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Prior to the Baby Boom generation, consumers usually grew tired of upholstered products before they wore out, but upholstery stylists have pushed neutral fabrics that never seem to grow old.

In essence, the furniture industry faces a consumer audience composed of people who are largely indifferent to the category and unwilling to spend much on it. This situation is nothing new to the mass-market segment, but in the upper-end, the impact has been severe. Amazingly enough, no one seems to be doing any market research on consumer shopping patterns, so efforts to market the products are based on guess-work and usually resort to price discounting, which has limited appeal. Price elasticity does not always apply to furniture. When women’s dresses are discounted, the customer feels the need to buy more dresses, but when sofas are marked down, the customer still only needs to buy one.

Channel of Distribution Continues to Fracture

Changing consumer shopping patterns have been matched by changes in the retail channel of distribution. The Internet has become an important factor, though more as a medium than as a retail channel. The need to see and touch the product coupled with transport and handling issues have kept the Internet at bay. Big Box retailers, like Costco, have been drawn to furniture, but they have not been successful. Department stores, like Macy’s, used to consider furniture the lynchpin to the entire home-goods category. Today they are reluctant players. The upper-end purveyors, the ‘carriage trade’ stores, have disappeared, but interior designers remain a factor. Regional chains come and go and national chains never seem to find lasting success. Hybrids, like Crate & Barrel and Room & Board, combine ‘bricks’ and ‘clicks’ with great looking catalogs to capture the so-called ‘lifestyle’ category.

Finally, the big push to establish single brand, dedicated company stores has failed, with the notable exception of Ethan Allen, La-Z-Boy, and perhaps Ashley. The move to a vertical structure by Ethan Allen in the 1960s was at first dismissed by the rest of the industry as sheer folly. As it unfolded, however, it became the envy of the industry. Ethan Allen executive Pat Norton moved over to La-Z-Boy and was able to create a successful store program there, but no one else succeeded until the arrival of Ashley. Several of the industry’s top brands attempted to establish store programs, with horrible results. Drexel Heritage moved in and out of various store programs so many times that they alienated their independent dealer base and lost credibility. Thomasville had initial success, but then it crashed and burned. Broyhill, Lane, Henredon, Pennsylvania House, Hitchcock, Norwalk, and others tried to become retailers without success. Today, only a few remain open. Bassett, Stickley, and Baker operate stores in trading areas where they had difficulty getting regular dealers to meet their needs. Mitchell Gold stores are an unknown. Furniture Brands still has a few stores that they would like to close were it not for the lease obligations. It is unlikely that any of these stores make money.

FURNITURE INDUSTRY WATCH REPORT SEPTEMBER 2009

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