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Canada, Mexico, China top export customers for U.S

Canada, Mexico, China top export customers for U.SHIGH POINT - Furniture exports rose 4% to $1.1 billion during the first half of 2013, matching last year's pace of growth during the same period.
     According to Furniture/Today research, Canada, Mexico and China remained the top foreign countries consuming U.S.-made furniture during the first half. They were followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom in dollar value of shipments.
     Other markets in order of importance include Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, South Korea and the Bahamas.
     China's $29 million in furniture purchases gave it a high ranking on the list. However, the overall value of shipments there fell 16%, a potentially troublesome trend that shows some weak spots in the Chinese economy.
     Observers have noted there is still plenty of demand for U.S.-made products among higher income consumers in China. Yet they also note out that wages aren't rising fast enough among the overall population to sustain substantial growth in sales of furniture or other consumer goods.
     Meanwhile other markets such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, South Korea and Russia represent significant strength, each showing double-digit increases in the first half.
     U.S. producers attribute the gains to the high perceived value that U.S.-made product still represents in many foreign countries. With many of these producers at the high end, this represents a growth area that could help sustain their manufacturing operations moving forward.
     "I think that having a U.S. manufacturing story, certainly in countries like China and a few others, has provided a tailwind for us," said Alex Shuford III, president of case goods and upholstery manufacturer Century Furniture.
     Without mentioning specifics, Shuford said the company's export business this year is up by more than the overall 4% gain. Countries such as China represent a significant part of its overseas sales.
     "Our overseas customers have a distinct preference for U.S.-made case goods," he said. "That has been a steady source of business for middle and upper-end companies like us for a while."
     He added that Russia and Eastern Europe also are growing in importance.
     Councill, another high end manufacturer, also sells its line overseas, with case goods sales being stronger than upholstery.
     "There are a lot of upholstery manufacturers around the world, but there are relatively few case goods companies that can build the kind of product we make," said Tom Tilley, president and CEO.
     He noted that its strongest international markets include Russia, the UAE, Mexico and Italy. Business is particularly strong in metropolitan areas including Moscow, Dubai and Mexico City.
     Tilley agreed that international sales are largely driven by the prestige of owning a U.S-made product.
"People want the prestige of having the finest furniture made in America," he said. "It is a great growth opportunity for us at Councill."
     Shuford, of Century, said he is optimistic that next year will be an even stronger year for international sales. But he said to make that happen, he believes U.S. producers need to do a better job of tailoring product for specific countries.
     "We have not done as good a job as we should have with the international market," he said, noting that many have focused on the U.S. market so long that international sales have been more accidental than intentional.
     "Unlocking the international market is something Americans do poorly," he said. "U.S. companies need to tailor product to specific customers within specific trading areas and stop this blanket approach. Scales are different in Japan than scales in the Middle East."

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