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From Home Furnishing Business

Rug Rules: Focus on product design, customer relationships keep category humming

After a decent year in 2017, most producers are looking for at least modest growth this year. But they realize they must continue to focus on the blocking and tackling basics of the rug game, such as product design, logistics and customer relationships.

“I’m sure there are macro factors that influence the industry, but we still need to develop great product, build relationships with our customers and build our brand,” said Cyrus Loloi, a principal at Loloi Rugs. “You have to look at the areas of the industry that are growing and those that are diminishing, and focus your business accordingly.”

Like most of his competitors, Loloi said e-commerce is the company’s fastest-growing distribution channel, but said he’s also seeing growth from traditional furniture stores and national chains.

What distinguished rugs from other home furnishings categories is the seasonal nature of the product introduction cycle and the many trade shows in which vendors feel obligated to participate in order to remain relevant. Most now have product introductions four times a year – January, April, July and October – to accommodate the different segments of buyers they see at each show.

January and July have major shows for the category in Atlanta, Dallas and Las Vegas, while April and October, of course, are the months for the High Point Market. And vendors say the fast-changing nature of consumer tastes require new product in each of those four “seasons.”

“Monitoring consumer buying patterns has enabled us to see what is truly relevant to our (retail) customer’s customer,” said Satya Tiwari, president of Surya. “Our product development team has done a great job of predicting those trends early in order for us to bring to market the best quality products when demand is at its highest.”

Research by Impact Consulting Services, parent company of Home Furnishings Business, showed there was no dominant design element favored by consumers who purchased a rug in 2017. Solids were picked by 20 percent of respondents, but floral, geometric prints and traditional prints were each chosen by 17.8 percent.

Next was stripes at 11.1 percent, followed by contemporary prints at 8.9 percent and zig-zag at 6.7 percent.

When he came to color, however, neutrals such as black, white and beige were clearly dominant, being picked by 51.1 percent of respondents. Red was a distant second at 17.8 percent and blue was an even more distant third at 15.6 percent.

All other color choices offered on the survey – green, orange, pink and purple – were each purchased by less than 10 percent of those surveyed.

One aspect of rug sales not covered by the survey that has been very successful for many rug vendors is licensing programs.

Loloi, for example, has no fewer than three licensed collections that are doing well – Magnolia Home by Joanna Gaines, Ellen DeGeneres and Justina Blakeney – while Nourison debuted its Christopher Guy collection at the January markets and expanded its successful Calvin Klein lineup. And those are on top of Nourison’s existing licensed collections from Kathy Ireland, Barclay Butera, Joseph Abboud, and the Peanuts gang. In addition, Kas launched their Libby Langdon licensed collection last fall.

“Our licensed collections are pulling very strong numbers, but you can’t solely count on the name or the brand,” said Loloi. “But the brand gives it a boost, and adds an element of credibility.”

The Impact Consulting research showed that the internet was, indeed, the most popular place of purchase. Some 31.1 percent said they purchased their rug online, easily beating out furniture stores (22.2 percent), mass merchants (17.8 percent) and home improvement stores (15.6 percent). Rug specialty stores and floor covering stores were each cited by less than 10 percent of purchasers.

The survey also clearly showed there’s an opportunity to educate rug shoppers, as a significant percentage of buyers didn’t know basic facts about the product before they bought it.

For example, a whopping 71.1 percent of buyers said they did not know the country of origin of their new rug (India was cited by 13.3 percent), and 44.4 percent did know if their new rug was machine-made or hand-made.

And when asked what material their new rug was made of, “don’t know” was cited by the largest percentage of respondents at 28.9 percent. Another 22.2 percent said it was made of wool, and 20 percent each said natural fibers and synthetic fibers.

The research also showed that rugs costing $799 or less were purchase by the vast majority of participants. Price points of $100 to $399 led the way at 35.6 percent, followed by less than $100 at 26.7 percent, and $499 to $799 with 22.2 percent. No other price range was cited by more than 7 percent of respondents.

Take 5: RUSSELL TOWNER

Samson Holding Company, which has built a reputation as a solid operator of furniture manufacturers in the middle and upper-middle price points, leaped into the design-driven and mostly domestically produced luxury segment of the market a year ago with the purchase of the tradition-steeped Baker, Milling Road and McGuire brands from Wisconsin-based Kohler Company.

At first blush, those ultra-high-end lines don’t appear to be a good fit for their new owner, but Baker President Russell Towner couldn’t be happier. He has the full backing of Samson to maintain their luxury positioning, and he believes they’re poised to grow and thrive now that the ownership transition is largely complete.

And having spent essentially his entire 24-year furniture industry career working in the high end of the market, it’s what Towner knows best. He spent 15 years in a variety of sales and marketing posts at Henredon, and then was president of Theodore Alexander USA for five years before taking the helm at Baker in March 2016.

He says the company will keep its corporate office in Hickory, N.C., a secondary office in Chicago where its visual merchandising and showroom staffs are based, as well as its network of 18 corporately-owned trade showrooms.

Towner recently spoke with Larry Thomas, senior business editor at Home Furnishings Business, about the ownership change and the growth prospects for the luxury furniture segment.

Home Furnishings Business: How has the Samson acquisition changed the way you do business?

Russell Towner: Very little has changed from an outward appearance. If you’re an interior designer or a dealer, there’s very little that you’re going to see in terms of change. Most of the changes have been in what I call ‘back of house’ areas. Under Kohler, we operated under a shared services model, so things like finance and IT were all corporate departments that were based in Kohler, Wisconsin. So we’ve had to develop and hire and fill those departments here.

Our new ownership has been great. They understand the furniture industry. They have a keen appreciation for Baker and McGuire. They have a desire to maintain our luxury positioning. And for the most part, they have bought into the strategic plan we have developed to move the company forward. It has been really exciting to have their support.

But what’s really exciting for me is to have the sale process behind us. We were effectively operating in a holding pattern in terms of implementing key strategic initiatives.

HFB: Do you still see good growth opportunities for the luxury segment?

Towner: I’m very optimistic about the luxury segment. I’m not sure I’d say one segment is growing faster than another. I happen to think there are winners and losers in each. I like our opportunities for success where we’re positioned today. We’ve got a rich heritage spanning 125 years in the case of Baker and 70 years in the case of McGuire, and they were founded on the principles of design leadership and superior craftsmanship. We remain committed to those things today.

As a team, we talk all the time about how we’re effectively laying the foundation for the next 125 years or the next 70 years. That has always been who we are. It’s not high-end one day and moderate price the next day.

HFB: What growth opportunities do you see for your brands specifically?

Towner: We’re focused on growth across all of our distribution channels, and within each of our brands. That growth is going to be driven from a number of different initiatives. From a product perspective, we’ve had a really good series of launches over the past 18 months. But beyond making sure our product offering is relevant, we’re also doing a lot of work … to make sure we’re offering an experience that is commensurate with our brand.

As an example, our team has developed a new showroom concept that we’ve started rolling out across our trade showroom platform. I think there are really two choices. It’s either price or experience. I think it’s much more difficult to operate in the middle of that.

The thing I like about experience is that everybody plays a role in it, whether you’re customer service, whether you’re shipping, whether you’re quality control, whether you’re the sales associate, whether you’re in the marketing department, or whether you’re in the merchandising department. Every facet of the business has to align to offer the experience. If you have any one of those that is out of whack, the whole thing beaks down. I like to be on the experience side of the game, and we’re working hard to make sure all of our departments are aligned around that.

HFB: Do each of your brands cater to a different demographic?

Towner: Yes and no. They each have their own niche. In broad terms, I would characterize Baker as being a more formal offering. It’s not traditional. It’s just a more formal offering that covers a broad style spectrum from modern to traditional. Milling Road is a more casual expression, but also runs that same spectrum of design styles. You could loosely say Milling Road is more youthful in its spirit.

McGuire, on the other hand, is rooted in a true California lifestyle because of that indoor/outdoor mix. I describe it in terms like casual luxury and unpretentious.

They do have their own niches. But a key point is that we see today’s world of design as being about mixing all of these things together. That’s how people live. People think (the popularity of eclecticism) makes life easier, but from a design standpoint, it’s much more difficult to execute properly. You have to have a real understanding of scale, proportion, and line to make it all work.

HFB: Have you adjusted your business model because of the furniture industry’s increased focus on the interior design channel?

Towner: It’s fair to say there are a lot more people in our sandbox today. (Laughs) But we have always been focused around the interior designer. I don’t have the exact number, but I believe that 90-plus percent of our product is a placed product. That means there’s an interior designer involved, whether they’re buying through one of our trade showrooms, whether they’re buying through one of our dealer partners, or whether they happen to be an interior designer on staff at one of our dealer partners. Very little of our product is sold as a regular retail transaction. So our focus hasn’t changed at all. We’re entirely focused on the interior designer as our key customer.

I think where we have had to change is acknowledging that (interior designers) may operate differently today than they did before. That goes from how they purchase to where they purchase to the tools necessary to interact with them.

HFB: Is most of your production still domestic?

Towner: Yes. About 85 percent of our product is domestically produced. We have a factory in Hickory that produces case goods and some upholstery. We have an upholstery factory in High Point. We also have a factory in Indonesia that does most of the McGuire line.

We had another factory in Indonesia that produced some of our Milling Road line, but we recently closed that facility and moved much of the work back to North Carolina. So for those who thought we were going to close factories (in the U.S.) and move production offshore because we were purchased by an Asian company, I would say we’ve done quite the opposite.

Coach's Corner: Setting Up Your Retail Resolutions for 2018

Most big-time sports teams have an offseason to reflect on what happened last year. Owners evaluate their players, coaches and management based on the results they achieved. They study their game planning and personnel moves to determine how it helped deal with the challenges of the last season. Upon completion they create a plan and set goals within the organization that will help drive positive change and performance improvement! Year-in, year-out, the winningest teams are the ones that do the best job performing this process.

In our business we do not have the luxury of an “offseason” for reflection and planning, but that does not mean we do not need to go through the process as much as a sports team does! It is every bit as important for us as it is for them, since historically the most successful businesses are also the best ones at reflecting, correcting and planning! They are always the most prepared for whatever the economy, the consumers and their competitors can throw at them.

Therefore, sometime in the first few months of each year, after we have gone through the hustle, bustle and distractions of the holiday season, owners, managers and staff need to take time to look back at how they did last year and analyze what caused it to happen. Obviously, you want to replicate or repeat those things that gave you a positive result and replace or rethink those that did not.

Most of you probably take the time to review your sales performance and set goals for performance improvement in that critical area. But do we do enough? A goal is not a plan; it is the result you want the proper execution of your plan to deliver. Many times, we want growth and set targets for it without charting a new path to get to them. Einstein is credited with saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Therefore, in order to get the desired improvement in results, we need to make changes. Selecting what changes to make is a very critical activity, so many just avoid it.

My hope is to help you with that process. Each month for the past year we have presented you with an opportunity for positive change that will impact the sales side of your business. Each column targeted an area or process that many stores can improve and provided a brief overview of what could be done to make it happen. Looking back at this year’s issues will give you many ideas that could help you grow your business. Therefore, they present a great starting point for your planning process.

I recommend you review those that look interesting to you and select at least three to include in your sales improvement plan for 2018. They are presented in the order they were published, but that might not be how you need to approach them. Best to select those that are most important, then prioritize them based on urgency.

  • January 2017 – “Retail Resolutions” – Just like this column, last year’s initial issue listed the previous 12 Coach’s Corner topics. If you have not already gone back and reviewed the 2016 offerings to create your Retail Resolutions for last year, you now have twice as many potential game changing ideas you can look at for this year’s planning process!
  • February 2017 – “Average Ticket Delivers Sales and Profit Growth, How to Drive It in 2017” – As managers you can do a fantastic job of bringing in the right customers and having the right product for them, but in the end, it is the sales person that controls your average sale! Ultimately, only they are responsible for this result - it is their skillset and desire to maximize the sale that deliver higher tickets. It is their attitude that influences what they do with each customer and when they stop trying to build the sale. Therefore, you must do all you can to hire, train and coach your staff on how to increase their tickets with each and every customer.
  • March 2017 – “Building a Client Base with After the Sale Follow Up” - We feel strongly that creating and managing a professional clientele development process is easily the weakest aspect of most home furnishings retailers selling efforts. I am not talking only about follow-up or sending thank you notes -- many stores do that -- but about a more fundamental paradigm of building long-term relationships with customers through truly caring about them and their needs - then making this a fundamental part of the company culture.
  • April 2017 – “Making Friends in Your Market - Who are You and What Do You Stand For?” - Your ability to provide an exciting and helpful in-store shopping experience is certainly an advantage over the internet only retailers. But not every consumer realizes that they need or even want to have that face-to-face interaction. This column touches on some of the other areas of consideration you have that may help you define your store to the potential customers in your market and perhaps attract some of those that are on the fence about visiting a brick and mortar store.
  • May 2017 – “Is Your Sales Management Effort Leading Performance Growth or Merely Providing Adult Day-Care?” - The question the title of this article presents is based on what is meant to be a humorous commentary about what a sales manager ends up doing much of the time in most retail stores. Unfortunately, it is often a more accurate depiction of the situation than any business owner would want it to be! The reason is that many managers get so wrapped up in solving the daily issues of their staff that they lose sight of their real role, which is to provide performance leadership that consistently improves the team’s results and actually makes all of their lives better.
  • June 2017 – “Using Retail Sales Metrics – Drilling for Dollars” - The ultimate sales performance metric is total sales, everything else rolls up into it. If life was simple, this would be all we need, since it is the main end result we all want to maximize. However, as with any result, in order to understand how we got it, we have to look at its main ingredients and analyze them. Only when the right things are being done in the right order and at the right time, do we generate the consistent, high-performance results we desire.
  • July/August 2017 – “Our Mission Represents a Higher Calling Than We Think” - We all know that a successful sales person on our floors can make a very good income. In most cases better than they can in other industries after spending more time and money on additional education. However, even when we show today’s younger applicants what they can earn, many of the ones we really want, turn up their noses and go elsewhere. Why is that? Perhaps it is centered on the fact that they are more interested in “making a great living” than just a good income.
  • September 2017 – “Is it Time for an Upgrade?” - Unlike much of the last century, it is not the manufacturers and suppliers pushing retailers to change. Today it is the need to better serve the customer that drives innovation and thus change for all consumer products industries. Why has this happened, what does it mean for us as business people? Let’s take a big picture look at the marketplace dynamics that have caused this to happen and perhaps gain some insight into how we might improve our planning process for the changes we face.
  • October 2017 - “Our Competitive Battlefield - the Enemies Are at Our Gate” - The very nature of who we are and what distribution channel we belong to can make our job either easier or harder! This column takes a look at the historic share data from a sales performance trend standpoint, so we can have a better understanding of who the players really are and how our market has evolved in the last couple of decades.
  • November 2017 – “Why Many Customers Leave Our Stores Without Buying” - Recent research indicates that as many as 50% of those consumers who shopped a store and left without buying, stated that it was because the store: “Did not have what I was looking for.” Wow, that is an awfully big number. Isn’t it our sales peoples’ job to help our customers find what they are looking for? Let’s take a look at what could be causing this to happen.
  • December 2017 – “So Why Else Do Customers Leave Without Buying?” - Once we get the consumer talking to us about why they came in, we need to properly analyze their needs and wants, then develop a solution that fulfills their dream for the room within whatever physical or financial limitations they may have or they will walk out. This column presents the essence of the needs analysis and development process we train our clients to provide for their customers.

If you need any further advice or help with your plan or these “projects”, please feel free to contact me at: tomzollar@impactconsultingservices.com

You can find the Home Furnishing Business digital archive of past issues at:

http://furniturecore.com/Default.aspx?tabid=676

Statistically Speaking: Big and Small America

Big and Small America is a term coined by the Census Bureau to reflect the present geographical spread of the American population. Over 50 percent of residents live in just 143 counties (Big America) with the remaining 50 percent spread out over a vast area encompassing 2,999 additional counties (Small America). The following map (Figure 1) shows the 143 highlighted most populous counties.

The migration to populous counties is in part due to more workers seeking jobs in large cities as manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. Along with greater job opportunities, the lure of warmer climates has drawn Americans to the southern and western states. The most growth has been seen in regional hub areas and coastal areas with ports. Southern and Western areas along with larger cities have also been impacted by Immigration.

As shown in Figure 2, 50 percent of the population lives in 4.6 percent of counties – roughly 161.7 million residents. These Big American counties average, 485,846 in population.  Medium sized counties average 211,321 persons and house 10.7 percent of the nation.  Very small U.S. counties totaling 2,664 represent 84.8 percent of counties and the remaining 25 percent of the population. Small counties average only 20,402 in population.

Also surprising is that over 10 percent of the population resides in just seven counties, three of which are in California (Table A). By far, Los Angeles County is the nation’s most populous with over 10 million residents in 2016. With just half the size (5.2 million), Cook County, IL has the second highest population, followed by Harris County, TX, Maricopa County, AZ, San Diego County, CA, Orange County, CA, and Miami-Dade, FL.

The rate of growth further contrasts Big America versus Small America. The U.S. population increased by over 2.2 million between 2015 and 2016, yet almost half (49.0%) of the U.S. counties lost population.  For small counties, 54.1 percent lost residents, while only 17.5 percent of big counties diminished (Table B).

For Small counties, 450 lost over 1 percent of their population between 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, only seven Big and Medium sized counties declined 1 percent or more (Table C). The big county on the list, Baltimore County, MD, lost 1.08 percent of its residents from 2015 to 2016. Ector County, TX home of the city Odessa, TX topped of the Medium counties – decreasing population by 1.39 percent.

Counties in Texas lead the way in largest percent of population growth with the top two increasing counties located within the Austin-Round Rock, TX Metropolitan Statistical Area – Williamson County (5.09 percent) and Hays County (4.19 percent). Comal County, TX added 4.40 percent more residents to the San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX market. Southern states rounded out the list of counties gaining over 4 percent of population in 2016 (Table D).

Another current key geographic characteristic worth noting has to do with the staggering population density in the Northeast, notably in the New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ MSA in five key counties.  With the exception of San Francisco County, CA, the Northeast contains the most congestion of people with Boston, MA, Philadelphia, PA and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV MSA’s all containing over 11,000 people per square mile (Table E).

Meanwhile, the vast areas of California, Nevada and Arizona make the density in their counties less than .05 percent as dense as the Northeast (Table F). For example, New York County (New York City) has almost 72,000 people per square mile living in the county, compared to 2,500 in Los Angeles County, the largest county in population in the U.S.

As the map in Figure 3 shows, fourteen states have no Big counties: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

By comparison, there are 17 states with a majority of residents living in big counties. Massachusetts and New Jersey have the highest percent of Big counties – 50 percent and 47.6 percent respectively. California has the most big counties at 17, followed by Florida and Texas, both with 12. In contrast, states with the highest number of small counties are Texas (223) and Georgia (141), while states with the highest mid-sized (medium) counties include Florida (21), Pennsylvania (20), North Carolina (19), and California (17).

 

Total U.S. population grew only 0.7 percent last year, with immigration contributing about 45 percent of that growth. Although population growth was slight, 84.3 percent of states experienced increases, leaving 15.7 percent with a decrease (eight states). Table G shows the states with over 1 percent growth in 2016. Utah and Nevada topped the list with 2 percent growth. Two highly populated states, Florida and Texas continued to grow.

Population in three big northern states, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois decreased alongside less populated states like Wyoming, Vermont, and West Virginia (Table H).


Slightly less than one million people immigrated to the U.S. last year, down 3.6 percent from 2015. They represented about 45 percent of U.S. population growth. As shown in Table I, big counties were the major recipients with 74.1 percent of immigrants residing in highly populated areas.

Short of at least some manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S., the divide between Big and Small America should accelerate, with metropolitan areas continuing to spread. Along with a majority of the immigrant population settling in the south and west, Americans in general will continue to gravitate to big counties that have warmer climates, job opportunities, and desirable cost of living.

Editors Letter: A Failure to Communicate

One of the barriers to producing this issue on merchandising has been the niggling thought of how can the product which has been carefully curated to appeal to a targeted consumer be communicated, if the first step in the process is research on the internet?

As an industry, we are beyond asking how the consumer can make a major purchase, such as furniture, without sitting on the sofa, seeing the finishes, testing the dresser’s weight and functionality.  Why have we stopped?  Because over 20% of the purchases are accomplished sight, unseen.

This may be the problem when over 50% of the sofas sold at retail are under $499.  With a low-resolution screen shot on the website, how can the consumer establish value?  Should we have not just given up and taken the low-cost approach of eliminating catalogs and world-class collateral, along with advertising in upscale shelter magazines? 

Which came first, our abandonment of this advertising medium or the shrinkage of the magazine page count?  As I have said before, there are more advertisements for “shower heads” in the shelter magazines than furniture.  Also, if furniture is advertised, it is by the lifestyle retailers, such as Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn.  They are the furniture brands of today.

Don’t interpret this as me being against digital.  Digital is a great tool to capture the attention of the consumer, but not to entice them to purchase value.  From our latest consumer research (HFB – Nov 2017), the next power generation for the furniture industry, Generation X, is looking for quality.  They are disgusted with the furniture purchased when they bought their first home.  They are questioning the value compared to their parent’s purchases, “while not my style, it is still in great shape.”  As an industry, have we failed to inform what constitutes value?

The home furnishings product has lost its panache.  Other consumer durables have struggled and resorted to selling price and affordability, relegating the product to commodity status.  Only the car manufacturers have continued to create the excitement and are merchandising their product.  Maybe, this is the problem – the bulk of the consumer communication is by the retailer, not the manufacturer.  Has the gross margin pressure from the offshore production castrated the manufacturers voice?

Merchandising will always be a major factor in the home furnishings process.  It is just the message we are trying to communicate.  If it is just utilitarian, so be it. For me, I would prefer a message which says, “My home furnishings must communicate who I am and reflect a sense of current style.”  This is what the consumer wants, especially those under 45, as the research shows.

 

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