• Thomas Russell

Grand scale formal dining remains popular

HIGH POINT - Despite the popularity of everyday dining footprints, some case goods resources say formal dining remains an important part of their business.
     This is especially true for grand-scale leg and pedestal base tables, as well as side pieces with curved and heavily carved European designs.
     At case goods and upholstery resource Fairmont Designs, formal dining still represents about 30% of the company's import business, said President Brian Edwards. Among the most popular items are double pedestal tables, including ones that extend to 109 inches and feature "great veneer work and finishes."
     He added that china and buffet units represent about 30% of the formal dining business. Sideboards, which account for another 30%, are gaining in popularity because they're more affordable than chinas or buffets.
     Fairmont's prices remain in the middle with its bread and butter at $2,499 to $2,999 for a table, six chairs and a buffet and hutch unit.
     "Retailers have been searching for a higher ticket, and formal dining is a higher ticket," Edwards said. "When you walk away from the category, for sure your sales go down."
     "It is an important category for us," said Adam Tilley, vice president of product management at Stanley Furniture, noting that grand-scale designs including large double pedestal tables are still popular.
     "It is a statement room and (consumers) want statement furniture to go in it.... Being an upper-end resource for the industry, it certainly plays to our strengths and is a category in which people in the market are willing to invest a little more," he said.
     But Tilley and others note that while Italian and Spanish traditional design influences still perform well in the category, there is a growing trend towards more casual looks. These include groups with distressed, lower sheen finishes as well as cleaner, more transitional lines.
     Mike Harris, president of Legacy Classic Furniture, said that formal dining footprints represent about 30% of his company's SKU count in dining and 50% of sales.
     "We have fewer formal sets today, but those formal sets we have produce for us," Harris said.
     He agreed that formal dining is becoming more casual in nature, which he believes, combined with functionality, gives it greater versatility for the end user.
     That is largely why retailers shopping Legacy likely notice a greater blurring of lines between formal and casual dining. For example, more relaxed styles that would normally classify as casual are seen in groups with larger scale tables extending to 96 inches or more. Three of the company's top selling groups have tables of this size and only one of those would be classified as formal, Harris said.
     "We are not looking at formal dining room and casual dining as being two different categories," he said. "We are trying to address the dining room business collectively as opposed to individual pockets."
     Greg Harden, CEO of Harden Furniture, said that the company still does a strong business in traditional designs. That's largely because it is one of the few domestic resources still producing sets of this nature.
     "On the dining side, I am surprised it has been as robust as it has been because that is the room consumers procrastinate about the longest," he said, noting that they typically furnish the living room and the bedroom before a formal dining room. "It has been a fairly good year and that is because of pent-up demand as much as anything."
     But he said the company is seeing more demand for more relaxed styling as in its Cabinetmaker's Cherry and NuClassic collections.
     Jeff Scheffer, president and CEO of Universal Furniture, said business in formal dining is still decent. However, he said, it "is without question the most postponable furniture purchase."
     He also agreed that the category has become less formal and more causal in appearance. In fact, what often classifies a dining set as formal, he said, is the size and scale of the set, versus the styling.
     "This whole casual Friday thing ... you can see it in how people are dressing, and that has found its way into the home," he said. "There has been a blurring of what is formal and what isn't."
     Lee Boone, president of case goods importer SLF, said the formal dining category has been "pretty stable" for the company even though some dealers are allocating fewer slots to it on their floors. SLF's line includes 8 to 10 sets, all of which offer a china, which helps define the set as formal.
     Many also are traditional in style, Boone said, adding that the company aims to design products that offer consumers long-lasting value.
     "The more perceived value we can put into a product in terms of shaping and mixing of materials and fancy face veneers, that is what our customer is looking for," he said. "The customer is looking for something they understand and that looks good and fits within their homes and fits within their budget."
     While most are content with their current sales in formal dining, a number of executives interviewed for this story say the jury is still out on the future of the category. That's particularly true as more new homes lack a formal dining room.
     "That has caused us to rethink the category in some ways and offer some smaller scale dining room options," said Stanley's Tilley. "We would normally have a formal dining room in every collection, but that is not the case any more."
     Still, many see opportunity in the category in this period of transition.
     "I won't tell you we are bullish on the category, but as more and more people decide to get out of it ... we will take a bigger share of the pie," said Scheffer of Universal. "We don't have everything figured out, but we are doing some things that are working and we intend to stay after it."

Fairmont Designs’
Fairmont Designs’ Toluca Lake is in pin knotty oak veneers and walnut inlays with a lightly distressed Harvest Wheat finish. A table and four side chairs retails at $1,499 container direct, or $1,599 with four upholstered back side chairs.
Made with cherry solids and veneers, Harden Furniture’s NuClassic collection has a clean-lined transitional look. It is shown in the company’s Westport finish and is available in more than 40 finish options. A set with a table, two arm chairs and four side chairs has a suggested retail of $12,340.
Made with cherry
Kendall by SLF
Kendall by SLF has an updated traditional design and is made with birch veneers and hardwood solids in a dark merlot finish. The SLF line includes about 10 sets that retail from $799 to $1,499 for a table and four chairs.
Larkspur by Legacy Classic is a rustic casual group made with pine solids and cathedral birch veneers in a burnished caramel finish. This trestle table opens to 110 inches, allowing it to seat eight comfortably. Legacy’s formal dining ranges from $999 to $1,299 retail for a table and four chairs and from $1,399 to $1,899 for a table and six chairs.
Larkspur by Legacy
Stanley’s transitional
Stanley’s transitional Avalon Heights fuses contemporary and traditional design elements. Featuring this double pedestal dining table and sideboard, it is made with ropey cherry, anigre fiddle and mapa burl veneers in a mid-tone finish called Chelsea.
This dining set is part of the Paula Deen Down Home collection by Universal Furniture. Made from poplar solids and veneers, it is shown here in a Molasses finish. It also comes in a lighter Oatmeal finish.
This dining set
Thomas RussellThomas Russell | Associate Editor, FurnitureToday

I'm Tom Russell and have worked at Furniture/Today since August 2003. Since then, I have covered the international side of the business from a logistics and sourcing standpoint. Since then, I also have visited several furniture trade shows and manufacturing plants in Asia, which has helped me gain perspective about the industry in that part of the world. As I continue covering the import side of the business, I look forward to building on that knowledge base through conversations with industry officials and future overseas plant tours. From time to time, I will file news and other industry perspectives online and, as always, welcome your response to these Web postings.

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