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Lifestyle's Big Idea -- Minimarket A Hit

By Home Furnishings Business in on January 2006 By Powell Slaughter

Gary Woodhouse needs another furniture market like he needs "a hole in the head."

The general manager of North Carolina's Colfax Furniture stated his feelings with a smile, though, as he settled in at a table during a Lifestyle Enterprise-sponsored dinner for buyers at the minimarket in High Point this week.

"I have to give Lifestyle credit for getting this going," Woodhouse said. "They did it right. They had some good specials, and we made orders. They gave us a reason to be here, and once we were here, they gave us a reason to buy."

Colfax Furniture also visited about a half-dozen other showrooms, where the retailer also put in some orders.

While some dealers getting comped from Lifestyle for attending minimarket preferred to limit their shopping to their host's showroom, Lifestyle's encouragement of other exhibitors to blow the horn for minimarket had others -- and plenty of walk-in retailers who showed up -- ranging further afield in downtown High Point.

Martin Golaj, president of Avanti Furniture in Sterling Heights, Mich., said he'll definitely return if Lifestyle holds another dealer show. Until now, he'd been attending April's High Point market, and went to last summer's Las Vegas market.

"If Lifestyle does this again, I'll come here for a day or two more, because I hadn't realized there'd be so many other exhibitors," he said.

Golaj also plans to attend Las Vegas later this month.

Lifestyle used the minimarket as a springboard to make it a more important source for its dealer base. National Home Centers of Springdale, Ark. and Dania Furniture in Seattle are two retailers who said they'd probably up their business with Lifestyle as a result of this week's event.

National Home Centers, which operates 12 building materials and home improvement stores in Northwest Arkansas, got into furniture about three years ago, said Dwain A. Newman, CEO. The company currently carries furniture at five operations where square footage averages 70,000, and in those locations, NHC has between 25,000 and 28,000 square feet dedicated to furniture.

"I think we'll probably buy 20 to 25 containers from Lifestyle coming out of this week. This event was just right for us because we'd been thinking about increasing our business with Lifestyle," Newman said. "We have a large distribution center so we can order and store a lot of containers. The timing was right. We've been working to refine our furniture lines and lower our number of SKUs, and some of Lifestyle's collections better fit our long-term plans."

Roy Swedstedt, a general manager with Dania Furniture, said minimarket could build Lifestyle's presence on its floors.

"We had only done a couple of containers with Lifestyle so far, but we found a number of items that will work for us," he said.

The original retailer comp list for minimarket was something more than 300, but other retailers decided to come on their own. Through Monday and Tuesday, Noe estimates Lifestyle had 450 buyers through the showroom, and planned on working a full day Wednesday, though Noe said traffic would be slower the last day, according to buyer travel plans he'd seen.

"We usually have 700 people during an entire High Point market, so we feel pretty good about what we've done in a couple of days," he said.

Lifestyle came loaded for bear in terms of new goods. There were seven new adult and seven youth groups ranging to $1,299 for five pieces, as well as 10 dining rooms in the starting price Lifestyle division. It also had a couple of full collections for the step-up Forbidden City case goods line retailing up to $2,999 for full suites; as well as new casual dining and leather.

"We started working on this event the day market stopped in October, and we didn't get going on product till mid-November," Noe said. "We were essentially three weeks in product development on everything we introduced this week."

There was a surprising amount of new product in other showrooms as well. Hooker, for example, took advantage of moving up its product-development cycle for spring introductions to give dealers this week a firm idea of where the company is going.

Hooker had traditionally held product development meetings for April introductions, which included consumers as well as retail customers, in late January to gather feedback on proposed introductions.

"This time we did it in early December," said Kim Shaver, vice president of marketing communications. "We're truly positioning this week as an April product preview since we'd already decided what we'd come forward with at market. We still need to round out some pieces, but we're 90 percent ready for April in terms of direction, as well as offering a look at actual pieces from the groups we'll bring."

Vaughan Furniture had three new bedrooms -- two domestic and one import.

"Our plans were to photograph them and bring them out in January, but we went ahead and showed the actual goods here," said CEO Bill Vaughan. "We'll bring out three more in mid-February. Our hope is to have all these bedrooms off the ground in time for April market so we can concentrate on dining."

The reaction of Vaughan, which had more than 10 customers through the showroom on Monday alone, to minimarket was typical of exhibitors who bought into Lifestyle's idea for a January showing.

"I think what (Lifestyle) did is phenomenal," Vaughan said. "I know it got retailers excited, and I know we are, too."

Lifestyle was happy to have other suppliers open their showrooms in conjunction with Lifestyle's invitation-only event, but Noe had particular praise for Tom Mitchell, senior vice president and general manager of Merchandise Mart properties, whom he credited for organizing transportation services and gift bags that included a portable DVD player.

"He's really been a huge help," Noe said, adding that reaction from other exhibitors has been very favorable. "Competitors have been calling me and asking to contribute money to what we did"

While minimarket cost Lifestyle more or less the same as it's participation in last summer's Las Vegas Furniture Show -- around $600,000 -- the company anticipates a much greater payoff from this week's event.

"We generated around $1 million in business from Las Vegas, but we believe this week could essentially double our business this year," Noe said. "We shipped around $300 million FOB last year, and after this week we believe we'll easily hit $500 million this year."

Noe went on record last week that he wants to keep High Point as the furniture industry's major marketing center, and is confident that Lifestyle's gambit soaked up a considerable amount of 2006's early open-to-buy capacity at retail.

To grab that business, Lifestyle put together an ambitious package of incentives. Those included floor sample discounts and volume rebates -- plus a price guarantee.

"We're locking prices for a year if a dealer orders by January 27," Noe said.

For those who are watching dates, that's the week before Las Vegas market.

"There are several retailers we saw who said they'd planned to go to Vegas, even made their bookings, but have decided they don't need to," he said.

Will Lifestyle put together another minimarket? Probably not this year, Noe said.

"I'd love to do an event like this all the time, but there are already too many markets," he said. "As far as next year, we'll look at it and see how successful this week ended up being after all's said and done. In this industry, everyone seems to wait for something to happen. In a $70 billion industry, we really aren't that large, and you have to wonder how we could influence 60 other people to show this week. It just shows that the industry is begging for leadership."

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