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From Home Furnishing Business

Cover Story: State of the Industry: “Is the party over or just postponed until next year?”

The fact that consumers were constrained in their homes in the early part of the pandemic (Q1/2020) gave rise to the prospect of a significant increase in consumer demand to make their homes more compatible with a lockdown. There was a surge in Q2/2020 as consumers returned to retail, but it was short lived. Table A illustrates that rise and then cooling.

Along with this surge in consumers returning to the stores came a surge in product cost initially driven by the increase in the cost of containers followed by an increase in production driven by growing raw material costs. This surge in costs resulted in a well-deserved consumer price increase as illustrated in Table B. The growth period coming out of the pandemic was unlike the industry growth in 2008/2009 coming out of the Great Recession where consumer prices did not increase. The pandemic increase was driven by other factors. Retailers quickly realized this relationship between units/revenue and reacted to the pricing shift with gross margins increasing accordingly to protect against future price increases. In 2021, gross margins increased industry wide 1.5 percentage points (48.9% - 50.4%) adding to the increase in the Consumer Price Index. (See Home Furnishings Business May/June 2022 issue Retail Metrics.)

Manufacturers’ prices increased and inbound freight added to the total causing a 21.7% growth in prices in 2021. Table C illustrates the impact on a traditional fabric sofa comparing 2019 to 2021. The result is a 10%+ increase in average unit selling price.

The residential furniture industry enjoyed an unprecedented lift in demand (and prices) during the bulk of the COVID years of 2020 through early 2022, as homeowners invested in their indoor furnishings and outdoor/patio environments. However, by Q2 of 2022 demand began to soften due to a variety of factors including rising interest rates, lower new-home formations and rising costs and inflationary pressures. Also, the consumer saw a shift in mentality from “I need this” purchases to “I want this” discretionary spending. And with the COVID-19 pandemic mostly over, the world has re-opened as consumers have become more comfortable traveling and getting on airplanes, going out to restaurants and generally resuming a normal life. That said consumer demand in 2022 should still exceed pre-COVID volumes – despite soaring inflation, recession talk, and wobbly public stock markets.

Looking forward to 2023, we are optimistic that the U.S. economy will settle into a “new normal” and that home furnishings will resume a nice steady growth over the pre-COVID years. Container rates are coming down, gas prices are finally decreasing, raw material price increases have slowed, and the stock market is showing some strength. All these elements should boost consumer confidence and drive solid growth in furnishings’ purchases. Some key points to watch:

E-Commerce:

Adoption to buying furniture online continues and we are increasingly seeing companies take an omni-channel approach via marketplaces like Wayfair, One Kings Lane, and Overstock.com, while the big box stores offer their massive web-portals (WalMart, Costco, Target, etc.), and the lifestyle stores like RH, PB/West Elm, Arhaus and Crate & Barrel offer tremendous in-person and on-line shopping experiences. And increasingly we see consumers bypassing these more legacy retail brands and buying direct from brands like Joybird, Albany Park, and Burrow. We expect to see significant M&A activity in this space as legacy furniture companies seek this higher growth e-commerce channel.

Whole Home and broader furnishings: Increasingly we are hearing about the “whole home” as consumers want to make purchases that can create a holistic environment, the focus not just on one sofa or table but the entire room and a house that flows onto the patio as an extension of the interior of the home. Lighting, rugs, accessories and wall art will play a leading role in how CEO’s guide product development road maps and revenue growth. We also believe patio and casual furniture will remain a high-growth sector and prime acquisition target for legacy furniture companies.

Global Sourcing Rebalanced:

After a tumultuous several years of supply chain strife, our industry is scrambling to find the right combination of U.S.-made, vs. China, Vietnam, India, Mexico and the rest of the world. Tariffs, container rates and factory shutdowns have wreaked havoc with the global supply chain over the last 18 months, and our leaders are trying to assess what the new balance for supply will be. Labor pressures and geo-political strife continue to make this a complicated issue around the world. We anticipate continued exploration of increased reliance on India and Mexico and smaller outfits in Eastern Europe and Portugal, as well as the continued desire to re-shore manufacturing to the U.S. to the extent possible. Blurring lines of Resi-mercial Furniture: Home and non-home furniture continues to look more alike, as historically segmented players increasingly compete in each other’s spaces. MillerKnoll (the merger of Herman Miller and Knoll) has a huge home furnishings presence with its various brands including DWR, Muuto and HermanMilleronline.com. Steelcase has an alliance with several home furnishings companies. Haworth has huge residential product offerings. HNI has several online portals for home and home office furniture. Competition is growing around every corner, and we expect this to continue, and we expect these players to be major contenders for residential market share and digitally native direct-to-enterprise plays.

Shows/Showrooms:

There is increasing pressure on the markets to become modern and relevant in this new economy. The casual market is leaving Chicago and moving to Atlanta. The Neocon show for commercial furniture now has two competing properties. The Las Vegas and High Point shows continue their relentless cadence of four “can’t miss” residential shows per year, amidst various challenges such as the 100+ degree weather of the Vegas market in July and staggering vacancies in the main buildings in High Point as more exhibitors are building their own destination venues, no doubt drawn by the allure of year-round showcases to key customers. More and more vendors are no longer showing at all and are using alternative marketing tools to reach their customers. There is no clear answer to this complex issue. We see a mixed bag of headwinds and tailwinds going into 2023. But overall, we are bullish on the furniture industry and the U.S. economy. 2023 should be a good year. Bring it on.

The bottom line is that the industry increase was significantly, but then not significantly, driven by consumer demand. Figure 1 summarizes from a historical perspective. Traffic is declining into the stores and has now become an accepted fact at the retail level by at least 30% or more of retailers as indicated in Table D.

The next performance indicator will likely be a decrease in selling price driven by retailers discounting due to excessive inventory. Therefore, without the other normal factors that impact the industry performance is the market conditions of product cost and gross margin.

Figure 2 presents the external factors that impact the furniture industry and whether the forecast for 2023 is for these factors to improve over 2022 or decline.

Looking at the factors that drive our industry, the forecast is obvious with all INDICATORS pointing downward. That part is over for now, but not forever.

The Furniture Industry Braces for a Downturn as Recession Fears Remain at the Forefront

The furniture industry will look back on much of 2022 as a profitable, if not chaotic, year, especially through the first half. But the U.S. is now inching towards a recession, more likely in 2023, with most forecasting it to be brief.

The coming forecasted downturn is difficult because it is unfolding in ways we haven’t seen before in any recession. Inflation is still high and consumer confidence has slowed. But job growth remains strong, unemployment low, and in most consumer products, consumption has slowed but remains healthy. Vacation and airline travel demand, usually one of the first industries to feel the effects of a downturn, is higher than airlines have been able to handle. Supply chain disruptions, both labor and material, are easing.

These opposing forces and other key trends are the basis for Home Furnishings Business’ furniture industry economic outlook and forecast presented below. The Furniture Industry The furniture industry averaged 3.2% growth over the first half of this year compared to the first half of 2021. Consumer spending in July shows furniture sales slowed 0.3% over the preceding June and were down another 1.1% in August over July. Most economists at press time placed a 50-50 chance of the U.S. entering a significant economic correction and downturn, if not in the fourth quarter of 2022, then the first half of next year. Furniture industry sales are projected to finish this year 3% higher than 2021 and primarily grow 2.5% in 2023 (Table A).

Bedding sales have slightly outperformed all other furniture products the first half of this year, 3.61% versus 3.09%. In the second quarter, however, growth slowed slightly for both segments in Q2 vs. Q2 last year to 3.07% (furniture products) and 3.2% (bedding). Spending is forecast to slow further during the second half of this year to 2.5% increase year-overyear for furniture products and 2.4% for bedding (Figure 2).

Distribution Channels.
The 3.2% industry growth in the first half of this year was stretched out over many types of retail outlets; however, furniture store sales grew at only 0.1% through the second quarter as consumers trended toward other retail channels. Home furnishings stores (outlets selling less than 50% furniture) have struggled to keep pace in recent years with pressures from e-commerce. But, surprisingly, these retailers of furnishings, accessories, floor coverings and tableware, have made a small comeback this year, outperforming furniture stores by growing sales 5.2% in the second half of this year compared to last. Electronic shopping again led the pack of all retail channels growing 9.9% in 2022 Q2 YTD for all products, not just furniture. Electronics and appliance store sales were down the most falling 6.9% (Figure 3). A notable slowdown occurred in the last month of the second quarter where sales in June compared to May declined in all of the retail outlets shown in Figure 3, most notably e-commerce shopping (-4.5%), home furnishings stores (-5.3%), warehouse price clubs (-1.7%) and furniture stores (-1%). Going forward through the rest of this year, with retail inventories already at high levels, heavy discounting may be coming this holiday season.

E-commerce shopping is on pace to capture over 20% of all retail sales this year for durable and nondurable goods (excluding motor vehicles and parts) and surpass $1 trillion in revenue for the first time. And although the pace of e-commerce slowed to under 10% growth the first half of this year and shake-outs are expected in the future, it remains the major force of retailing (Figure 4).

 

Furniture Buying Population Shifts.

The prime furniture buying population has been identified as consumers ages 25 to 74. The 65 to 74 age group has been included as this group remains a powerful purchasing presence in the industry. The youngest prime purchasers, ages 25 to 34, continue to decline in population as the Millennials completely age out of this segment. Worrisome for the furniture industry is that the 55 to 64 group, a smaller cohort but one that has the highest incomes, is flooding into the older ages 65 to 74. Will this high dollar group slow its furniture purchasing patterns in retirement? The good news is that the Millennials are currently between the ages of 26 and 41 and will continue to advance into the 35 to 44 age group, the prime purchasers of furniture. And as baby boomers begin their assent into the 75 and over population, the furniture industry will feel their loss for years to come.

The Economy
GDP. Gross Domestic Product took a roller coaster ride through the heart of the pandemic in 2020 before settling into solid growth the second half of the year as consumer spending went a bit crazy. This year brought fiscal reality with GDP sliding 1.6% in Q1 and down 0.6% in Q2. Many economists are predicting third -quarter GDP will be up over 1.5%. Another downturn has not been forecast until maybe late this year, but most likely in early 2023. Year-overyear forecasts for 2022 are ranging from 0% to 1.7% growth for the year.

Most economic forecast projects the 2023 downturn to be mild, ranging from -0.4% go 1.1% growth (Table C). Unemployment. The unemployment rate continued to fall from 5.4% last year to 3.6% in the second quarter of this year. Rates have fallen to just below December 2019 levels. August saw an uptick to 3.7% unemployment; however, the rates are expected to remain low through the rest of the year around 3.6% to 3.7% and rise a full percentage point in 2023 as the economy weakens.

Consumer Prices (Inflation).
The elephant in the room for the U.S. economy continues to be inflation and the price gains made by furniture products in 2021 and the first half of 2022. Prices stayed relatively stable throughout the last half of 2020 after the worst of the Covid pandemic. But in May of last year, price increases exploded with July of this year 21.7% higher than January 2021, a period of 18 months. Meanwhile consumer spending on furniture grew at less than half that rate (9%) during the same 1-1/2 years. Much of the price impact came during the supply chain disruptions of last year. This year both consumer spending on furniture and price increases tracked on parallel lines over the six months February to July. Consumer spending in July was 5.3% higher than February, and price increases were 4.0% more (Table F1).

These increases have helped make up for the years of stagnant price growth. In the second quarter of this year, furniture prices increased at an annual rate of 13.6% well ahead of all consumer products, which grew 8.6%. Higher transportation costs throughout the second half of last year and the first half of this year is a big contributing factor. As inventories increase and the competition adds pressure, prices are cooling in the second half of this year which should take the overall average price increase for the year to 7.2%. Falling gasoline prices should also impact price declines as transportation costs lessen for most consumer products. Next year as the economy continues to struggle, prices could fall even more (Table F2). Consumer price increases for furniture products grew more slowly in the second quarter of this year at 2.2% versus the preceding Q1. In the first quarter, prices grew 4.2% over Q4 of 2021 (Table G).

Stock Market.

The Dow Jones has been volatile since before the Covid pandemic began as if unsure which domestic or global event to react to next. Inflation and interest rate increases have spurred negative market reactions. Meanwhile, consumer spending growth and low unemployment have evoked positive reactions. In the second quarter, more negative than positive news sent the Dow Jones down 11.3% at the end of the quarter compared to 2022 Q1. And hawkish talk from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at the end of August sent the Dow down further hovering around 32,000, which is 14% less than January levels of 36,600. Historical data suggests there is more pain to come. Numerous long-range forecasters suggest 2022 will end at around 31,500 and 2023 could possibly go a bit lower (Table H).

Gasoline Prices. One of the biggest economic indicators driving consumer at $4.07 a gallon for regular gas and 2023 at $3.59 (Table I). Consumer Confidence. In June of this year, the Consumer Confidence Index dropped below 100 for the first time in over a year signaling consumers are less optimistic about the economy and worried about persistent inflation and stayed at 95.3 in July. Many economists were surprised by the August jump to 103.2 when the initial forecast was 98.2. Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, explained the difference in the initial forecast as consumer “purchasing intentions increased after a July pullback, and vacation intentions reached an 8-month high. Looking ahead, August’s improvement in confidence may help support spending, but inflation and additional rate hikes still pose risks to economic growth in the short term” (Table J).

Looking at the forecast for the rest of the year, the third and fourth quarters of this year should show a slow deterioration in confidence and 2023 could see it drop consistently below 100.

Prime Interest Rate. Mid-March of this year the Federal Reserve began to increase the prime interest rate that had been at 3.25% for over two years. In a stair-step approach, at press time rates had increased four times to 5.5% in August, with continuing hawkish talk by the Fed to continue to increase them more to further gain control of inflation. Additional smaller increases may also occur in November and December (Table L).

panic over rising inflation is gasoline, the life blood of U.S. commerce and consumer transportation. A gallon of regular averaged $3.05 last year and $4.64 in second quarter of this year, an increase of 23.1%. At press time, prices had fallen to around $4.00. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts 2022 average gasoline prices Mortgage Interest Rates.Rates for mortgages have responded in kind to the moves by the Fed to bring inflation under control. At press time, 30-year fixed rates were around 5.7%, up from an average of 3% at the end of last year. Meanwhile 5/1- year hybrid adjustable rates were 4.4%. Rates are projected to continue to increase in the second half of the year to an average rate of 5.2% for the year for a 30-year fixed mortgage and 4.0% for a 5/1-year hybrid adjustable mortgage. In 2023 rates should move even higher at an average rate of 6% for 30-year mortgages and 4.8% for 5/1-year hybrid adjustable (Table M).

The Housing Market
Housing Sales. The housing industry has been the star of the U.S. economy pre-pandemic as well as post-pandemic. Coming out of the worst of the COVID-19 shutdown, in August of 2020, 1.036 million new homes (annualized rate) were sold, the largest number in 18 years. In July of this year, that number was more than cut in half to 511,000 homes (annualized rate). After the third quarter 2020 peak, new homes have continued to trend downward. Forecasters believe the industry will fall further in the second half ending 2022 with existing home sales down 13.2% and new single-family homes down more at 17% decline. The forecast for 2023 should be brighter for new home sales, but existing home sales will show little growth (Table N).

Housing Starts. With new single-family housing starts lagging for 10 years coming out of the Great Recession, starts finally picked up in earnest during the Covid pandemic in 2020 and continued growth into 2021. This year, new single family starts slowed and went negative monthover-month beginning in February, dropping each month through July (-2.13% July over June). Meanwhile, multi-family starts have been on fire, up significantly in Q1 and Q2 of this year, at 20.3% and 17.5%. Housing starts are forecast in 2023 to grow 7.9% for single-family units and 3.5% for multi-family units (Table O).

Housing Prices. The much-publicized increase in housing prices this year has stirred fears of another housing crash. However, according to a report issued by the Conference Board, US Housing: Boom- Bust Redux?, “Supply and demand factors—not speculation, predatory lending and/or bad underwriting practices—are at the root of the latest home price upswing.” This year existing home prices are forecast to be up 14.1% and new home prices 10.2%. Prices should level off to more normal growth in 2022.

 

 

When business is trending downward, it is easiest for economists to say that weakness will continue. And today, more economists are saying the recession will hit its worst in the fourth quarter of this year or in early 2023.

I disagree. I think our recession began early this year and the furniture and mattress industries hit their trough during the summer. Why? First, we already have two quarters of negative GDP, a key indicator of a recession, and the summer did not feel any better. Second, our economy is disjointed. From May of 2020 through 2021, durables prospered thanks to governmental generosity driven by the COVID-19 Pandemic, low interest rates that helped housing sales along with great demographics and a broad shortage of places to live and government restrictions that discouraged Americans from leaving their homes or being around others. Since early 2022, with high inflation, rising interest rates, shortages among many durables and a decline in COVIDrelated restrictions, American consumers have been catching up with services and consumer non-durables. Travel, dining out, event attendance and much more has rebounded, shifting spending away from durables— at least on a temporary basis. Third, the furniture industry has been hurt by one of the most unusual combination of circumstances most of us can remember. As consumer spending slowed this year, logistical difficulties (ports, trucks and rail) have begun to improve, and delayed shipments from Asia began to catch up, while many retailers, importers and manufacturers have been able to deliver long delayed furnishings. A dramatic shift from shortages early in the year, we now have excessive inventories, but these will be normalized as the year progresses.

Fourth, home furnishings have historically sold 55% of annual revenues in the second half of our calendar year caused, I believe, by Americans finding new homes in the first half of the year and moving in the summer and fall.

Finally, we believe there is unmet demand for many home products created by the great housing sales in 2019 through 2021. Also, remember that, for many reasons, we could not meet the strong demand we experienced in 2020 and 2021. Consumers are enjoying their travel, restaurants, sporting events and shopping no doubt, but as colder weather returns and we go indoors, we believe home related spending will recover slowly but this should set great prospects for a much improved 2023.

Let’s hope I am right. I am overdue!
JERRY EPPERSON
Managing Director Mann,
Armistead & Epperson, Ltd.


If I thought I could forecast the residential furniture industry for 2023 with any accuracy, I would not be worried about deciding what investments my retirement plan should be making. I think we are all just trying to forecast —with the hope of being close to right—when this slowdown we are in will phase out, and when business will get back to normal. As one executive and I were discussing recently, we are hoping that something that resembles normal will return by maybe November, just a few months away. Then we reminded ourselves that we believed those words three or four months ago. There is good news for some, however, in that quite a few companies still have good backlogs. Those companies will have some time to see what the next few months bring. Others may not be as lucky.

Of course, the real question is what is normal? We all thought 2019 was the last “normal” year. But that was before the craziness of new orders in late 2020 and 2021. Then, most added some 30% to the selling prices at wholesale, hoping that would cover the increased cost of raw materials, labor and overhead as well as imported finished products and freight— whether ocean or domestic. Now many costs have leveled out, but the price increases continue through a lot of the supply chain and inflation in general.

The Federal Reserve is committed to lowering inflation and their theory is that raising interest rates will lower people’s ability to buy therefore forcing prices down due to lack of demand. To some, this brake pumping seems to feel more like brake slamming. When this will end is not clear to most of us at this time. However, a good deal of the inflation relates to energy, especially gas prices, and with the Federal policies we wonder if that can happen.

What impact the elections will have is another big question. At one point, folks thought the Democrats were going to lose in a big way. But that does not seem as clear as it did a month or so ago as the politicians are doing all they can to make things sound and feel better. So, with all that said, what will 2023 look like for residential furniture? We think, as has been the case in the past, the general economy will need to pick up to be able to drag furniture along. We would expect that to happen in a small way sometime in the first quarter of 2023 with meaningful improvement not happening until maybe the second quarter. This should allow the furniture business to get back to a more normal 3% - 4% growth rate by the second half of the year. That growth will be impacted by what we are comparing to as if the ocean freight costs decline even more, then the surcharges that many have added will decline, causing more difficult comparisons the other way.

Many have started comparing unit sales to take all the clutter out of comparisons. For many, this is difficult due to the variety of products offered, but it is not a bad idea if you can do it, even for given product lines.

 

The residential furniture industry enjoyed an unprecedented lift in demand (and prices) during the bulk of the COVID years of 2020 through early 2022, as homeowners invested in their indoor furnishings and outdoor/patio environments. However, by Q2 of 2022 demand began to soften due to a variety of factors including rising interest rates, lower new-home formations and rising costs and inflationary pressures. Also, the consumer saw a shift in mentality from “I need this” purchases to “I want this” discretionary spending. And with the COVID-19 pandemic mostly over, the world has re-opened as consumers have become more comfortable traveling and getting on airplanes, going out to restaurants and generally resuming a normal life. That said consumer demand in 2022 should still exceed pre-COVID volumes – despite soaring inflation, recession talk, and wobbly public stock markets.

Looking forward to 2023, we are optimistic that the U.S. economy will settle into a “new normal” and that home furnishings will resume a nice steady growth over the pre-COVID years. Container rates are coming down, gas prices are finally decreasing, raw material price increases have slowed, and the stock market is showing some strength. All these elements should boost consumer confidence and drive solid growth in furnishings’ purchases. Some key points to watch:

E-Commerce:

Adoption to buying furniture online continues and we are increasingly seeing companies take an omni-channel approach via marketplaces like Wayfair, One Kings Lane, and Overstock.com, while the big box stores offer their massive web-portals (WalMart, Costco, Target, etc.), and the lifestyle stores like RH, PB/West Elm, Arhaus and Crate & Barrel offer tremendous in-person and on-line shopping experiences. And increasingly we see consumers bypassing these more legacy retail brands and buying direct from brands like Joybird, Albany Park, and Burrow. We expect to see significant M&A activity in this space as legacy furniture companies seek this higher growth e-commerce channel.

Whole Home and broader furnishings: Increasingly we are hearing about the “whole home” as consumers want to make purchases that can create a holistic environment, the focus not just on one sofa or table but the entire room and a house that flows onto the patio as an extension of the interior of the home. Lighting, rugs, accessories and wall art will play a leading role in how CEO’s guide product development road maps and revenue growth. We also believe patio and casual furniture will remain a high-growth sector and prime acquisition target for legacy furniture companies.

Global Sourcing Rebalanced:

After a tumultuous several years of supply chain strife, our industry is scrambling to find the right combination of U.S.-made, vs. China, Vietnam, India, Mexico and the rest of the world. Tariffs, container rates and factory shutdowns have wreaked havoc with the global supply chain over the last 18 months, and our leaders are trying to assess what the new balance for supply will be. Labor pressures and geo-political strife continue to make this a complicated issue around the world. We anticipate continued exploration of increased reliance on India and Mexico and smaller outfits in Eastern Europe and Portugal, as well as the continued desire to re-shore manufacturing to the U.S. to the extent possible. Blurring lines of Resi-mercial Furniture: Home and non-home furniture continues to look more alike, as historically segmented players increasingly compete in each other’s spaces. MillerKnoll (the merger of Herman Miller and Knoll) has a huge home furnishings presence with its various brands including DWR, Muuto and HermanMilleronline.com. Steelcase has an alliance with several home furnishings companies. Haworth has huge residential product offerings. HNI has several online portals for home and home office furniture. Competition is growing around every corner, and we expect this to continue, and we expect these players to be major contenders for residential market share and digitally native direct-to-enterprise plays.

Shows/Showrooms:

There is increasing pressure on the markets to become modern and relevant in this new economy. The casual market is leaving Chicago and moving to Atlanta. The Neocon show for commercial furniture now has two competing properties. The Las Vegas and High Point shows continue their relentless cadence of four “can’t miss” residential shows per year, amidst various challenges such as the 100+ degree weather of the Vegas market in July and staggering vacancies in the main buildings in High Point as more exhibitors are building their own destination venues, no doubt drawn by the allure of year-round showcases to key customers. More and more vendors are no longer showing at all and are using alternative marketing tools to reach their customers. There is no clear answer to this complex issue. We see a mixed bag of headwinds and tailwinds going into 2023. But overall, we are bullish on the furniture industry and the U.S. economy. 2023 should be a good year. Bring it on.



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