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Formal dining market smaller but still vibrant

HIGH POINT - For manufacturers placing less emphasis on the category, it's a given that formal dining continues to lose ground to more casual dining footprints.
     Yet resources still developing and marketing formal dining say there is still plenty of business to be had, especially among consumers with larger homes that have a dedicated dining area.
     "It is one of the more dynamic categories of growth and has been for a number of years," said Phil Haney, president and CEO of Lexington Home Brands, whose formal dining business has been up 6% to 15% each year in recent years. "We do a nice business in that category and one of the reasons is because it is one of the more visible spaces in the home and gives you a chance to make a statement."

Hooker Furniture’s Corsica collection includes this dining set in acacia solids and veneers, which comes in a wire-brushed, antique espresso finish or a light/natural finish.
Hooker Furniture’s
Lexington Home
Lexington Home Brands’ St. Tropez collection in walnut veneers and hardwood solids features decorative metal accents in a burnished gold finish, as seen on the ferrules of the table legs.

     He said the dining area may be different today than in years past. The room may be more open by only having two walls as opposed to the traditional four. Or the space may be more multifunctional, with an open bookcase or a buffet/sideboard unit that replaces a china cabinet.
     And when it's not used for gatherings, the dining table often becomes a place to do homework or other tasks formerly done in a home office.
     Still, the dining table and chairs remain a key focal point in the room.
     "People may not use it as frequently as casual dining, but there are times that they entertain that these rooms become important," Haney said. "It is important to have a gathering place where people can get together for celebrations."
     Since formal dining also is typically sold at higher price points than casual, it also must have a higher perceived value that attracts retailers and consumers. If it doesn't, many may simply gravitate towards lower-priced casual dining.Formall Dinning
     Vendors still selling the category describe this value in terms of finish, styling and shaping of pieces such as pedestal bases and chairs.
     "The first thing the customer sees is the finish," said Erica Wingo, who until recently was merchandising director at Hooker Furniture, which is seeing more success of late with more of its casual dining introductions. (She has joined Bernhardt in a merchandising role.)
     "If you are going formal, it has to have that hand-rubbed, rich look to it," Wingo said. She said that inlay patterns on the table also have to stand out as well as the shaping and design of table bases.
     Wingo also said that the back of the chair must be "as pretty as the front because that is what you see when you walk up to the table. That attention to detail makes all the difference."
     Homelegance, a lower middle to middle-priced case goods resource, sells both formal and casual dining. A formal table and six chairs range from a low of $1,099 retail to a high of $2,999. Its more casual sets retail around $799 for a table and four chairs.
     Sales of formal dining are growing some, but not as much as some other categories, said Jamie Collins, vice president of sales and marketing.
     "It is about staying focused and having meaningful product in the category," he said, noting that formal still does well in the Midwest and Northeast.
     At the higher price points, he said, the category delivers features such as heavily carved pedestals and chairs that also have higher end fabrics. Tables and case pieces offer fancy face veneers and sometimes two-tone finishes.
     Michael Lawrence, vice president of sales at Najarian Furniture, said the company is doing a "great business" in formal dining, a factor he attributes partly to the lack of resources remaining in the category.
     The company also offers some of the more competitive prices in the category, with table and four-chair sets that start at $1,099 and go up to $1,399. By comparison, its five piece casual dining sets retail around $599 to $799.
     To be competitive and also justify the higher price points, Lawrence said, "You have to add some bells and whistles to separate yourself.... It all goes back to the value, the styling and the unique elements you can add."
     In addition to offering a quality finish plus a quality veneer story, the company offers eye-catching design features such as tabletops with crackled glass insets.

The Savoy dining set by Thomas & Gray is made with quartered oak veneers and comes in a dark finish called Bramble.
The Savoy dining
Standard Furniture’s
Standard Furniture’s Churchill collection includes this formal dining set, which is made with cherry and prima vera veneers. It features frame drawer fronts, egg and dart base mouldings, decorative scroll, shell and acanthus leaf carvings and bead string centers.
A.R.T. Furniture’s European-influenced LeGrand dining room is made with mahogany veneers and features design elements such as carved pilasters and decorative detailed carved elements on the pedestal base. Case pieces offer marble tops and the set comes with tufted upholstered chairs.
A.R.T. Furniture’s

     "Formal dining has stayed very strong for us," Lawrence said. "We are doing as much formal dining business as we have ever done and it is because we have styling that is different from what is in the marketplace."
     At the higher end of the spectrum is Thomas & Gray, which was recently acquired by Councill and its parent, Hancock & Moore. It offers both casual and formal dining footprints, both of which must offer a higher value equation since they face competition with much lower-priced goods available by buying direct from overseas factories.
     "These lower-priced promotional retailers ... have massive advertising budgets that are using color photography with a great deal of eye appeal at remarkably low price points," said Tom Tilley, CEO. "The consumer at this lower price range is sensitized to the idea that you can get a whole lot of look at a modest price point."
     Tilley said that in his upper- end line, the table, often an oval or rectangular table with a double pedestal base, is the most popular item in formal dining.
     "A dramatic and beautiful table that has expensive veneers and a beautiful hand rubbed finish is very appealing to that upper end consumer," he said. "Consumers also aren't as interested in matching chairs as much as chairs that complement the table."Formal
     Chairs, he said, are more price sensitive than the table.
     "They (chairs) need to be comfortable and attractive and compatible with the table, but the table is where the action is at the high end," Tilley said.
     Retailers agree that formal dining remains an important, yet perhaps smaller part of their business than in years past.
     "We still sell large tables and chairs, and we are doing more with buffets than china cabinets," said Jerry Baer, senior vice president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Baer's Furniture, adding that finish and styling are among the biggest value-added elements that suppliers can offer in formal dining.
     Bill Kimbrell, CEO of Houston- based Top 100 store Star Furniture, agreed that styling is particularly important in the category. Some of its key vendors in formal dining include Bernhardt, Hooker and A.R.T. Furniture.
     "It has to make a pretty dramatic style statement," Kimbrell said. "The larger scale seems to be the preference. It always has to have that value perception."

The Orleans
The Orleans collection by Homelegance features this formal dining set in cherry veneers with a dark cherry finish and gold tipping. Carved elements range from wreath accents on the pedestal base to the sculpted lion’s foot on the server. A table and six chairs retails at $2,999.
The Newport dining set by Najarian Furniture is made with poplar solids and cherry veneers. A table and six chairs retails at $1,499.
The Newport dining set

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