture retail distribution channels have just over half of the market share (62.1%). The Internet market share does not include those online sales in mass merchants and catalog chains such as Amazon. We estimate total online furniture and bedding sales to be about 18%. The next question is, “why are these various distribution channels preferred by consumers?” A recent national survey of consumers ranked specific retailers as #1, which we then attributed to specific distribution channels. As can be seen only in the valuation of the physical plant – exterior/interior—are regional chains found lacking.

What Does the Consumer Want?

As was previously mentioned, the Baby Boomer was easy to satisfy as long as it was traditional.

Yes, there were variations; CHIPPENDALE, LOUIE THE FOURTEENTH, or to the extreme SHAKER, but it was traditional. While not as exacting as their parents as to the finer styling details, the transition from craftsmen in small shops to manufacturing plants went well. Overtime the distinct design points were lost in each manufacturer’s interpretation of the style. With the next transition in the industry – moving to offshore manufacturing – more details were lost in the quest for manufacturing efficiency or just the ability to get something produced. The thoughts of dove-tailed drawers and 10-step finishes were traded in for the pursuit of margin. With this transition came a change in the consumer attitudes toward furniture from being an investment to a disposable item. As was discussed previously, the youngest generation’s attitudes especially in the upper incomes are returning to appreciate style and design. However, this return is not to the “Brown Furniture” of their parents and grandparents but a style that is uniquely their own.

Using visuals in a recent national survey, FurnitureCore asked consumers to identify their current style and then their dream style from the following visuals. The responses are shown in Figures 10 A, B, and C.

As would be expected, the American furniture consumer has not totally abandoned the traditional styling, but they have started in that direction as can be seen from the graphic below. Leading that direction is the Millennials and Generation Z as indicated in Figure 10A, when the findings were segmented by generation.

Styles changes slowly, especially in durables that are purchased less frequently. Style changes are influenced by what the consumer is exposed to. Before we moved away from stay-at-home moms, “soaps” were big influencers. Social Media has filled that role as shelter magazines have declined as well in content/ advertising for furniture in the magazines that remain.

Manufacturers observe the trends and hope to strike a chord with the consumers. In this issue of the magazine, Style Directions presents animal motiffs as one of these trends.

The consumer has a vision of what their personal design style would be. In the same national survey, the consumer was asked, “What is your DREAM STYLE,” and this was their input along with the variance from their current style: As with the current styles, the generations influence the style direction. Figure 10B presents the dream styles by generation.

As can be seen from the table, midcentury has lost its luster with the younger generation, but modern is more in favor with this emerging furniture buyer. Analyzing this same input by income range, the results are shown below in Figure 10C.

The major challenge related to style with furniture manufacturers and retailers is not identifying incoming style trends, but how to communicate both externally to its customers and internally to the staff that will sell the product to the consumer. To accomplish this requires that the retailer develop its own unique naming process for a style using a series of fun questions that require less than five minutes. DesignCliq identifies the consumers styles with a 90% concurrence. An output is shown below in Figure 11. This process, while informing, can be utilized to market with direct email and the website.

It is difficult to incorporate generational and style preference into the execution of a strategy. The use of the old standard of a war room with pictures and notecards posted to a conference room wall has served retailers for years. Transforming this concept to a digital format can provide a demographic and style preference to merchandising. Figure 12 illustrates.

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