The High and the Maybe
November 12, 2009,
It wasn't the best of times. No way. But then again, it wasn't the worst of times either. That was last market.
The High Point Market last month was still leaning towards the "worst" side of the business scale as vendors and dealers continue to struggle with an industry practically devastated by the collapse of the housing market. But the arrow appeared to be slowly moving in a positive direction.
Furniture, perhaps the most postponable purchase of any home product, has seen this before, but never for so long and never so deeply. "We've all been through a tough time," said Brian Casey, head of the Market Authority, at the opening morning press conference. "But we're starting to see some positive indicators."
Market attendees agreed, although some said you had to look carefully to find them. Dealers sent smaller contingencies to market, many said, and there were probably more showroom vacancies than anytime in recent memory.
But the wholesale meltdown in dealer ranks seems to have leveled off and suppliers have turned to promotional pricing and packages in a bigger way than ever, convinced that the reduced buying activity is not some passing fad but instead a semi-permanent fact of furniture life.
So at showroom after showroom you could find lower ticketed alternatives to the high-priced spreads of yore. At the luxury level, there seemed to be an admission that the rules of engagement had changed.
"Luxury will come back," said Alexis Hampton, the noted interior designer who introduced a new collection for Hickory Chair, "but the display of it will be more discreet."
What was on display around town seemed to fall into several broad buckets, design-wise:
o While the city of High Point has no official Restoration Hardware outlet, one could find versions of the post-industrial chic look the store has seized upon recently all throughout market. If Pottery Barn had been the poster child for furniture design for the past five years, that mantle has been passed along to Resto. Clearly furniture suppliers taking this route were hoping flattery would get them somewhere.
o The curved silhouette of the Showplace building was apparently a subliminal influence on furniture design this market as both case pieces and upholstery frames sported curves in unprecedented numbers. In some showrooms, it seemed the only straight lines were when salesmen talked about pricing.
o The foliage may have started to turn colors, but conversations were still all about green at many locations. The industry believes it has a hot button in sustainability and eco-friendly products that other product classifications can't match. The only issue seems to be getting consumers to pay a premium for such products.
o All that glitters was not gold at market. Leafing techniques, using gold but also silver and other metallic finishes, turned up in many showrooms, while hardware on case goods continued to be a mix of metals with the ubiquitous Pottery Barn-influenced (see above) nickel look perhaps finally ebbing a bit.
o What's in a name remained a popular activity for suppliers with famous brands--Lauren Ralph Lauren, B. Smith, Candace Olson--turning up in new places while debuts from some furniture newbies--Thom Filicia and the previously mentioned Alexis Hampton--made their maiden High Point voyages.
Furniture industry guru Jerry Epperson of the investment firm Mann, Armistead & Epperson has said industry sales are off anywhere from 15 to 20 percent depending on the product and the price point.
High Point market addressed both of those elements last month and all that remains is to see whether it worked.--Warren Shoulberg