Microfiber is mainstream contender

Leather/fabric hybrid offers 'substantial upside opportunity'

Joan Gunin, July 1, 2002

Microfiber is attracting attention as it maneuvers upstream in its attempt to become a mainstream contender at retail.

The symbiotic relationship between microfiber and leather upholstery frames frequently puts microfiber on the consumer coattails of its more confident leather cousin.

Billed as everything from a solid-color compromise to a leather wannabe to "the new velvet," most leather suppliers offer their own version of this stain-resistant synthetic, from the high end with American Leather's Ultrasuede product from Toray, to W. Schillig's Butterfly, to Natuzzi, Nicoletti, Omnia, Jaymar, Berkline, Palliser and Ashley's Dura Pelle — with various microfiber brands wedged in between.

Not only does microfiber offer an endless color palette, it retails at prices of 20% to 30% less than typical leather frames. Although some microfibers are value-priced, other alternatives, as with American Leather's Ultrasuede offering, are comparable to mid-grade leathers, said Bob Duncan, president of American Leather, which offers retailers separate swatch walls for leather and Ultrasuede entries.

"Ultrasuedes can cost as much as starting grade leathers," said Mike Nicotera, vice president of furniture for Burdines, Miami. But, noted Fred Starr, president and chief executive officer of Natuzzi Americas, "It's got the look, the feel, the price — and the comfort."

Microfiber — which grew 4% this quarter according to Natuzzi's latest financial statement — "is a hybrid between fabric and leather, with substantial upside opportunity," Starr said.

Sheldon Lubin, president of El Ran, agreed. "It meets a good price point for a look and offers a good value for what it is: a simulated suede feel at a fabric price."

"It can offer a sexy look on the right frame," he added, "but it must be married right."

Burdines has positioned microfiber as a solid-color story. "It's filling the void of solid color velvets with a lot more forgiveness," Nicotera said. "A customer can get a solid look, with a hand akin to a solid velvet or a sueded leather — plus a big durability story."

In addition, microfiber works as a pricing complement to leather because a leather sofa plus two microfiber chairs will cost less than three leather pieces. "It brings the price down about a third," Nicotera said.

Burdines' microfiber line, which represents about 15% of its total upholstery, includes selections from Natuzzi and Chateau d'Ax.

Battle of the sexes

Lynn Gerber-Jenkins, owner of Leather Co. in Owings Mills, Md., perceives microfiber as an antidote for the battle of the sexes. Simply put, she said, "the male wants leather; the female doesn't. Microfiber serves as a compromise."

Gerber-Jenkins said microfiber changes with the times. "When leather was new 10 or 12 years ago, that's all consumers wanted. But today, the reaction is, 'Is this suede?' "

"Because they're (shopping) in a leather store, they think it's suede," she said. "It turns heads."

But Gerber-Jenkins acknowledged microfiber wears better than suede and "seduces consumers in a way that leather doesn't."

Although the bulk of her frames are offered in either cover, about three out of 30 frames are shown in microfiber. "We surround them in a sea of leather," she said.

Microfiber is also selling well at Raymour & Flanigan in Liverpool, N.Y. "We do not believe it (the microfiber business) is coming at the expense of our leather business. Rather, we see it as additional business," said Steven Goldberg, executive vice president.

Microfiber's durability properties work as a sales tool. "It is up to the sales associates to communicate their knowledge of microfiber's characteristics to the consumer," he said.

Genuine value

Another microfiber fan is Larry Iserson, owner of Silvert's in Freehold, N.J., which has a 50/50 microfiber/leather on its floor. "Value-wise, microfiber is one of the best things out there. It affords the same soft hand as Ultrasuede without the price."

Begging to differ, Connie Stevenson, who owns Élan, a two-unit Omaha, Neb., retailer with husband Gary, has carried Ultrasuede (from American Leather) for 12 years.

Again, while many frames are offered in either microfiber or leather, roughly 10% of the contemporary mix is dressed in microfiber.

Comparing leather to Ultrasuede, Stevenson said the latter is not a hard sell because of the inherent color story. "It's as durable as leather and looks good on the floor."

In addition to American Leather, Élan markets frames in microfiber and leather from Jaymar, W. Schillig and Natuzzi.

At the high end, Texas-based Cantoni is also thriving in the synthetic business. Michelle Cass, leather and upholstery buyer for its four retail units, agreed microfiber does well because of its wearability and clean-ability properties.

Leather may offer some of the same properties, but microfiber also delivers a softness factor. "Microfiber drives leather because it is a good complement," Cass said. "In turn, it has driven our upholstery fabric SKUs."

Cass also cited the accessibility of Ultrasuede. Rather than being at the whims of cattle populations or pricing, "it's always available, always stocked.

"As an investment, it's a good economical move to increase a company's business," she said.

Not everyone is ready to jump on the microfiber bandwagon. Skeptics include Jim Reidl of Arizona Leather in Chino, Calif., and Mike Nance of Leather Today in The Woodlands, Texas.

Neither has yet been convinced by the category's power, nor consumer outcry. Reidl is testing it, while Nance is searching for the right fit. "Some players have gotten into it as a profit center without success," Nance said.

On the other hand, Nance is enthused about Canadian-based Legacy International's new offering, Dely, a treated leather with a nubuck look.

"Leather is my main thing, and that's what I'm selling," Nance said.

DREAM MATCH Natuzzi offers most of its product line in either microfiber or leather. Here, pictured above, model #F984 features a sectional upholstered in its Dreamfibre microfiber, while the sofa, loveseat and recliner, pictured right, sport leather covers.
EITHER/OR Sofa style #1335, shown here in a microfiber cover, or chair style #P114, are representative of the versatility of Chateau d'Ax's line. These and other frames are available in either leather or microfiber covers.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY Texas retailer Cantoni shows two versions of American Leather's Bennett frame on its selling floor. The sectional is outfitted in leather, while the companion armless chair is dressed in Ultrasuede.
DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE El Ran's Brio motion sectional does double duty, adorned in either leather or microfiber.

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