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Clint Engel

Sales trends spur hope

Rhonda Wolf, HavertysRhonda Wolf, Havertys
HIGH POINT - Retailers, encouraged by the housing market rebound and improving sales trends, are headed to market here with fairly lengthy shopping lists and an eye on some key categories, color and style trends.
     For some stores, business started off well this year but dipped in February as the realization of a payroll tax increase sunk in for consumers, and tax refund checks were delayed for many. But some retailers now say business popped right back up last month, helped by an early Easter and the arrival of those tax refunds in mailboxes.
     A better consumer mood has helped liven the buyer mood just in time for market. Retailers say they will be seeking more color - both in upholstery and case goods - as well as more modern looks, more eclectic accent pieces and more American-made goods.
     The popularity of motion upholstery - particularly power motion - shows no sign of abating, and there will be even more emphasis on leather and sectionals, if that's possible. In case goods, home entertainment is on many shopping lists, including the big wall units that had fallen out of favor a few years as smaller consoles made their run.

Power and color
     "From an upholstery standpoint, two words: power and color," said Oscar Miskelly, partner in Jackson, Miss.-based Miskelly Furniture.
     The power motion category got off to a slow start but the consumer has come around, he said. Women and older consumers in particular find it easier to operate that manual motion.
     Now the entire motion category, including sectionals, is eating into the tradition stationary sofa side, thanks to good looks from Southern Motion, Ashley, Franklin and Jackson/Catnapper, for instance. Miskelly buyers will be checking those showrooms and others for the latest.
     At the upper end of its price spectrum, the reception for power motion has been even stronger, Miskelly added, "because there's just not that much of a price difference between a $1,799 manual motion sofa from Flexsteel to the step-up $1,999 for power."
     Shopping for colorful looks will be equally important, he said, adding that the fashion apparel industry is leading upholstery and that bright colors - including orange, yellow and turquoise shades - are helping product stand out on the sales floor. Among the color leaders for Miskelly are Jonathan Louis and Fusion, he said, adding that "Ashley is finally coming around, too."
     What's more, color has splashed over into case goods, with products from imported case goods and accents supplier Bramble and others doing well.
     "It's been a nice change to add some color to the world of merlot that's out there," Miskelly said.
     In addition, entertainment wall units have come back with a vengeance, he said. The retailer had all but vacated the category a few years ago, but consumers are back in the market for the large systems, and Miskelly's business in wall units - with piers and light bridges - is up 50% year to date. Count on its buyers to shop for fresh looks here, from companies such as Aspen home at the high end of its price range to Oak West at the lower end.
     Fort Lauderdale, Fla.- based City Furniture, which like many retailers reported a nice pickup in business in March, won't be looking for any dramatic changes in style trends, but the retailer will continue hunting for more modern and contemporary looks with an eclectic touch achieved by mixing in upholstered beds, for instance, or varied finishes and standout accents.
     Traditional bedroom and dining room groups are becoming less important, President Keith Koenig said. "We clearly see the more sophisticated customer is getting more and more eclectic," he said.
     The company, which operates multi-line City Furniture as well as Ashley Furniture HomeStores, recently pushed into higher price points with Bernhardt galleries in its City stores. Koenig said Bernhardt is a perfect example of a source that creates that eclectic look - with multiple finishes and unusual accents - and said his buyers are eager to see the latest from this new resource.
     City also does a lot of business with motion upholstery importer Man Wah/Cheers and believes President Steve Barr "has some wonderful things up his sleeve we're excited to see," Koenig said
     "Motions, better leather, more sectionals are just a bigger part of our business," he said. Cheers, HTL, Natuzzi and a few other sources are doing well on City's floors and will be shopped closely.
     In case goods, City will aggressively shop Casana, which Koenig says always has a "great lifestyle and modern contemporary offering," as well as the latest contemporary designs from Idea Italia.
     He said he's also excited to see what's new in the Metropolitan Home collection from Lacquer Craft USA. City already has committed to the collection and expects it to ship in the next couple of months.
     "I think it will be a home run on our floors - well designed, great quality and good value," he said. "And it's another brand like Bernhardt, that I think will resonate with customers"

Trending traditional
     Atlanta-based Havertys was set to arrive here early with a band of 15 buyers, executives, regional managers and its director of visual merchandise to scope out the market thoroughly in order to make commitments by the Friday before opening day.
     In leather and upholstery, Havertys is looking for a shift back to more traditional styles, "so we'll be looking for skirts in fabric sofas again and better-end traditional leather," said Rhonda Wolf, vice president of merchandise and upholstery.
     "We swung pretty far the other way into transitional and contemporary, at least for Havertys, so we're getting back to our roots and see some good momentum in our traditional offering," she said.
     While the retailer is pretty set in the strong motion upholstery category, Wolf said there's room for a few more contemporary motion sectionals.
     She said that in color choices, "Gray is the new neutral and all shades of it continue to be important from blue gray to charcoal."
     In case goods, Havertys sees an opportunity to strengthen its entertainment offering, said Richard Gallagher, senior vice president of merchandising.
     "We're always looking for the new way to address those flatter flat-screen TVs," he said. "The days of someone having a DVD player and actual media storage outside the cloud, we think, are numbered."
     While Havertys continues to do well with the larger wall systems, the environment is continually changing, and less need for storage means fewer opportunities to sell large wooden furniture, he said.
     Gallagher said he's on the lookout for "the next great thing" - "We'll be looking hard at that and making sure we stay in lockstep with the (latest) electronics."
     In dining rooms, the retailer is shopping for some transitional and formal styles as well as its opening price points in casual dining, about $599 to $799.
     Randy Hayes, operations manager and head buyer for Woodley's Fine Furniture in Longmont, Colo., said the mid-priced to upper-end retailer and manufacturer had a strong first quarter, driven by people back in the market for better goods.
     "We have got some big retailers in our markets that tend to be more price-oriented," Hayes said, adding that he believes many consumers who went that route during tougher times are realizing that the cheaper furniture hasn't held up.
     "Now they want something that hits more of a style and that they know is going to last," he said.
     In High Point, Hayes is looking for better quality and American-made goods, including upholstery in the $999 to $1,700 range from sources such as Craftmaster, Huntington House, King Hickory and Smith Bros.

Questions about down
     Hayes was recently contacted by a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who told him horror stories about birds being plucked alive for their down and asked him to commit to refraining from buying product with real down. Hayes said it wasn't something he had ever considered before and said he plans on asking questions about it here, in an attempt to learn more about where his suppliers' down comes from and whether there are synthetic alternatives.
     Woodley's makes its own case goods but supplements that with what Hayes called "import-oriented price points," from suppliers such as Aspenhome and Winners Only. He's not looking to replace any sources but wants to switch out of the older, tired looks on the floor.
     Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Montgomery's is another retailer here "looking for more color to add to our floors, more exciting new product," said Eric Sinclair, vice president.
     "Anything motion," he added, has performed well for the three-store retailer, so Sinclair will be looking for fresh looks in that category.
     And while traditional has long been the go-to style preference in Montgomery's South Dakota markets, Sinclair said consumers are starting to look for more modern, clean-lined product, so he'll be doing the same.

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