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From Home Furnishing Business

What Sells: Leather Uncovered

By Sheila Long O’Mara

Leather upholstery may just be one of the most technical categories on a retailer’s floor.

The varying grades of leather, as well as the growth in bonded product, leave consumers seeking the comfort and luxury of fine leather in a maze of confusion. The Internet — where most consumers start the shopping experience — is filled with information, and sometimes misinformation, on the ins and outs of buying leather upholstery.  All of which require retail sales associates be given category specific training, have in-depth product knowledge and the dexterity to cut through any uncertainty consumers may have regarding leather upholstery.

A recent survey by Furniturecore of 535 consumers who had bought upholstery in the last 12 months showed that 71.3 percent of them embarked on their shopping journey by exploring online. Not only can consumers uncover styles and specific products, but the category gets extensive attention on what consumers should look for and consider when buying leather.

Shopping for leather upholstery tends to be a lengthy process. Nearly 33 percent of the consumers surveyed shopped between 2 weeks and a month before making their purchase. That’s significantly more than the 27 percent of consumers in the market for fabric-covered upholstery who shopped for that length of time. Another 18 percent of our surveyed consumers shopped between one and three months prior to buying.

Despite their diligence in uncovering the perfect leather upholstery, shopping for the category was not without its challenges. It seems the consumers surveyed wanted a larger selection of wares. Nearly 38 percent (37.8 percent) said the available selection of leather upholstery was too small.

Another sticking point — price.

While the industry understands the nuanced craftsmanship and detail required for top-quality leather upholstery, consumers aren’t quite as well versed in the matter. About 32 percent (32.1 percent) said prices of leather upholstery were higher than they expected.

When buying, the consumer pool was motivated by a number of things. On a scale of one to six with one being the most important and six being the least, product quality was at the top with a ranking of 2.8. Quality was followed closely by product design with a 3.1 ranking. Brand or manufacturer reputation was third with a 3.5 ranking.

No big surprise that most consumers were shopping for leather upholstery for their living rooms or family rooms. In fact, 81.5 percent — 47.3 percent for living room and 34.2 percent for family room — of them specified one of those two rooms at the location for their recent purchase.

 Traditional and contemporary designs rule the roost when it comes to leather upholstery. Who can blame them? A rich, button tufted, nail-head trim sofa or a clean, sweeping sectional both add a certain je ne sais quoi to a room. The two style genres, at 38.3 percent and 36.2 percent, respectively, carry the bulk of our consumer group’s affinity. Country/rustic leather designs fell a distant third at 15.8 percent.

When it comes to specifics and drilling down a bit more in the style category, it seems consumers prefer overstuffed, deep seating to sleeker, tight-back designs in leather upholstery. In fact, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed prefer the overstuffed designs.

Good news on the willing-to-wait front. While today’s consumers tend to prefer instant gratification on nearly everything they purchase, about 47 percent of those surveyed indicate a willingness to wait four to eight weeks for a custom-ordered leather sofa. Another 43 percent said they would wait two to four weeks for such.


What Sells: Leather Upholstery - Consumers Sound

Consumers in the market for leather upholstery tend to be younger, live in higher income brackets and exude a slight preference for contemporary.
In a Home Furnishings Business survey conducted last month of consumers who had bought leather upholstery within the last year, 55.6 percent of them were 44 years old or younger. When you stack leather upholstery side by side with fabric upholstery, we found only 38.6 percent of the consumers who opted for fabric upholstery were 44 years old or younger.
We found it encouraging that younger consumers are choosing to buy furniture. Another interesting tidbit that made us take note—the leather category captures the attention of male shoppers. Men are more inclined, 51.2 percent, to choose leather upholstery over fabric.

Off On Leather


The 262 consumers in the survey also showed 43.2 percent of the respondents who bought leather had a household income of at least $75,000 while 35.8 percent with household income of $75,000 or higher bought fabric upholstery. Speaking of money, price of the product tends to have a smidge more influence on the purchase of leather than on fabric. It’s interesting to note, however, that quality is the most important purchase motivator for both categories.

Another key factor in the purchasing decision revolves around goods made in the U.S.A. We asked our consumer panel if they “like the style and comfort of a piece of upholstery” would they be willing to pay more if it was produced domestically. More than 81 percent—81.5 percent to be precise—of the leather purchases said yes. Of the fabric upholstery consumers, 76.5 percent said they would pay more for American-made product. Both the leather consumer and the fabric upholstery consumer are

Internet savvy, and both sets took to the Web to research prior to buying. The leather consumer at 72.8 percent edged out the fabric consumer at 66.2 percent in the research department. How do they feel about buying online? The leather consumer indicated a higher penchant to by online than consumers who bought fabric upholstery. Nearly 72 percent of the leather consumers indicated they would be likely to very likely to consider buying online. Nearly 55 percent of fabric upholstery consumers said they would be likely to very likely to do the same.

Once the research is done, however, the leather consumer is quicker to pull the trigger on the purchase.

Those in the leather market are more likely to shop for a month or less before buying, while those shopping for fabric designs extend the shopping period out to three months.

The overall leather upholstery shopping experience was not without its challenges for our consumer panel. The biggest problem they ran into was distinguishing differences between products.

Who can blame them? The leather category is filled with a variety of terms, an abundance of leather grades, types and even “bonded leather” that many in the furniture business don’t always understand. Interesting enough, despite the confusion about half of the consumers said they would like to have had a wider selection of products from which to choose.

In the style category, contemporary is the preferred choice for leather upholstery, while the fabric consumer leans more strongly toward the traditional realm. One thing is for certain in both leather and fabric upholstery. Custom order goods are great, but the consumer isn’t going to wait more than two months for a sofa to be delivered. More than 90 percent of the leather consumers aren’t likely to wait more than two months, and 43.2 percent want their product delivered within a month. Fabric upholstery consumers are a little more forgiving on the delivery time frame with 85.9 percent saying two months is the limit. When you look at the one-month period, 36.5 percent are willing to wait. Nearly 50 percent said they’d be OK waiting up to two months. Overall, our consumer panel was “very satisfied” with their upholstery purchases—both leather and fabric.


“It has great design and great size. The mid-century style is on trend, and it’s available in so many leathers and Ultrasuedes. Plus, it ships in four weeks.”

Peggy Burns.

Circle Furniture. Acton, Mass.



“The combination of Flexsteel’s strong reputation and the incredible comfort of this style has carried it to the top of our sales charts for years. Our customers and salespeople also like the special order capability.” Retail is $1,899.

Mark Mueller

Mueller Furniture. Belleville, Ill.


“The casual/contemporary styling, 100 percent leather product, great seat comfort and the fact that it can be ordered in many colors and qualities of leather make it a winner.” Retail is $998.

Mike Griffieth
Morris Home Furnishings

Dayton, Ohio



 “It’s a winner because of the track arm styling with wood trim in 100 percent leather. The seat comfort is superior to other manufacturers, and the price point is $998.”

Mike Griffieth
Morris’ Ashley Furniture HomeStore

Dayton, Ohio


The classic styled sofa is the company’s top-selling frame because of its traditional styling, comfort and basic design elements that match with a variety of home interiors, said Tommy Shores Jr., CEO and president. The sofa is also made in Hickory, N.C., allowing it to speak to customers looking for American-made goods. Suggested retail is $3,390.


Consumer desire for eclectic décor has driven CR Laine to add pieces with soft modern styling, said Holly Blalock, vice president of marketing. The design inspiration is mid-century modern which pairs in both funky and serious décor, she said. Suggested retail is $2,205.



Palliser’s sectional offers an abundance of seating without overpowering a room. The casual contemporary design offers low profile, tufted seating for extra comfort.

Priced to retail at $1,299, the Canoy features transitional styling with an inner soft coil seating for extra comfort.




Ellia is a traditional, deep button-tufted sofa, but it is made “extremely contemporary with the stainless steel” accents, said Martin Chapman, director of leather development. Ellia is one of the first leather frames the company introduced earlier this year with its Mia Bella by Michael Amini leather division. Retail is $7,999.


A high-style factor with an understandable design make the Inspiration collection from American Leather a versatile work horse. The design is clean and functional and works in a variety of spaces. The two-seat sofa in a mid-grade leather retails around $5,400 and a sectional would be priced around $9,500.


A casual style with contrast stitching gives Alpha the ability to slide into any home with ease. The sofa comes with contrasting fabric pillows to soften the look. Retail is $1,900.


Traditional design coupled with total comfort makes this sectional among Natuzzi’s top sellers. Shown in this classic wine leather, the detailing of the shaped front offers consumer appeal. Retail is $1,699-$1,799.


Leather Upholstery Snapshot

Leather upholstery remains a bright star in the furniture industry and has garnered quite the following among consumers. Retail sales of the category for 2012 hit $4.49 billion, an increase of 7.72 percent from 2011 sales of $4.17 billion. The total upholstery market—both leather and fabric—totaled $24.18 billion. Leather sales were 18.5 percent of the total.

Leather upholstery sales have steadily increased since 2009 at a rather impressive rate, outpacing both the growth of the industry and fabric upholstery. The category’s cumulative growth rate from 2009 to now has been a whopping 20.04 percent. From 2011 to 2012, the category posted a 7.72 percent increase. For the same time period—2011 to 2012—the total furniture industry grew 6.95 percent. Fabric upholstery posted a 6.57 percent increase during that period.

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