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  • Clint Engel

Retailers rebounding

LAS VEGAS - Furniture retailers reporting inconsistent to good business in the midst of this rebounding economy are heading here this week with an eye on price but an even sharper eye out for the new styles, colors and designs that can separate them from the pack.
     With the housing market picking up steam, consumers have been shifting more and more into home furnishings buying mode, and retailers seem more focused now on innovation and style and other ways to differentiate and step away from the bottom prices of the market. That's not to say price isn't important, but exciting looks and leading trends seem to be more important.
     As usual, bedding - a category that often leads the industry when it comes to innovation - will be shopped heavily here as will furniture suppliers known for stepping out on the style and value fronts. Some retailers say they will hone in on casual and contemporary looks. Some say they'll be looking for more in the way of quick ship from their sources for both stocked and special- order goods.
     "We're a fashion-oriented business, no question about it," said Alfredo Lopez, buyer for Miami Gardens, Fla.-based El Dorado Furniture, which he said has seen solid sales so far this year. "We're always trying to listen to our customer and find out what they're looking for - what styles, what colors. We want to know the trends in fashion, and Las Vegas always gives us a good indication as far as fashion trends go."
     Most suppliers have smaller showrooms in the World Market Center than they have in High Point, so while they show fewer products here, they tend to bring more clear "winners," Lopez said.
     "In every showroom we go to, we always find a cherry," he said. "It's not a whole lot of cherries but we're buying individual things that fill the need on pricing and fashion and looks."
     Lopez said among other things, he's looking forward to seeing what's "new and exciting" from leather upholstery importer Man Wah/Cheers. And AICO, he said, will be El Dorado's first stop.
     "I know they're bringing two new collections, so we're looking to get ahead of the curve with AICO," he said.
     Lopez added that El Dorado looks for high design in product, which it has found in collections such as AICO's Hollywood Swank from a few markets ago.
     "High design is really driving our business," he said "That's what separates you from the competition."
     Business conditions during the first quarter of this year were tough for some members of the Nationwide Market Group buying group, but they saw a rebound in the second quarter and, "I think we're moving into a good summer," said Bill Bazemore, vice president of furniture.
     Bazemore said some parts of the country went from winter weather to summer, skipping spring altogether, but that resulted in an extended selling season for outdoor casual furniture sales.
     "Our stores are reporting good business," he said. "Our numbers are all up. Bedding continues to be a strong category. The housing rebound is helping tremendously. The economy is turning.
     "Those are all positive signs for our industry."
     In Las Vegas, Bazemore said he will be fine tuning Nationwide's home furnishings programs with it current vendor partners. Upholstery sources, such as Klaussner, Southern Motion, England and Best Home Furnishings will be shopped closely for the latest fabrics and color applications, he said.
     Bedding also will be shopped aggressively and Bazemore will make stops at key suppliers Simmons, Sealy and Serta, among others.
     While Nationwide is looking to fine tune, Bazemore said Las Vegas is just as important for digging out what's new and innovative from all exhibitors. Bedding sources have been the leaders in innovation here, first with gel and more recently with power bases, which have helped drive bigger tickets for Nationwide members.
     "I want to see the next hot product in bedding," he said.
     Despite national and international economic unknowns, signs point to an improving economy and consumer confidence, said Eric Blackledge, coowner of Blackledge Furniture in Corvallis, Ore.
     The Northwest has seen steady economic improvements, though Blackledge said his own market - with its large base of government employees - remains weak because of concerns over budget cuts and state retirement system benefits.
     "Consumer purchases still seem to be focused on basic high need items and middle price points, particularly bedding, motion, casual dining, and upholstery," Blackledge said.
     "Unfortunately, I think we will be living with the changes in consumer spending habits that occurred during this recession for many years to come."
     In Las Vegas, Blackledge is looking "primarily to improve our SKU mix with existing vendors for improved (return on investment), and filling some style and price-point voids, particularly in casual contemporary. "
     In upholstery, Blackledge said he's on the hunt for "newer colors and patterns to add some excitement to the floor," but the retailer will continue putting a "strong emphasis on the value and comfort customers are seeking today."
     "Because today's customers are growing to expect immediate fulfillment when they purchase, we will also be looking for resources that can provide quick and cost efficient replenishment of stock products and rapid delivery of custom-order upholstery," he added.
     Stephen Kidder, co-owner of three Vermont furniture stores including the Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Williston, Vt., characterized business as "spotty" so far this year. He added that although it's been soft for the past three or four years, he's seeing some encouraging signs.
     "House sales are up and average selling price of homes is up. The inventory is shrinking. I think the signals are reasonably good for a good late summer/fall," he said.
     The company shops bedding heavily in Las Vegas and will see Simmons, Tempur-Pedic and Sealy. Kidder was leaving the market on Saturday, before the official opening day since the retailer is there primarily for its HomeStore. It won't see general merchandise vendors, which it typically sees at High Point.
     Likewise, Charlie Malouf, partner in Charlotte-based Broad River Furniture, which operates Ashley Furniture HomeStores, is here to shop Ashley and bedding. Malouf sits on Ashley's product development committee. He's gotten a glimpse of what's coming and he's looking forward to seeing the finished product for several reasons.
     "I'm very excited to see their new bedroom groups," Malouf said, noting he will be paying attention to how Ashley takes advantage of upcoming trends.
     "The category is very important and we're always looking for the next homerun in case goods," he added.
     In upholstery, Malouf said consumers are leaning more toward nicer fabrics, more color, and better styling, tailoring and seating. Ashley, he said, has continued to take its upholstery offering to that next level with features such as ultra-plush and coil seating, for instance, so he's eager to see its latest take.
     Ashley also is stepping up its game in accessories, improving its sourcing and creativity, and the end results for stores is more transactions and repeat business.
     "I'm also excited to see what they're doing with storage features in motion," he said.
     As the economy improves, customers are developing more of a discerning palate for better and best goods, "and Ashley is really executing well and addressing those needs," Malouf said.
     "Adding in features and getting off entry-level price points is key. Upgrading fabrics, seating options, trends and tailoring - anything that can add perceived value and match the trend needs of today's consumer can allow us to grow to higher prices points and average tickets, address those needs and not just have to live in the low end."
     Nebraska Furniture Mart CEO Irv Blumkin described current business inconsistent, very strong some days and less so on others, but he added this is typical for the summer months. He said he and his team will be shopping the Vegas market with an eye towards, "refreshing existing lines, taking a second look at some things we've been considering and finding new product opportunities that will excite our customers and get them into our stores."
     Indeed that search for a gem is on everybody's list, whether it comes in the form of a new product or a new strategy.
     "I thoroughly believe when you go to market, you've got to go with an open mind," said Nationwide's Bazemore.

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