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  • Cindy W. Hodnett

Shoppers still buying American

Miles Talbott’s ShabbyMiles Talbott’s Shabby Chic collection is a popular line at Nekkid Dave’s, a Winston-Salem, N.C., retailer.
High Point - In a store housed in what was once a dairy barn on the North Carolina country estate of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, David Hatcher has created a thriving home furnishings business by offering a variety of products with one thing in common - an American lineage.
     Owner of Nekkid Dave Home Furnishings in Reynolda Village in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hatcher says a majority of his customers are looking for quality furnishings and quick delivery, and they look to products made in the United States to meet both needs.
     "Eighty percent of my customers want domestic, Made in America products," Hatcher said. "They are willing to pay more for better quality, style and comfort."
     Hatcher carries Miles Talbott's Shabby Chic upholstery in his store, along with Eastern Accents pillows and bedding and outdoor seating from Uwharrie Chair. He cites the custom capabilities and short delivery times among the key benefits his customers mention about Made in America products.
     "Domestic produced items offer a greater variety of fabrics and leather upholstery options, options for tailoring, materials, etc." Hatcher said. "The overall pricing is higher, but consumers will pay more for a domestic-produced product because they feel they are receiving a custom product based on their style needs, and they like the fact that they are supporting local factories, local workers and local businesses as part of their Made in America endeavors."
     Hatcher said many of his customers have seen U.S. manufacturers struggle to meet the challenges of an internationally competitive market. He thinks they are willing to pay more for a U.S.-made quality product.
     He said consumers are rejecting "the ‘throwaway' syndrome of cheaply made, self-assembly, vinyl-wrapped, corrugated type products we see at the big box stores. They wish to buy their products once and are willing to pay more for a well-produced domestic product that represents their style and comfort needs."
     At Top 100 retailer Furnitureland South in Jamestown, N.C., Made in America upholstery is a popular consumer request, according to Gray Pennell, showroom merchandising director. He added that domestic upholstery is easier to obtain than U.S.-made case goods and offers more options.
     "You don't need all of the machinery that case goods require to make (domestic) upholstery," Pennell said. "If a store is a more promotional retailer, then they usually offer more imports, but many times, you don't have the same amount of fabric choices you do with domestic. You'll find more married frames, and since well over 90% of our business is special order, we like having a choice of cushions and fabrics for our upholstered furniture."
Henredon’s Acquisitions CollectionHenredon’s Acquisitions collection is a Made in America line sold at Furnitureland South.

     "Some consumers want everything made in the United States," said Meredith Smothers, mart merchandising director for Furnitureland South. "Some of the very best upholstery is still made here in North Carolina and time is also a factor. Most customers want their furniture as quickly as possible."
     Smothers and Pennell said they've also seen an increase in the number of younger buyers requesting Made in America products.
     "They have experienced the disappointment of not getting a good return on their investment," Pennell said. "At Furnitureland South, we test all merchandise and if it is not right, we don't buy it. We spend a lot of time finding the right things, and when Mrs. Smith gets her sofa, it will sit the same way at home that it did here in the store."
     "Some of the younger consumers are not buying furniture based primarily on price anymore," Smothers said. "They are definitely buying nicer products."
     On the manufacturing side, supplying retailers with Made in America products presents unique challenges to suppliers. From finding enough employees to work on the factory floor to maintaining superlative distribution procedures, manufacturers are constantly innovating best practices.
     "Having a short lead time is one of the biggest reasons retailers prefer to buy domestic, so our challenge is to find the balance of having inventory on hand and plenty of custom options while still being able to produce an efficient and attractive turnaround time," said Meredith Spell, creative director of upholstery producer Younger Furniture. "To address this, we are selective and smart about the options we offer and we practice the process of editing ourselves to make sure we stay lean and offer the right options for customers."
     Spell added that quality domestic frame suppliers are in high demand and that finding skilled cutters, upholsterers and sewers is difficult because fewer people are choosing to pursue these types of factory jobs. By necessity, her company recruits aggressively and "takes the time to train and promote when possible."
     "Our business has grown 20% over last year, and I can't for certain attribute all of this to our domestic production, but I can say that this is an issue that is first and foremost in our customers' minds," Spell said. "It's something that brings more customers to us and ‘Where is your factory?' is always the first question out of a potential customer's mouth."
JamestownJamestown, N.C.-based retailer Furnitureland South carries the Larry Laslo collection from Chaddock, an upper-end Made in America line.

     O'Grady Furniture is a domestic upholstery manufacturer based in North Carolina. According to company President Jo Anne O'Grady, demand for domestic extends beyond U.S. borders.
     "We deal primarily with U.S. dealers, but we have already been contacted by dealers in both Canada and in Russia that are interested in our furniture," she said. "Our sales have doubled since the last market and our company is in the infancy stage as we have only been in business about two years."
     Upholstery manufacture Thayer Coggin has had a "significant double-digit increase in sales" last year, according to company officials. President Royale Wiggin said that domestic customers' expectations of lead times can be challenging to meet and that the company continues to expand its sourcing options for supplies.
      "We work very closely with our fabric mills to find solutions and we offer cut yardage programs where fabrics are usually readily available," she said. "We are so thankful for improving demand for U.S. products. Our factory operated six days a week in 2013 while we hired and trained new team members.
     "We strive to set realistic ship times for our customers and have created a quick ship program that is a viable option for some of those furniture emergencies," Wiggin said. "Because we are a boutique manufacturer, building to each order with a variety of options, the bench-made process requires certain time frames to maintain our quality standards."
     Klaussner Home Furnishings representatives said the top challenges for domestic upholstery producers are the availability of a skilled labor force, followed by the lead times on raw materials, including fabric and leather.
     "We work with state and local agencies and local community colleges to recruit and train," said Len Burke, vice president of marketing at Klaussner. "And absolutely people look for (Made in America). Many consumers have either had their job affected or know someone who has, making them want to purchase American-made product. Also, today's consumer wants what she wants when she wants it and our domestically made upholstery gives the retailer the opportunity to offer her special orders at affordable price points with fast lead times."
     An aging labor force is also one of the top challenges for Rowe Furniture. Additionally, the company is focusing significant effort on becoming compliant with TB-117-2013, the revised flammability standard enacted by California.
     "We have an aggressive training program and with our constant recruitment, Rowe is a desirable place to work," said David Shilesky, Rowe's vice president of marketing. He said the company is working with suppliers to have TB-117 solutions in place before the California compliance deadline.
     Greg Morgan, United Furniture Inds.' director of merchandising, said that producing domestic upholstery has value for both the consumer and U.S. communities. He adds that it is important for retailers to tell the story to consumers and that many people don't understand the challenges that are inherent with producing domestic upholstery.
     "With the furniture industry, you are still challenged to purchase raw materials from other countries in order to be competitive (i.e. fabric, foam, legs, parts, kits, etc.) and the flow of those raw materials is the largest challenge," Morgan said. "It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together - in order to make production work and manufacturing run smoothly, all things must fall into place in order to deliver product to the retailers.
     "An advantage of Made in America is that it tells consumers that we are keeping our people working," Morgan said. "This summer, we just added production to our Nettleton, Miss. facility and added 100 jobs to the community and currently, we employ over 1,800 people in Mississippi alone. With some manufacturers struggling to keep their doors open, our employees count on us to provide jobs and stability for them and their families. It's the heartbeat of small communities."

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