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Upholstery merchandisers share segment's secrets to success

Furniture/TodayFurniture/Today upholstery/style editor Cindy Hodnett, left, moderates a panel with Bobby Berk of Bobby Berk Home, celebrity designer Angelo Surmelis and upholstery merchandiser Laurie Phillips of AICO.
NAPLES, Fla. - With an upbeat fashion show featuring stylish fabrics by Sunbrella setting the stage, veteran upholstery merchandisers shared some of the developments keeping their category on the rise.
     The models, two ladies and a gentleman, strutted their stuff at the front of the meeting room, providing a quick reminder that color and style are keys in the fashion forward upholstery segment.
     The session was moderated by Furniture/Today's Cindy Hodnett, upholstery and style editor, who asked the panelists why the upholstery segment remains one of the darlings of the industry.
     Laurie Phillips, vice president of soft line merchandising at AICO, where she has worked since 2005, said upholstery is "part of a fun way of living." The colors, forms and flexibility of various upholstered pieces provide fashion elements that help them stand out on retail floors. "Upholstery allows people to get excited and emotionally invested in the décor of their homes," Phillips said.
     Angelo Surmelis, the creator of the angelo: HOME collection, which aims to fulfill the goal that "everyone can have style (and for less)," agreed that upholstery can create excitement on retail floors, and said fashion is a major driver of his brand.
     Bobby Berk, who first opened Bobby Berk Home in 2006 and has stores in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, is a resource for trendsetting home furnishings and accessories. He agreed with the other panelists that striking upholstered pieces create excitement, observing that a bright orange sofa catches customers' eyes on his floors.
"Upholstery in bright colors is selling well and has created excitement," Berk said. "It allows consumers to express their fashion sense at home, and their friends can see it."
     The three said that giving the customer the ability to customize his or her purchase plays a role in their upholstery offerings, but Berk said it's important to keep the options manageable. Too many options can produce indecisiveness, he said.
     Phillips said AICO does the hard design work by assembling various design elements in its products. That gives consumers the opportunity "to create their own look," but to avoid being overwhelmed, she said.
     Hodnett asked the panelists about new standards in California that will allow producers to make upholstered furniture without using fire retardant chemicals, a development that they welcomed.
     Berk said customers like the fact that his company uses as many green materials as possible in its designs, while Phillips said it's important for producers to be socially responsible to their customers and to remove health hazards. Surmelis said the new legislation provides an opportunity "to meet customers where they are."
     What will the panelists be working on next year?
     Berk said he will be focusing on coordinating his online and brick-and-mortar businesses, while Surmelis said he's aiming to tell his brick-and-mortar message well. Phillips said AICO will be aiming to raise the bar, bringing out more innovative products at a faster pace.

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