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Mini-Market Makes Waves in High Point

By Home Furnishings Business in on January 2006 By Powell Slaughter

One furniture company's determination to make High Point its U.S. marketing base has created a significant off-season gathering of retail buying power in a town whose furniture showrooms are largely dormant between spring and fall market cycles.

If the so-called mini-market next week -- originated by case goods and leather upholstery importer Lifestyle Enterprise -- ends up a going concern, it could offer an alternative to the High Point's premarket, traditionally a preview of High Point introductions held a month before the spring and fall shows. It may also throw down a gauntlet to Las Vegas' bid to become the pre-eminent trade show for the furniture industry.

The mini-market also provides opportunity for High Point exhibitors to better leverage their showroom resources there, for which they pay all year round. Next week's participants also include several companies with permanent showroom space at Las Vegas' World Market Center, in addition to showrooms in High Point.

Last month, Lifestyle decided to hold its own dealer show in its Forbidden City High Point showcase in lieu of attending late January's markets in Las Vegas, where it exhibited August at the Las Vegas Furniture Show in Las Vegas' Sands Convention Center. The company decided it would be better served to hold a January show on its own, rather than head West again.

Going into next week's mini-market, the importer's idea has attracted close to 60 other companies who plan to open their showrooms, as well as others planning to be available to customers on an appointment-only basis.

Greg Noe, chief operating officer and group president of Lifestyle's divisions, said he expects between 300 and 350 retailers in town next week.

"All our majors are coming," he said. "It started out just as a show for us, but in the end it's become a major event. What surprised me is how many people jumped on board. It let me know how much the industry needed something new and different. I always viewed us as a leader, but I never expected (the event) to get this big."

That other companies are latching onto Lifestyle's idea doesn't bother Noe in the least, particularly since the company has no plans to return to Vegas. Indeed, he hopes the mini-market will emerge as a challenge to Las Vegas, and said Lifestyle is encouraging other companies opening their showrooms to spread the word to their customers that they're open for business next week.

"I think this could get big enough to hurt Las Vegas," he said. "When you look at the strategy there, Las Vegas wants to steal the market from High Point. We're going to do everything we can to prevent that."

For its part, the Las Vegas Market isn't worried. Pre-registration is running well, and organizers expect a strong January show, said Dana Pretner, director of marketing and public relations at the World Market Center. WMC expects tens of thousands of buyers and more than 1,000 exhibitors later this month.

Pretner noted that an event like mini-market could take place in any showroom venue, including Las Vegas, and that next week's event validates Las Vegas Market's scheduling.

"What's interesting is that some of these exhibitors participating in the event agree that January is a desirable time for product introductions and exhibition," she said in an e-mail message. "These private showings for a couple hundred buyers are totally different from a market which is a unique international marketplace of buyers and exhibitors across all spectrums of the industry. We don't expect such an event to have an affect on our January show."

Mini-market timing is a much better fit for buying purposes for Mulberry, Fla.-based Badcock Home Furniture & More, said Terry Johnson, vice president of case goods merchandising, who purchases for 340 Badcock locations.

"This really helps me because it's in January instead of a March premarket," said Johnson, especially since he's not planning on going to Las Vegas. "Next month, I'll sit down to decide what to replace in our catalog, and this will allow me to do that. If I see something in March or April, it's hard to get it by mid-August, and I have to wait until the next market."

Johnson estimated that 70 percent to 75 percent of Badcock's bedroom resources are participating in mini-market, which he'll shop for two days. His vendors exhibiting next week includes Davis International, Global, Holland House, Largo, Lee Furniture, Legacy Classic, Lifestyle Enterprise, Masten, Samuel Lawrence and Trademasters.

"There are some other companies who aren't opening their showrooms that want to meet in their warehouse," he said.

The mini-market's participants include several companies with permanent showroom space at Las Vegas' World Market Center. Those include ART International, Capel, Primo Designs and Pulaski. The list also includes around 10 suppliers who showed last summer at the Sands or temporary spaces arranged through the World Market Center. Universal, which showed in the WMC pavilion last summer, will be open for mini-market by appointment only.

Pulaski, for one, didn't want to miss out on a chance next week to get some face time with customers.

"A lot of retailers will be in town, and I'd rather be there and not see anyone than have someone stop by the showroom and us not be there," said Bill Sibbick, senior vice president of sales. "The bottom line is we're going to go where our customers go."

While all Pulaski's new product samples are Las Vegas-bound, Pulaski will have mock-ups and sketches of those goods, as well as some ideas for April High Point introductions.

While case goods importer Primo Designs has what President David Ballard said was a major commitment to the Las Vegas market, the mini-market presents a way to get more mileage from its High Point showroom. Primo's sales force is beating the bushes for next week's event.

"We have five appointments set (as of Wednesday) and we expect some more" Ballard said. "A thank you to the good folks at Lifestyle is in order."

Ballard downplayed the Vegas versus High Point aspect of mini-market, as far as Primo goes.

"We have about as much affect on these outcomes as the man on the moon, since we're a small company," he said. "I live here, and we keep our showroom intact and use it year-round, so for us it was a no-brainer."

Like Universal, Fine Furniture Design & Marketing will open its showroom next week on an appointment basis. Mini-market is a natural for the U.S. arm of Fine Furniture Group's Shanghai case goods plant, said Mary-Price Furr, director of marketing.

"To some extent, our doors are always open – if there's a retailer in town we'll take them to our showroom," she said. "We've done this type of thing periodically on our own."

FFDM won't have any new product on hand. Furr expects to concentrate on follow-up business with existing customers, along with a couple of new prospects.

With increased offshore sourcing making High Point premarket's original role – a chance to tweak product a few weeks before the spring and fall shows – ever more obsolete, some importers are hoping mini-market will fly if for no other reason than to replace premarket with product preview event more in line with the reality of import timetables.

"If you show product here in January, you could actually make changes in time for High Point market," Primo's Ballard said. "We'll be showing in-line product next week, and new product in Las Vegas, but if this gets repeated for the fall season, we'll show the new product we'll have for Las Vegas as well, since it's just a matter of making two sets of samples instead of one."

While Pulaski has used the increasing number of furniture shows to flatten its introduction cycle, it also would appreciate the chance to give buyers an earlier look at major new collections.

"We're structured to introduce product at any time, but if (mini-market) becomes premarket, that's great," Sibbick said.

Design/ sourcing specialist and mini-market exhibitor JT Michael Designs showed in temporary space at last summer's Las Vegas market. The company won't be at this month's Las Vegas show, though it plans to return this summer. CEO Michael Foster said the costs of showing this January are too high, and as a new company JT Michael doesn't have the visibility yet among Western retailers to justify the cost..

"We got six or eight new accounts in Vegas, which is good, but we're passing this time because we knew it would be more expensive in January," he said. "Hotel rates are up, and it's the week before the Super Bowl so everything's at peak demand."

Foster likes mini-market's timetable, as well, in terms of its potential for giving importers a chance to better hone their spring and fall introductions. While JT Michael will show in-line product next week, if mini-market becomes a fixture it could replace High Point premarket.

"For aggressive companies, and I'd include us in that category, we'll be fired up and ready to go for April and have product in stores by summer," he said. "Any manufacturer that's not firmly entrenched in Las Vegas would have great hopes for this to have legs. All the major photography studios are here if you need showroom shots, and if something needs touching up, Valspar's right here for us."

For its part, Lifestyle looks to create a bustling atmosphere with spring/fall market-style activities, including Noble's-catered dinners Monday and Tuesday nights at Centennial Station.

"It's going to be a major event," Noe said.

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