Buyers' shopping lists full at High Point Market
Seeking fresh looks as retail continues to improve
Clint Engel -- Furniture Today, April 20, 2012
HIGH POINT - Retailers shopping High Point Market this week are reporting consistent improvements in business and will be on the hunt for a host of fresh new looks, while putting pressure on suppliers for better service.
For several retailers contacted for this story, contemporary styles are high on their shopping lists as they continue to gain traction with their customers.
A few have written off the possibility of finding "made in America" products for most of their case goods lineup, but others are here doggedly pursuing domestic sourcing - for case goods and upholstery alike.
At the upper-medium to high-end price points, the consumer phenomenon known as "showrooming" - using a store and its staff to find the right product, and then jumping on a smartphone or computer to find a better price and buy somewhere else - has some retailers seeing red. They are seeking ways to better protect their market share and margins with more private label product, or at least market exclusivity.
As business continues to improve, buyers also are here pressing their vendors for more reliable and speedier delivery schedules.
"It would certainly be nice to find more domestic sources with shorter lead times for delivery," said Gordy Wallenstein, president of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Furniture Outlets USA.
Wallenstein is in the camp of retailers who believe the days of domestic case goods are numbered with the exception of promotional goods, but "we're going to be looking hard at more domestic upholstery," he said.
"Shorter lead times, something you can get in four to six weeks on stock upholstery" would be ideal, Wallenstein said. He said the retailer, which operates multi-line stores as well as Ashley Furniture HomeStores, primarily is looking for snappy delivery in stationary upholstery, because it's already covered well in motion.
In price points, Furniture Outlets is looking for sofas in the $499 to $799 range.
"We'll probably be shopping for some bedrooms" as well, he added - moderately priced bed, dresser, mirror and nightstand groups Furniture Outlets can retail from $999 to $1,999.
Peggy Burns, co-owner of Acton, Mass.-based Circle Furniture, has one thing on her shopping list above everything else.
"I'm not looking to put anyone's brand in the stores," Burns said. "Everything will be our own brand. Why? Because I don't want to be shopped."
She said so-called "showrooming" is getting out of hand. She recalled a recent incident, where much to her designer's dismay, Burns found herself "almost chewing a customer's head off," after the customer took advantage of the store as well as an in-home designer visit before pulling out a mobile device and informing Circle that she had found a lower price elsewhere. Circle ended up matching the price.
The upscale retailer already does plenty of private labeling, including with Norwalk, and likes the minimum retail pricing policies of key sources Ekornes and American Leather.
"We need some dining," Burns said. "If I find something, I want it to be proprietary - at least for our territory - without anyone's name on it but ours."
She's also hoping for find "something more reasonably priced" in the category, particularly in dining chairs, to make it easier for younger consumers to transition over to Circle from the lower-end lines they purchased earlier.
A big supporter of "made in America," Burns also is on the hunt for domestic product but isn't sure she'll be able to find it here.
Business for Grapevine, Texas-based Stacy Furniture & Design has been picking up this year with the opening of its Plano, Texas, showroom in a former Robb & Stucky, said President Dorian Stacy Sims.
"It's not a huge increase, but just enough that we're happy with it," she said, adding that sales also are up over last year on a same-store basis.
Sims said she's here to "shake it up a little bit," noting that she previewed an influx of color coming in upholstery during Premarket and will shop for it in depth, hoping to replace some of the browns and other "safe" colors.
"I think at this point, when people are making that decision to buy furniture, they want to see something different," she said. So bold upholstery and wood finishes in graphite and charcoal finishes, as opposed to the more common merlots, are on her shopping list.
Like Circle, Stacy also has experienced the consumer "showrooming" trend and is accelerating its move to more private label goods in some categories to combat the issue.
"Some brand name goods will stand," she said, as a way to help define the retailer in its greater Dallas market, "but in a range of price points, we're looking for things we can private label," because it's so much easier to be shopped these days.
Made in America product will also get Stacy's attention here with a visit to the Made in America Pavilion and other domestic suppliers. In part, Sims said she will be searching for better-end upholstery sources that can ship quicker than the lead times of six to 12 weeks at some of Stacy's existing sources.
"I'll be open minded to comparable sources that can ship it faster," she said.
For Bruce Berman, who recently reacquired the assets of Lombard, Ill.-based RoomPlace, speedy delivery isn't as important as reliable delivery.
"Whether it's imports or domestic, we're looking to make sure the vendors we are doing business with can deliver product on a consistent basis," he said. "It's not really whether a vendor can deliver to you in three weeks or six weeks or nine weeks; it's whether you can count on that date they give you - that it's going to be real. It doesn't have to be quick ship. It has to be consistent and accurate."
Two of Florida's biggest players, Rooms To Go and El Dorado Furniture, say contemporary furniture will get a lot of their attention here.
Bestselling traditional styles will last for years on the sales floor, but in contemporary, "you have to see new things all the time," said Carlos Capo, executive vice president of Miami Gardens, Fla.-based El Dorado.
Contemporary is like ‘the iPhone of furniture," he said - consumers expect regular updates. El Dorado buyers will be chasing the freshest looks in the category that they believe will motivate consumers to buy, he said.
While the retailer always takes time here to visit potential new sources, it is loyal to its existing suppliers, Capo added, so its buyers will be checking out companies such as Kinwai and Sharelle to give them the first crack.
Business so far has been decent for the 12-store South Florida chain, which is coming of a strong 2011 with sales up 16% over the previous year. The first two months of 2012 were stronger than March, but "it's going in a positive direction," Capo said.
On the West Coast, San Diego-based Lawrance Contemporary Home Furnishings (one of National Home Furnishings Assn.'s two Retailer of the Year honorees this market) also is having an up year, but "we're still really cautious," said Howard Haimsohn, president.
Consumers and the industry overreacted to the economic turmoil of the past few years, leading to an exaggerated sales pullback, he said. And while the upscale Lawrance and other retailers are seeing a rebound now that "people have figured out the sky didn't really fall," Haimsohn added that the traditional indicators that should point to better business conditions in the industry have yet to improve by much.
"The housing market is still awful and we all know our industry has historically tracked six months behind," he said. "Housing is not helping us yet and frankly, all indications are we may have a few more years before it does."
That said, consumers who have been waiting patiently to make big-ticket discretionary purchases are finally saying "we need new furniture," Haimsohn said. He was taking all of this into account as he was leaving for the Milan furniture market in Italy, from which he'll head to High Point.
"I'll be looking for exciting things" at both markets, he said. "We're looking to maintain our quality and price points or push them up a little in some areas. "
He sees the most potential for stepping up prices on accent items like chairs and cabinets, pieces a consumer can use to dress up a room without necessarily buying an entire group. If they do buy the group to go along with the piece, all the better, he said.
"I'm a little less afraid of price points today than I was two or three years ago," Haimsohn said. "I just feel like there are enough customers that appreciate better things and hopefully they will be willing to pay for them."
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