Bonded leather making headway

Joan Gunin, February 11, 2008

Bonded leather, a new leather-look cover featuring pieces of leather joined with adhesive that made its debut in a handful of showrooms last year, is receiving favorable reviews at retail, surprising some initial skeptics.

Like bycast (leather splits coated with polyurethane), which had its naysayers when it appeared five years ago, bonded leather is not without its critics. Many manufacturers have shied away from offering the product, citing the fact that it isn't truly leather and that consumers may be confused about its quality. Retailers also have expressed reservations, and those stores that have opted to try these covers have done so in a very limited way.

But as with bycast in the past, bonded leather now has been given the yellow light — "proceed with caution" — by Top 100 retailers and independents that see it as an attractive, affordable alternative to genuine hides. Many are adding second and third frames to their floors.

Among the bonded leather products in the marketplace is NextLeather, a registered trademark from Design Resources Inc. Comprised of 61% polyurethane, 22% poly/cotton and 17% leather, "It is a polyurethane face on a fabric core," said President Alan Naness.

Comparing NextLeather's composition to pigmented leathers available domestically, Naness said, "They spray paint on the face of the goods, while I am using a polyurethane product. NextLeather represents the next generation to bycast because the face uses the same technique."

"It is not leather," he added. "It's bonded leather, a new technology."

Naness compares the term bonded leather to the use of "woods" for golf clubs. "They are not made out of wood; they have found a better substance."

Price is a lure

He considers bonded leather a new category, akin to the debut of microfiber.

In defense of the covering, Naness said, "It looks good, the price is good, and according to the Federal Trade Commission, the dealer can legally call it leather because it's cut from a hide."

Bonded leathers provide a 90% yield and cost three times less than a typical leather cover, he added.

Key elements to the marketing of these covers are proper identification and consumer education. Many stores have tinkered with the name, marketing it as something other than bonded leather. For example, Top 100 retailer American Furniture Warehouse calls its cover DuraHide Plus. Canadian-based upholstery maker Palliser markets its line as Nupelle, while Ashley offers UltraHide.

The product is promoted to consumers through hangtags, signage and advertisements.

"We stayed away from it (bonded leather) for a long time because we didn't know what to call it," said Jake Jabs, president and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse in Englewood, Colo. "We didn't want to call it bonded leather because it's not really leather."

With all AFW polyurethane products tagged as DuraHide, Jabs differentiates the new bonded option as DuraHide Plus.

Hangtags identify DuraHide Plus as "a polyurethane surface with a leather backing," Jabs said. "The concept of the tags is to get the salesman not to oversell or overpromise, so we don't get merchandise back."

Carrying one imported group from First Oceans priced at $349 retail, Jabs admits the sofa "isn't doing that well" but faults the frame not the cover. The Italian look with tufted back and track arms "is too contemporary (for us)."

Carl Little, upholstery buyer for the 10-unit Lacks Valley Stores, Pharr, Texas, has purchased a few bonded leather styles from United Furniture.

"We bought it (bonded leather) because of the price point, plus it allows us to be competitive (with other stores)," Little said. "People can't tell the difference between vinyl and bonded and corrected leathers. The price points are good. It's not bad for the consumer in the long run."

Lacks Valley markets its product as polyvinyl PVC composite, not bonded leather, Little added. "We have educated our salespeople as to the construction of the fabric. They all know the only place you can find leather is on the back side.

"We don't want to present it as leather to the consumer. We want them to know it's a vinyl product."

Lacks Valley also likes that it can market the PVC composite as "a green thing. The leather is being recycled, not going into a landfill," he said.

A large-scale traditional frame in the cover is doing well at $599. "No objections," he said. Lacks Valley also expects to do well with a contemporary frame at $499 that's not yet on the floor, as well as a Palliser frame that will be sold through its clearance outlet.

A drawback to bonded leathers, Little said, is the limited range of styles, colors and textures that are available.

Haynes Furniture, a five-store chain in Virginia Beach, Va., is "doing OK with it," said Tara Davis East, upholstery buyer. But, she added, "We don't consider it leather." It is sold as a fabric SKU.

Introduced in early fall, a bonded frame is sold as part of a promotional room package in Haynes' Rooms Express program. Available in two- to five-piece groups with upholstery, tables and lamps, "It is inexpensive but works to build the retail ticket," Davis East said.

Haynes plans to offer a motion piece in the cover, too.

Testing the waters

Albuquerque, N.M.-based American Home accidentally moved into the category after a top-grain sofa arrived in a bonded version. The contemporary stationary frame promotionally priced at $499 has "been running for over a year and is doing well," said Deb Paczynski, vice president of furniture. "It looks good and it feels good. Customers are responding."

A year ago, Paczynski said, she wasn't sure about the viability of this new cover and "wanted to see what happened in the market."

Now, she said, the 10-unit retailer actively promotes bonded leather's high-performance capabilities and value. Spurred by its initial success, American Home plans to add a motion frame. "I think it will perform well," Paczynski said, adding that the retailer markets this product as bonded leather.

To a lesser degree, La Difference, a mid-to high-end store in Richmond, Va. offers bonded leather on barstools and office chairs but not upholstery.

"We have synthetic and bycast leathers that do well," said buyer Jaye Erickson.

While not opposed to bonded products, "If we saw something that wowed us and thought it was quality, we would include it," Erickson said.

"As with leather/match, which we identify as such, we tell customers this is regenerated leather," she said. "We do not have a problem with being forthright. It helps us, it helps the salesperson, it helps the consumer. We don't want to pass something off."

Terri's Consign & Design Furnishings, an eight-store operation in Tempe, Ariz., has carried bonded leather for two years "usually on one frame at a time."

"I have not decided if I am going to continue it," said Rhonda Fosenburg, vice president of national purchasing. "I've wanted to proceed with caution until there is a track record on how this product will hold up in the consumer's home."

Spelling it out

Terri's calls its product bonded leather.

"This is one of the reasons why we make sure our tags contain an accurate description," Fosenburg said. "The description provides a vehicle for open dialogue with our customers to educate them on the material composition."

Keyed to promotional pricing, "Our younger price point-conscious consumers have embraced this product and it has sold well for us," she said.

While a number of stores are beginning to try bonded leather, there's still a big group that's avoiding the category.

"We have not bought it and probably won't," said Jim Winkler, owner of Leathershoppes, a Houston specialty store. "It's not leather — it's a plastic and I think it provides more confusion."

For a lower-priced option, Winkler has offered bycast.

Another holdout is The Luxury of Leather, serving the Dallas area. According to Kent Bouldin, owner, "Sometimes clients are confused on different types of leather and why one is less expensive than another. The category is being damaged by 'almost leather' products. I am concerned (bonded) will not hold up well and as time passes the category's quality image will be diminished."

The Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse in Sumner, Wash. took a chance on bycast "because it became such a fashion look and sells and sells," said buyer Pam Leonard. But she's "on the fence as far as whether to have confidence (in bonded)."

"The leathers we're seeing are still a great value and selling well," Leonard said. Among the store's best sellers is a Klaussner motion sofa in a higher-grade leather retailing at $1,400. "It's not always about price and trying to cut quality."

"If you can use it (bonded) as a split on the outside, that might have some value," she said, "but I don't see much difference between bonded and a vinyl product. It's just chewing up leather and spitting it out."

Larry Iserson, owner of Silvert's Furniture & Design Center, Freehold, N.J. agreed. "It's really a vinyl with a leather product added but people are selling it as leather. It's scraps with polyurethane."

Added Simon Kaplan, president of Value City, Dayton, N.J., "It's too new. I don't want to take risks at this time."

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