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Thomas Russell

European designs sell well in case goods

Contemporary furniture report

HIGH POINT - Contemporary case goods resources say their business has been strong due to consumer appreciation of clean-lined looks that bring European - primarily contemporary Italian - designs to the U.S. market.
     But the competition among these resources is as strong as ever thanks to demand for value driven pricing.
     Some companies are offering product that is designed by Italian designers and made in Italy by craftspeople with years of experience making furniture. Others are offering goods designed by Italians and other Europeans, but made in China or other parts of Asia at lower price points.
     Star Furniture International sources its line in Asia, offering four-piece bedrooms retailing from $3,000 to $4,000. A similar group made in Europe would likely retail from $7,000 to $9,000, said Carl Johnson, vice president of product development.
     While the line has European contemporary influences, he said the furniture typically has an American twist. For instance, the pieces are generally slightly larger in scale than European counterparts and also are designed differently. A dresser in the line has six drawers, for example, while a similar one from Italy might have three to five.
     "Being able to do the production in Asia, you can have fun with it and make it as good as you can," Johnson said. "It is not necessarily about being the cheapest. We are able to add value by saving on labor costs compared to the European factories."
     Calligaris USA's furniture, meanwhile, is made in Italy. The line includes upper-middle priced bedroom, dining room and living room goods, with four-piece bedrooms starting at around $5,000 retail.
     Business has been relatively strong over the past two years among retailers that emphasize contemporary and modern furniture, sources said. Among the top markets are New York, Toronto, Miami and the Washington, D.C., area.

The Tivoli dining
The Tivoli dining set by Sharelle Furnishings has an oak veneer top and stainless steel legs. The table retails at $1,195.
The Tower table by Calligaris USA is an extendable glass table that can seat up to 10 and comes with metal or wood legs. The version shown here retails at just over $5,000.
The Tower table
The Latitude bedroom
The Latitude bedroom by Star International Furniture is made with walnut veneers and is shown with a companion nightstand, dresser and mirror. A queen bed retails at $1,170, while case pieces range from $400 to $1,100.

     Calligaris has its own stores in Miami, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Washington and New York.
     "I think we definitely see that there is some competition from lower-end companies trying to replicate the modern look, but just as with any other company that has a niche such as our company, you will face that," said Thuy Le, product marketing specialist. "That is why we have moved more to a focus on branding.... We are recognized all over the world and that is one of the strategies we have used to counteract (lower-end competition)."
     Leif Petersen's line includes a mix of upper middle to upper-end case goods and occasional furniture made in six Italian factories. Its lowest priced cocktail starts at $400 retail while the highest priced one can reach $4,000, said company President Leif Petersen.
     Even though it sells at some higher price points, he said business has been good, with sales rebounding in 2012.
     "People cherry pick from us and they select certain products they want to market," Petersen said. "We are finding less resistance to pricing than before.... The stores that buy these products are looking to set themselves apart from the masses. They want to establish themselves as a design entity and want to make a statement with original, Italian-designed furniture. That sets them apart from other companies, the majority of which import from China."
     Still, he said the business has changed in recent years. His company has 60-70 accounts, down from as many as 250 six years ago.
     While a number of stores are no longer in business, this is also a reflection of some stores changing their product mix and shifting away from Italian designs. Those that do sell the style category are dedicated to it and thus end up purchasing more from his and other companies focused on these designs, he said.
     Sharelle Furnishings sources its line from China, said Jack Kiesler, president and CEO.
     "We have high-end designs, but because we are made in China, the price is a competitive price," he said, noting that a typical four-piece bedroom retails at $2,750 while a table and four chair set retails at $2,200. "I haven't checked prices in Italy lately, but I believe it will still cost at least 50% more out of Italy."
     He said the company continues to develop new designs in a variety of high gloss looks in colors including white, black and even red, blue and green. It also uses a variety of veneers, also in high gloss finishes.
     "Today the only way to compete is to come up with new designs and find niches in the market that other people don't do," Kiesler said.
     Despite the ongoing competition among these and other players, some believe there is demand for both the Italian and Asian models.
     "There is definitely competition, but there is definitely a need for both kinds of product," said Johnson of Star Furniture International, noting that there are consumers who want to buy European made furniture, while others want to buy the same designs but only want to pay import prices.
     "My core customers will always buy from both," he said.

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