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From Home Furnishing Business

A Buyer’s Market Gauntlet

By Home Furnishings Business in Furniture Retailing on May 2007 Monday, March 26

Tom Daley, Mary Ann Levitt and Jami Myers

Breuners Arizona

Stanley Furniture, 9 a.m.

With a reporter€™s notebook in hand, Breuners Arizona General Manager Tom Daley arrives right on time for the day€™s first appointment. We€™re soon joined by the rest of the buying team, President Mary Ann Levitt and upholstery buyer Jami Myers, Daley said he is looking ahead to a long day. €œWe€™ll see anywhere between eight and 15 (vendors) most days, depending on the size of the collection, but you should have come with us on a day when we are hitting 20 (showrooms). We would have worn you out,€ he jokes.

In High Point for six-and-a-half days, Daley said Breuners has a bigger-than-usual appetite for new products for its three stores. Just before the High Point Market, the Scottsdale, Ariz., chain completed a successful sale in which the Daniel Lynch Sales Co. brought in extra salespeople. €œWe did three months of volume in five weeks,€ Daley said.

In Stanley€™s vast showroom, Daley and the team take a quick trip through, then return to each new collection to make a provisional list of favorite pieces. After taking in more of the market, the buying trio will return to Stanley to make more specific selections, but most actual buying takes place back at Breuners when reps make their post-market visits. €œWe don€™t buy very much at market,€ Daley explains later in the hallway, €œbecause you might see something (similar) two days later that you like better.€

Environment, 10:15 a.m.

In a showroom that describes its furniture as €œeco-conscious urban contemporary,€ the Breuners team a look at new items it may add to an area of the store devoted to what Myers calls modern, exotic wood furniture, which includes several pieces from Environment. €œIt€™s all eco-conscious, but that€™s not part of the way we market it.€

Though €œgreen€ and €œsustainable€ products were a much-talked-about topic at market, Daley said his store€™s customers are more well-versed in the topic than many manufacturers that, unlike Environment, don€™t specialize in eco-conscious designs. €œMore and more customers are asking about whether a particular piece is made from sustainable woods. But in a lot of cases, if it€™s a mahogany piece, for example, when we try to get the customer€™s question answered, the manufacturer isn€™t able to tell us whether the wood came from a sustainable forest or not. So, customers are interested in it, and it is a good sales hook if the manufacturers can provide us with that information.€

Daley later explains that the visit to Environment was a side trip on his carefully scheduled daily calendar where stops at larger exhibitors are scheduled far in advance and other visits are squeezed in as time allows. €œI stay to my schedule and get to my appointments on time, and I expect (reps) to keep (scheduled) appointments, too. Over the years, we€™ve trained most of them, so they know that.€

Showroom name withheld, 11 a.m.

There€™s a hitch in the carefully plotted schedule as the Breuners Arizona team arrives exactly on time for an 11 am. appointment at a major upholstery company. On his way into the showroom, Daley spots his rep with buyers from a large Southwestern chain in tow. €œPlease give me 20 minutes,€ the rep asks Daley.

€œYou know we just got back with you guys,€ Daley responds with a grin. He then adds, €œI may be back.€

Later, Myers and Levitt tease Daley a little by pointing out that the rep was working with buyers from a much bigger chain. €œI don€™t care,€ he tells them with a smile. €œHe needs to respect my time.€

Daley did go back a few days later, and said the overbooked rep now knows to schedule Breuners appointments later in the week to stay on schedule.

Showroom name withheld, 11:15 a.m.

Now running ahead of schedule, the buying trio ducks into a high-end case goods manufacturer where Daley expresses admiration of a number of pieces, especially those with a waxy honey-colored finish. The tour lasts just over 10 minutes. Daley admires the furniture, but both he and Myers said the prices on most items tend to be higher than is typical for Breuners.

Hooker Furniture, 11:30 a.m.

Arriving early at Hooker, Daley admires a large entertainment piece with a waxy, honey finish that€™s very similar to an armoire he saw in the previous showroom. The key difference is that the price of the similarly scaled, but far from identical piece at Hooker is $749, or less than a third of the higher-end company€™s price.

Daley takes detailed notes as he walks and later explains that he left behind a digital camera he always carries to markets. The pictures come in handy back at the store during post-market meetings where he and Myers will further narrow their selections. They also use the pictures to put together a slide presentation for the store€™s sales staff on the product highlights at market.

After a 45-minute tour of the showroom, the Breuners Arizona team breaks for a quick lunch to fortify themselves for a long afternoon, and I leave with new insights into what a day in the life of a buyer is like.

Tuesday, March 27

HW Home, Boulder, Colo.

Ron Werner, Jim Hering and Jenn Fahrer

Julian Chichester, about 11 a.m.

Running late, I caught up with the buying team from HW Home in InterHall just as they were starting a conversation with Julian Chichester, principal of the company bearing his name. The showroom is full of furniture based on traditional lines jazzed up with some updated twists.

HW Home€™s typical market day doesn€™t start until around 10:30, but the group works the show well into the evening when it blends a bit of socializing with showroom visits. Ron Werner, co-owner of HW Home, points out that Interhall, with its eclectic mix of companies, gets a fair share of the team€™s time. Visits with existing suppliers and stops at possible new resources are always on the list for this section of the International Home Furnishings Center. Julian Chichester is a new stop for the crew.

Every market, the buying team passes by the Julian Chichester showroom, but Werner said they always assumed the pricing was too high for their stores. This time, however, a table, a couple of mirrors and some unique silkscreen prints beckon them.

Werner tends to handle the vendor relations and get-to-know-you aspects of meetings. With existing suppliers, these mostly consist of a checkup to make sure things are running as smoothly as possible on both sides. For new vendors, it usually indluces telling the HW Home story, a complete show-and-tell with a binder showcasing the retailer€™s highlights. Jim Hering, co-owner, and Jenn Fahrer, director of sales, are fast at work spying the perfect wares for the HW Home aesthetic. While Werner continues discussing volume pricing with Julian, Hering and Fahrer have started a running list of items.

Then the buying starts with order placing, and Werner, working as the human calculator, keeping track of dollars and number of items requested in his head.

By the time the visit is done, HW Home has added a new vendor to its resource list by placing a significant order that includes mirrors, art and tables, all of which will be shipped from the Julian Chichester warehouse in High Point on HW Home€™s regular carrier that makes frequent pickups from the town.

On the way out of InterHall, we stop in the aisle to chat with the owners of an accent pillow supplier that at one time sold HW Home. A while back, however, the company picked up another retailer that demanded exclusivity on the product, and HW Home lost the vendor. From the conversation, the business relationship may be renewed because the change didn€™t result in greener pastures.

Heading to the elevator for a lift to the eigth floor, Werner points out that while he works diligently on an appointment schedule prior to the market, he€™s also realistic that magical finds happen along the way, pushing the boat off course. Prior to coming to market, HW Home also puts together a hefty, 20-pound binder that includes the inventory of all of its lines broken down with figures on how many of a particular item are on hand at the stores and in the warehouse, the number of items on order and a variety of other details to assist in the market shopping.

Hickory Chair, 12:32 p.m.

Hickory Chair is one of HW Home€™s top furniture lines, and the showroom visit is a warm welcoming from all. Upon checking in, Werner suggests a quick lunch in the Hickory Chair dining room while we wait for Michael Thomas, the retailer€™s sales representative.

HW Home has participated in the company€™s Hickory Chair University and knows many of the manufacturer€™s other dealers from the event. Werner said they maintain a lot of those relationships and swap ideas and strategies with non-competing stores. €œIt just makes good business sense,€ he said. Several of their friends are in the showroom, and they all spend a few minutes catching up.

As we fill our plates, Werner said he learned years ago that a good meal at market is important for maintaining energy and a sharp eye. Over lunch, the group tells me that a design client spent Monday (March 26) shopping a few lines, including Hickory Chair, where they placed a rush order on a piece. During the showroom visit, Werner confirmed the order was being expedited through the factory.

After a complete walk-through of new product, Hering and Fahrer sit down with Thomas in the design room to hammer out the order. Just as the fabric swatches start to come off the racks, my cell phone rings, and I€™m off to an event. Someone said Donald Trump was making an appearance.

Oly, 7:15 p.m.

I run into Werner on Wrenn Street in front of the Oly showroom where the HW Home crew has stopped for a party and quick showroom tour. He€™s on his cell phone placing a take-out dinner order from Lubrano€™s.

He tells me that from Hickory Chair, they headed to Bernhardt for a lengthy appointment.

Thursday, March 29

Leslie and Sam Fishbein

Kacey Fine Furniture, Denver

England, 1:30 p.m.

After having talked with Leslie Fishbein of Denver€™s Kacey Fine Furniture a day earlier, I call her at the appointed time to arrange to meet her and her husband, Sam Fishbein. She€™s deep in a showroom with no cell phone reception, and I only hear €œMarket Square€ and €œtwo o€™clock.€ Later, she calls back, and with our phone connection again breaking up, I make out the words, €œright now,€ €œEngland€ and €œFurniture Plaza.€

A short time later I find her deep in the England showroom with a pile of stuffing in her hands. €œThey put too much stuff in the pillows,€ she explains. €œIt has a balloon look to it.€

Having flattened the pillow and answered the first of a half-dozen calls she€™ll receive and make over the next two-and-a-half hours, she explains that she stopped by England to €œstyle up€ a sofa and a sectional she has her eye on. After deciding on a frame-fabric-pillow combination for both pieces, she asks the England rep to e-mail her an order she can sign off on in time for a delivery run scheduled to start in four days.

Clearwater American, 1:55 p.m.

The next stop is a return visit to Clearwater American nearby, where she had earlier started ordering a container load of armoires, tables and easy chairs. On the return visit, she€™s finalizing some minor details€”including the final fabric selection on several chairs. The showroom€™s ordering system signals that the order contains more items than will fit in a container, so Leslie Fishbein works with a salesperson to trim the order while Sam Fishbein looks at case goods in the rear of the showroom.

Later, Leslie Fishbein said the entire ordering process took about 45 minutes over two visits, and explains that she places some container orders at market to speed up an order-and-delivery cycle that can stretch over more than two months. However, the vast majority of her market purchases are finalized back in Denver when reps come to call on Kacey.

She and Sam Fishbein have attended 60 High Point markets together, and she once wore a pedometer that showed they covered 7.5 miles per day. In addition to covering a lot of miles, she walks so fast, she routinely asks slower-walking groups ahead of her to move aside by softly calling out €œExcuse us, please€ as she hurries to her next stop. The Fishbeins don€™t stick to a firm schedule. €œWe float,€ she said. €œWe start (every day) with an approximate plan, but it changes as soon as we find something we like (unexpectedly). It€™s like shopping. You can miss accidentally finding things€ with an overly rigid schedule.

Silkroute Trading Co., 2:30 p.m.

Fishbein is leading a reporter on a brief tour of the showroom filled with antique chests, armoires and rug three-part iron pedestal together while simultaneously talking to a colleague in Denver. With the call, it takes about 90 seconds to determine that an additional weld will solve the problem. With that, the showroom€™s owners ask for Leslie Fishbein€™s advice on products Silkroute can produce in a newly purchased factory, and she spends the next 20 minutes at a laptop computer pointing out her favorite pieces from among hundreds the factory has produced.

3:30 p.m.

Leslie and Sam Fishbein head off, intending to browse through the C&D building, and I jump off the fast-paced shopping trip for another appointment.

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