HIGH POINT, N.C., November 2, 2015 – The American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) has petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to adopt the upholstered furniture performance standards and flammability test methods prescribed by California’s Technical Bulletin 117-2013.

AHFA filed the petition October 30 on behalf of a Joint Industry Coalition representing a diverse group of stakeholders who have been working on upholstered furniture flammability issues for decades. The petition proposes that the standards and test methods in TB 117-2013 be adopted as a national, mandatory flammability standard for residential upholstered furniture under the Flammable Fabrics Act.

“This petition provides the CPSC with an opportunity to bring closure to the longstanding issue of furniture flammability,” states Bill Perdue, AHFA’s vice president of regulatory affairs.

Groups participating in the coalition include: the American Fiber Producers Association, Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Cotton Council of America, National Council of Textile Organizations, North American Home Furnishings Association, Polyurethane Foam Association and Upholstered Furniture Action Council.

For 40 years, the CPSC has been evaluating whether it should adopt national regulations that would establish flammability standards for residential upholstered furniture. In 2008, after almost 15 years of regulatory activity, the CPSC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that outlined a flammability standard primarily focused on protecting consumers from fires started by smoking materials. The CPSC focused on a smolder test, because cigarettes are the source of ignition in 90 percent of the upholstered furniture fires that result in a fatality.

The effort stalled, however, as competing stakeholders argued for an open-flame test, and environmental groups expressed deepening concern that flame retardants would be needed to meet those testing requirements.

The 2013 amendments to TB 117 resulted from an extensive regulatory review process that included the active participation of fire safety experts, the furniture manufacturing industry, environmental groups and many others. It essentially achieved the same objectives as the CPSC’s proposed 2008 rule by focusing on the risk of smolder ignition of cover fabrics.

Adoption of this standard under the Flammable Fabrics Act, coupled with a robust labeling program that attests to a manufacturer’s compliance with the required test methods and performance standards, would create a national standard that addresses the issue of smolder ignition for residential upholstered furniture, saves lives and reduces losses at a relatively low cost to the CPSC, the industry and the consumer.


The American Home Furnishings Alliance, based in High Point, N.C., represents more than 200 leading furniture manufacturers and distributors and over 150 suppliers to the furniture industry worldwide. AHFA is the voice of the home furnishings industry on Capitol Hill – and elsewhere throughout the United States – on all legislative and regulatory matters that impact the manufacture and import of residential furnishings for the U.S. market.

With California and Rhode Island to Follow in 2016, Here’s What Retailers Need to Know Now

July 28, 2015 —

Connecticut rolled out the nation’s first statewide recycling program for used mattresses and box springs. Known as Bye Bye Mattress, the program is administered by the Mattress Recycling Council, a nonprofit organization created by the mattress industry to develop and manage the state’s mattress recycling program mandated by law in 2013. Officials from Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), city leaders and representatives from the solid waste and recycling industry gathered at the City of Hartford’s Bulky Waste & Recycling Center to commemorate the inaugural truckload of mattresses bound for the recycling facility. Similar programs will be implemented in California and Rhode Island in 2016.

As these new Bye Bye Mattress programs roll out, retailers have been wondering what it means for them, what to say to their customers and how they can benefit. Here are some common questions and concerns we’ve been addressing since Connecticut launched its program.

What do these new recycling laws mean for retailers? Each state’s program is funded by a recycling fee that’s collected from consumers when a new mattress or box spring is sold. In Connecticut that fee is $9 for each piece so a mattress and box spring—regardless of size—costs $18. The fee is largely based on what transportation and recycling costs are for each state and the MRC proposes the fee in its plan; fees for other states may vary.

Retailers are required to collect this fee and list it visibly on every customer receipt.

Each month, retailers must remit the collected fees and report to the Mattress Recycling Council via the online, secure portal at Mrcreporting.org.

Retailers now have access to no-cost recycling services for the mattresses they collect from their customers.

How do I use mrcreporting.org? In the resources area of the website you can find guidelines as well as a video series that explains the registration, reporting and fee remittance processes. Assistance is also provided via 1-888-646-6815 or support@mattressrecyclingcouncil.org.

What is MRC doing to make the public aware of Bye Bye Mattress? MRC created Byebyemattress.com as the consumer-facing brand of the program. Outside of retailer customer communications, MRC will advertise online and place public service announcements in print, radio and outdoor media.

We are also working with our municipal collection sites to be present at local events so we can communicate our message to their residents.

What does MRC do with the recycling fees it collects from retailers? The collected fees fund the recycling of the mattresses and box springs collected by retailers, solid waste facilities, hotels, universities, hospitals and other sources.

MRC will provide no-cost recycling services for retailers regardless of their business’ size in states that have recycling legislation on the books.

How are the mattresses and box springs recycled? More than 80 percent of a used mattress’ components can be recycled—the metal springs, foam, wood and fibers—and made into new useful products.

I want to use MRC to recycle my store’s mattresses. How do I start? If your store is located in California, Connecticut, or Rhode Island, contact MRC at 1-855-229-1691 or info@mattressrecyclingcouncil.org and be ready to discuss your discarded mattress volumes and logistical needs.

I’m not in a state with a mattress recycling law, but I want to recycle my mattresses. Can MRC still help me? Yes. As a public service, MRC has compiled a summary of mattress recyclers operating in the United States and Canada. This listing is available at Mattressrecyclingcouncil.org. MRC has no financial or other interest in any of the businesses located in these non-program states and does not endorse them in any manner. These locations will charge for recycling services.

Amanda WallAmanda Wall is marketing and communications coordinator for the Mattress Recycling Council and can be reached at awall@mattressrecyclingcouncil.org

March 27, 2015 —

The Internet is an integral part of any home furnishings business and often is a critical element. And yet, as almost any retailer will tell you, you’re only a click away from havoc if a link installs malware on the company computer. Anyone connected to the Internet is at risk.

“Cyber attacks are on the rise,” cautioned Michele Borovac, vice president of cloud control company HyTrust. “No company is immune and security must be a top priority rather than an afterthought or an insurance plan. The costs of these breaches are staggering—damaging brands, customer trust and, ultimately, the bottom line.”

Jeff Burt, Photo by Doug Hoke

Suburban Contemporary Furnishings owner Jeff Burt learned cyber security the hard way.
Photo: Doug Hoke

Nobody knows this better—or worse, as the case may be—than Jeff Burt, the owner of Suburban Contemporary Furnishings in Oklahoma City. Burt’s staff is allowed to use the Internet only to look at inventory, their customer base and similar information, but a couple of years ago, the store server started acting weird.

“When our IT guy came in to [check out the problem], he discovered we’d been hacked,” Burt said.

The hackers didn’t steal sensitive information—a common problem with today’s high-profile hacks. Instead, they used Suburban Contemporary Furnishings’ server as an email base.

Burt was told it was common for hackers to use a server to email solicitations for drugs such as Viagra and other items. In Burt’s case, the hackers used the server as a ‘ghost’—a place to send email that could not be tracked.

Once the breach was discovered, the server was cleaned up and the passwords changed. That’s when things went from bad to worse. After the passwords were changed, the IT person was supposed to share the new password with the store’s backup system so it could resume backing up data every day like it was supposed to. He forgot.

“We just assumed it was backing up and doing what it needed to do,” Burt said. “Almost a year of information was corrupted because the system was not backing up. It was a hideous lesson to learn.”

Burt’s store lost 14 months of financial information plus inventory, invoices and bills—all because the password was not shared with the backup server.

There’s a reason retailers find themselves in the news more than other industries when it comes to cyber attacks.

“Retailers have always been the low-hanging fruit for attackers since they don’t spend as much as banks and government entities in cybersecurity,” Lawrence Pingree, research director covering cybersecurity at Gartner, Inc. told The Wall Street Journal last fall.

According to Pingree, retailers spend about 4 percent of their IT budgets on cybersecurity, while financial services spend about 5.5 percent and healthcare spends 5.6 percent.

A recent Verizon study reported that small businesses are the most likely victims of all businesses attacked by cyber criminals. Close to half of all of the confirmed data breach incidents Verizon recorded last year occurred in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees.

Small businesses that employed fewer than 250 workers experienced a significant increase of cyber attacks by as much as 18 percent from the previous year.

Attacks are usually more damaging for small retailers compared to the Targets and Home Depots of the world. “Per capita, data breaches can be more costly for small companies, especially those with fewer than 250 people,” said Larry Ponemon, PhD, chairman and founder think tank Ponemon Institute. “External hackers often see small business as a stepping stone to big businesses.”

Protecting Information

Jeremy King, international director for PCI Security Standards Council, explained that most criminals are likely not in the same country or on the same continent as the businesses they invade.

The cybercriminal is “looking for Internet addresses,” King said. “He doesn’t see a retailer, but an IP address and he will target that IP address to see if it is connected to anything. [Once he] has found a way in, he will look around for vulnerable data and organizations that don’t have a good level of security.”

King added, “You need to think of security as one issue. Understand where cardholder data is in your system and make sure if you don’t need it, don’t keep it. If you do keep it, keep it securely. Shred data you don’t need and make sure it’s gone.”

Jeremy King

“Cyber protection is a broad term and can encompass anything from anti-virus, to access controls, to auditing and alerts,” said HyTrust’s Borovac.

“Attackers are smart and they are getting in largely undetected because they are able to look like insiders,” he said. “Once they have control of a privileged user’s credentials, they can move around at will. Don’t forget to both monitor and control what insiders [like employees] can do as well as keep the bad guys out.”

Although passwords are not entirely effective as a security measure, Poneman stresses that each employee needs a unique, strong password that should not include personal information like anniversaries, children’s names or birthdates, or similar information.

Poneman also urged encrypting any stored data with good encryption security. Retailers can download a reputable encryption program from a trusted website or access a virtual private network.

“Hackers use all kinds of software to mirror passwords. That is why upper case, characters and combinations are important,” said Carolyn Crowley, the president and founder of Myriad Software. “Seasoned hackers can still find that information, so you need to change [passwords] often—even if that is once a year—to ensure you are protected.”

However, cautioned Borovac, “Passwords can be broken, given enough time and computer power. This makes the practice of using two-factor authentication even more critical for any account that holds sensitive data. Two-factor authentication combines something you know—like a password—with something you have—like a token.”

A security token, also known as a key fob, is any device that can be used to authenticate authorization—it acts like an electronic key to gain access. The authorized user may have to enter an alphanumeric code, fingerprint, or PIN.

Most businesses are PC-based, but some use Mac computers, believing that Apple technology is more secure. Cyber security expert Gary Miliefsky agrees that Macs are only marginally safer. “It is a harder system to break, but recently has been broken,” he said. “A new malware now exploits Macs and not a lot of anti-virus solutions on this platform can keep up.”

In addition to encrypting everything on all machines, regardless of whether it is a PC or Mac, Miliefsy suggests retailers “assume you are already hacked and clean up your malware.”

Jeff Selik, the owner of Hillside Furniture in Hillsboro, Mich., is a Mac devotee. “Everything is password controlled and only two people have access. By minimizing the number of people who can log in, it keeps it pretty clean,” Selik said.

“A lot of our stuff is done on Mac, which generally is not as attacked,” Selik added. “Once the iPads and iPhones came out, we realized their functionality as a business tool. All our sales consultants use iPads, iPhones and their personal computers, which are usually Macs. Everything communicates very easily.”

Selik knows the power of technology in the hands of a retailer. “Technology can either put you out of business or make your business,” he said. “I don’t feel I am enough of a blip on the map for anyone to try to hack us. We get a ton of email spam with attachments, but we clearly just don’t open those. Hillside is always on the cutting edge of contemporary and technology. We budget for technology as a very important investment in our company, use strong passwords, have a strong firewall and are PCI-bonded for transmission of credit cards over the Internet. We keep only customer email addresses, addresses and phone numbers. We work with Myriad and have an advisor who will come in if something needs to be fixed.”

“Since 2007, we have not had anyone breached,” said Myriad’s Crowley, whose company developed an integrated business package specifically designed for home furnishings retailers to manage sales, inventory, customer histories and other workplace related tasks.

“Retailers must trust the gateways they use. A stand-alone machine is pretty secure, however hacking doesn’t always come from the Internet or credit card machines. Sometimes it comes from disgruntled employees. Everyone is concerned with hacking,” Crowley said.

“A comprehensive security strategy starts with assuming the bad guys are already inside,” said Borovac. “Automate security when you can to remove the possibility of human error. Make sure that security becomes a strategic objective at the highest levels of the company.”

Detecting a breach

“Good, outsourced computer support resources are important if no one on staff is IT savvy,” said Crowley, who also urged retailers to make sure firewalls and software including anti-virus software, spyware and malware protection are updated. “Be sure to conduct an annual review of what you have in place for your company’s protection,” she said. “Check to make sure all your servers and equipment are updated.”

Should a breach occur, Crowley advises retailers to shut down whatever system the breach is coming through. “Maybe the settings or firewall are not right. Have your IT people look into it without leaving [the system] open; shut the server down until someone can check it out.”

“Nothing is foolproof,” said Miliefsky. “Businesses should effectively train employees, harden systems, detect and remove Remote Access Trojans (RATs), deploy full disk encryption and real-time backups, defend against phishing attacks and manage the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) dilemma. Have a separate Wi-Fi for BYOD. The free TrueCrypt is amazingly powerful at encryption.”

Any “outbound traffic when no one is touching computers” is one sign of infiltration, he said. “Test the outbound traffic logs after work for anomalies. Be alert to more ‘spear phishing attacks’ and ‘zero day malware’ rats.”

Incident response plans

Crowley adds that it is important to have an “incident response plan” in place should a breach occur. “It is no different than if you had a major power outage or catastrophe [like a tornado],” she said. “Always have a plan B.”

What does a good plan look like? It will provide the name and contact information of who will serve as spokesperson for the business, emergency contact information of key staff, including all ways they can be contacted, statements that can be provided to the media until more information can be assessed—like ‘everything possible is being done to protect sensitive information’—and a plan and vehicle for notifying those impacted–both internally and externally.

“The more prepared you are,” said Ponemon “the less likely you are to be in a ‘disaster’ situation. Companies [exist] that can provide plans that tell you what to do, when to do it, how to do it and who to contact, and have tools to help you. It is important to consider the impact of the breached data lost rather than at company size; there are a lot of required measures that must be taken as follow up that would be very costly.”

Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Springfield, Ill., does not have a written disaster plan of its own, said Barbara Seidman, but does “contract with a local technology company that takes care of any and all computer issues, including breaches. This is an ever-evolving challenge.”

Burt cautions fellow retailers, “Don’t assume anything. Always look at your system and check it. You have got to keep your eyes on it all the time. It’s a fact of life.”

Sue Masaracchia-Roberts is a freelance writer, editor, and public relations consultant based in Chicago. She has more than 25 years of experience in public relations and writing. Her specialties are the fields of manufacturing and small business.

Whenever I attend markets or conferences each educational session has the potential to spark a fire of improved sales results. The key for savvy retailers is to gather the hottest ideas from industry thought leaders that have the best chance of burning brightest. Just in time for spring, here are my takeaways from recent events that are white hot!

Close today’s hot leads first

Staple yourself to the next 10 customers who enter your store or fill out a form on your website to understand how well your sales process is performing. Speed is key. Why? According to the Harvard Business Review, you’re seven times more likely to qualify a lead if you reach out within an hour. That number plummets if you wait 24 hours.

Takeaway: Close more deals from your existing lead generation sources. Train your sales team, bulletproof your phone etiquette, track your website conversion data, and lock down a consistent 30-minute-or-less lead response time no matter how they’re sourced.

Create mobile-friendly websites

Many retail websites aren’t mobile-friendly, forcing shoppers to switch to a PC. If your website gets half or more of its traffic from computers, chances are it’s because your mobile experience is lacking. A NetBiscuits survey found that nine out of 10 mobile web users switched to a competitor’s site that made it easier to find what they were seeking.

Takeaway: Engage prospects and spark more conversions with a responsive website. Since most shoppers own smartphones and tablets, their first contact with you will be your website, which sets the stage for a frustrating—or flawless—purchasing process. It’s all up to you.

Focus ads

If you’re like the majority of home furnishings retailers, you’re trying to advertise too much (brands, products, services) with too little budget. Retailers who focus on five advertising categories or fewer increase their conversions over clients with broader campaigns.

Takeaway: Remove all non-essential, underperforming ad groups. A leaner campaign will stretch your budget further and deliver better results for the three to five categories that matter most. Monitor and verify that your campaign delivers a 70-percent or higher share of advertising voice for your most important brands, products and services.

Zoom in on your audience

When it comes to bagging new customers, you’ll do far better messaging to a smaller population versus a large one. Resist the temptation to blast your message to a mass audience if your goal is to attract a specific kind of customer within close proximity.

Takeaway: Instead of a 50-100 mile radius, reduce your target geography for your core campaign to 20 miles or less. Remove underperforming locations and experiment with new geos, each with their own 10-20 mile radius.

Video is king

A new Google Shopping survey finds that 62 percent of consumers are influenced by videos on YouTube and more than half of respondents start their research there. Home goods shoppers make a purchase with the same mindset they consume media. Ask yourself: Would you rather read about a leather recliner or watch a short video that walks you through its top features?

Takeaway: Most consumers start their research by watching videos. Make fresh content to match their wants and needs.

One goal per webpage

Google is no longer a search engine, it’s an answer engine. Think about the questions local buyers are asking at each step in their purchase path. Google wants to send them to sites that have the answers; review each page on your site and make sure it has one purpose and one call to action.

Takeaway: When you add content to your website, it must be original and answer a shopper’s question. Write a list of searcher intents, two to five keywords for each, then create pages to target each intent. Plan ongoing content efforts with more competitive and temporally demanding (time-sensitive) keywords.

Content, content, content

Your goal should be to dominate your local search engine results pages (SERPs) from top to bottom with relevant content. If your website visitor count has flatlined in recent months, it’s time to invest in fresh content. Rand Fishkin, an inbound marketing expert from moz.com offers six criteria for modern content investments that will move your store’s needle: one-of-a-kind, relevant and on-topic, resolves a shopper’s query in a useful manner, uniquely valuable, easy to consume on any device, well-written and likely to be shared online.

Takeaway: Update your digital ads with fresh, relevant calls to action so they appear in the top three sponsored slots. Publish content that answers local shopper’s frequently asked questions and appears in the top organic (free) results further down the page.

I find it interesting how you can gathernepotism a group of retailers and ask how many believe they give great customer service. Almost always the result is a unanimous yes. Follow up this question by asking if they have an ongoing educational program for their employees and the answer is unanimous again— no. That begs a third question: How do you give great customer service if you are not teaching it?

Last month I talked about what good customer service looks like and its importance to your store. This month we’ll talk about teaching it. Because the best investment you can make in your business this year is to create and maintain an ongoing staff education program. Creating one can be rewarding when you follow this seven-step process.

Begin by writing yourself a letter stating why you are doing this and what you expect to get from it. Make no apology for expecting your business to operate flawlessly and wanting your customers to have a wonderful experience; an experience in which they begin to become strong and vocal advocates of your store to their friends, neighbors and coworkers.

Speak with those individuals within your business who will support your endeavor. Explain what you plan to do and ask for their support and encouragement of their co-workers. When you schedule your first class, do so with the intention of being consistent with the day and time of the class. Since customer service extends beyond the sales floor, every employee should participate. I found that a weekday evening, after hours, worked best. The class should be no longer than an hour.

Create a schedule that will outline the next six months of classes and what you want to accomplish in each class. Post this so that all of your employees can see it. This is done so they understand you have put a lot of time and effort into the classes; they are not just thrown together at the last-minute with you talking about whatever comes to mind.

Create a written guideline for each class. It does not need to be any longer than one page. Adding your logo and other branding emblems on the document helps to make it look official. During the hour, the majority of the time should be spent on a topic that is either sales or product oriented. The remaining time should be spent in, or reviewing, the guidelines you have created for your business. This would include job descriptions (the what to do), job specifications (the how to do), policies (rules for ourselves) and procedures (how to do things for customers). Notice there is no mention of a customer-service policy. This is because, if you’ll notice, most retailers’ customer service policies are really thinly veiled rules for the customers. If your employees know their job descriptions, job specifications, policies and procedures, they’ll be giving great customer service.

With each class, there should be a written test given to each employee. The test is an assessment of their ability to retain what has been taught. The test in our business consisted of 10 questions with nine relating to the bulk of the class and the last question relevant to the remainder of the class. Staff had 48 hours to complete the test and hand it in to the teacher for grading. Those who answered nine or 10 questions correctly received a small gift card to another independent and locally owned business as a reward.

Speaking of the teacher, this is not a responsibility that should remain with the owner or manager of the store. Instead, after completing a couple of months of classes, the assignment of teacher should be passed around to include everyone. This is done for several reasons. One is that it helps everyone see the importance of and effort necessary for creating a class. It also requires each employee to develop multiple areas within the business in which they are an expert. When your staff learns and appreciates other roles beyond the one they have, your store becomes stronger. With the schedule mentioned in step 3, have employees sign up for the classes they are going to teach. Require them to share with you, a couple of months in advance, what they have researched and prepared for class.

As the class continues through the year, you will find the opportunity and need to develop new topics for the business as well as the desire to take certain topics to a higher level of competency or include new information about the products or services you are offering.

Some people believe that seven is a lucky number. Without discussing the superstition of this belief, we can assure that following these seven steps can make a big difference in your business for 2015.

Research shows multiple reasons for this—from studies conducted by the American Management Association to those from the Harvard School of Business, many things from productivity to profitability and employee retention, all show sizable improvement because a business made a commitment to an ongoing staff education program. It has worked for others, and it can work for you.

Furniture—it’s literally the reason we’re all here. Whether we make it, sell it, source it, design it, or offer services to the people who do all of that or write about the people who do all of that, we’re all in it together.

No matter which report you read or pundit you listen to, everyone agrees, the furniture industry has rounded the corner and is emerging from the economic woods. Consumer confidence is up and that ubiquitous phrase—cautious optimism—has changed to just optimism.

RetailerNOW talked to a retailer and two manufacturers about furniture, the industry and their businesses.

NAHFA member Alderman Maynard is vice president and chief sales officer for Maynard’s Home Furnishings, which was founded in 1947 in Belton, S.C. Maynard’s carries medium to medium-high price points and Maynard says they’re a destination shop. “People travel about 30 miles to see us,” he says. “We’ve always said we have to give them something extra so they’ll continue to travel that far for furniture.”

Maynard says his store achieves that goal through exceptional customer service, great looking showrooms and talented employees. Maynard says most employees have been with the company for about 13 years and that plays a key role in the level of service the retailer offers.

When it comes to dealing with vendors or manufacturers, Maynard learned quickly that this is a relationship industry. “A good vendor partner for me is someone who is open to my ideas of promotions and who is willing to work with me on growing both of our businesses. A good vendor rep is priority number one. Also, no matter how large the vendor is, I’d like to be able to pick up the phone and talk to the president with no problems. We don’t want to be just another number for a vendor, but rather someone who is valued as a business partner.”

Maynard believes wholeheartedly that a good sales rep is critical and says one of the biggest problems is the bad reps. Since his goal is to give his customers the best customer service possible, he expects the same from his sales reps, and those who aren’t able to follow through lose his business.

Being a third-generation retailer, Maynard has seen improvements in the industry during his time. “Some of the decreased lead times we’re seeing are almost unbelievable,” he says. “And I’m not just referring to warehoused imported goods out of High Point. We’re seeing incredible lead times on some domestically made custom-ordered upholstery. These are the lines that my sales consultants are leaning toward…with good reason!”

Maynard says he doesn’t have a product hot list for 2015—he’s just looking for lines that can help him increase margin. “We’re not a ‘trendy type store’,” he says. “We’ll normally wait a market or two on things that we deem “trendy” to see if they have staying power.”

Maynard shops High Point during pre-market and the Atlanta market.

As Maynard observes, this is a relationship industry. Learning more about the other players is important and learning to see things from their side of the table is insightful. So it’s no surprise that manufacturers are also positive about 2015.

Bryan Edwards, national sales manager for Aspenhome says with inventories going down and prices stabilizing there are more consistent fluctuations in the economy rather than the huge ups and downs the industry has endured the last five to seven years.

He’s also optimistic about the consumer. “Millennials have different style preferences and priorities compared to my generation (boomers),” he says. “They have a myriad of places to shop—brick-and-mortar, online, and (increasingly) hybrids. Furniture Furniture has never been more en vogue (in italics) and it has a cool factor I haven’t seen in my 30 years. It is a great time to be in the furniture business but change is here.”

Aspenhome has grown from a small, family-owned home entertainment company to a full-line furniture company that offers bedroom, dining, home office, home entertainment and occasional. The Phoenix-based company has received seven Pinnacle awards for design.

Edwards says Aspenhome furniture designers get their inspiration from “literally everywhere.” From the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and Maison & Objet to home furnishings websites and retail stores.

Early on the company realized the importance of paying attention to technology—and attending the Consumer Electronics Show. “We started in home entertainment 35 years ago,” Edwards says. “It is in our DNA.”

Despite Aspenhome’s commitment to staying ahead of the technology trends, Edwards says “staying on the forefront of innovative function in furniture without it becoming obsolete in three years” keeps him awake at night.

The company doesn’t have much to fear though—Aspenhome has successfully blended technology and functionality into its furniture designs. For example, many beds have built-in lamp assist (which lets you control bedside lighting with the push of a button on the bed), AC outlets and two large cedar-lined storage drawers underneath. “Most likely, 10 years ago your bed did not offer this,” Edwards said.

Aspenhome is focusing on woods—like walnut, mindi (white cedar), mango and oak—that show the character of the tree with a more open grain. The company rolls out anywhere from six to eight new collections each year. Mid-century modern is on trend this year.

When it comes to working with its retailer partners, Edwards says customers keep coming back because of “people, product and process.”

People fit in this mix by way of the exceptional customer service at Aspenhome and the in-house marketing support for retailers, which includes everything from high-res videos and images to catalogs, tear sheets and point-of-purchase materials on every product.

The innovative product is almost self-explanatory, but aside from the tech-friendly designs, the company offers solid wood bedrooms at price points retailers appreciate.

Having great people and product doesn’t mean anything if you can’t deliver; Aspenhome invests in logistics that let it support customers with door-to-door service with its mixed container warehouse program and its U.S. distribution center.

Tim Ussery, executive vice president of sales and Roy Yates, chief merchandising officer for Standard Furniture are also optimistic about 2015.

“We are pleased with our growth over the last three years,” Ussery said. “We’re looking forward both optimistically and conservatively aggressive in 2015. We take our business evaluation one market at a time, and one quarter at a time.”

Standard is a family-owned, Alabama-based manufacturer and distributor of casegoods. As one of the largest U.S. manufacturers, its product categories include bedroom, dining, occasional, entertainment and youth. It introduces 25 to 40 new product groups at High Point and Las Vegas markets.

Yates shares Edwards’ belief that mid-century modern is an on-trend look for 2015, but Yates elaborates saying casual is the big buzzword, “whether it is traditional, modern or rustic, the interpretation is rendered in a relaxed, easy to live with version” and “transitional styling will be a continued big focus.” Painted pieces (pastels, dusty vintage shades) are still popular as are “rustic finishes with weathered driftwood and barn board greys and browns. Lighter and mid-tone wood stains will grow in popularity including caramel and tawny colors on distressed pine and oak.” Yates says these are welcome changes from the merlot/espresso finishes of the last 10 years.

Standard’s furniture designers get their inspiration from “architectural elements, great antique pieces, furniture history books, artwork, and the shapes, colors and textures found in nature,” Yates said. “They watch for trends in the antique market, fashion and textile design, graphic arts, and even the automobile industry. They spot what is happening in home accents and accessories, lighting trends and the home construction industry. They are aware of how high-end interior and furniture designers are trending. In short, their eyes are always open for any type of visual inspiration that can be used creatively as elements in their furniture designs.”

Standard has also stepped up to the challenge of providing furniture solutions for tech-focused consumers. Night stands and end tables have built-in charging stations with USB ports and electrical plugs. “Technology and our dependence upon it has escalated rapidly in the last 10 years,” Yates said. “The addition of function features to furniture that make it easier to use our tech devices has added convenience that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Fashion and product function are important in the furniture business, but so is the business itself. One issue that keeps Ussery awake at night is the West Coast port dispute and the “rising freight costs on all types of transportation, (overseas and stateside). Plus, the increasing daily costs of corporations doing business in the U.S.”

Ussery says Standard strives to offer its retail partners “the best customer service in the industry and that doesn’t just mean superior care before and after the sale, it includes offering great product designs, carefully monitored quality controls and very sharp pricing. It also includes creative financing, cost saving shipping options, advertising support, and in-store training of their sales force by our sales representative team.”

To that end, for the last three years the company has focused on making more information available to its customers by way of more detailed product information, FAQs, assembly instructions and marketing materials like product romance copy and photography.

“For 2015, we will focus on updating our website and improving its access, making it easier to navigate,” Ussery said. “We do everything we can to help grow our retail partners’ businesses because they are our greatest assets, and when they succeed, we succeed.”

By Robert Bell

NAHFA member Rick Howard knows all too well the love-hate relationship between the home furnishings retailer and his website. Howard loves the added sales and visibility that come with a store’s online presence. He hates the amount of  work that goes into populating the website given that each manufacturer offers its product data in a different format.

“It’s always been as hassle”, said Howard, owner of Sklar Furnishings in Boca Raton, Fla.,  “Everyone just thought all this time and effort was a necessary evil of doing business on the Internet.”

Not anymore.

The North American Home Furnishings Association has created an innovative service that promises to deliver standardized product data from manufacturers to home furnishings retailers who can then use the information on their websites, point-of-sale systems, e-catalogs, digital signage and more.

NAHFA DataLink will reduce the amount of time and labor retailers currently invest in building their web presence and product libraries, said Sharron Bradley, the association’s CEO.

“This is a game changer for home furnishings retailers,” said Bradley, of the program, which was introduced at the winter Las Vegas Market. “NAHFA DataLink is going to help level the playing field between brick-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce giants.”

Retailers have forever been frustrated trying to access manufacturers’ data—photos, pricing, measurements and styles—in a standardized format. Indeed, web-service providers often hire many workers whose full-time job is to download and format the different types of product data from manufacturers.

The labor is expensive, but much needed. Without that data, online shoppers can’t find what they are looking for locally, turn to e-commerce giants to do their research and shopping instead.

And make no mistake: Consumers are buying home furnishings online. Overstock.com’s highest-performing product category from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1—traditionally retailers’ biggest selling period of the year —was furniture sales. Yet even as online shopping grows, 90 percent of shoppers would rather buy from a brick-and-mortar store rather than online, according to Forbes.

With NAHFA DataLink, local retailers can make that happen by offering shoppers the same photos and information as Overstock, Amazon, One Kings Lane and other online giants. The difference, according to John Wells, president of Wells Home Furnishings, a two-store chain in West Virginia, is shoppers can drop by a local retailer’s store to look, feel and ultimately buy.

“I’m excited,” said Wells. “It’s becoming very clear to me and a lot of other retailers that to stay in business 10 years from now, we’ll need a store and web presence. NAHFA DataLink will help us build to that future.”

Wells uses a third party to populate his website, but he still doesn’t have the entire product data from his 100-plus vendors.

Bradley and other NAHFA officials are meeting with manufacturers. She said most are eager to participate, and that NAHFA’s hopes to have more than 300 manufacturers’ catalogs available to retailers by the High Point Market in April with more coming.

Pricing will be determined by the number of SKUs a retailer has. The service will be available to all retailers, but NAHFA members will receive a steep discount.

Howard said the program is needed among small and large retailers alike. “(NAHFA DataLink) isn’t about an end to a retailer’s brick and mortar. Nobody’s ready to give that up yet,” he said. “But technology is such that the business is changing for all retailers. Why not get ahead of the game now?”

March 3, 2015 —

Seeing a Made in America label on the dining table you just bought may elicit warm fuzzy feelings for many of you, but does it mean that much to today’s consumer? Does it matter to your bottom line? Some in the industry say yes and yes.

Brian Garrison, owner of Garrison’s Home Furnishings in Medford, Ore., consciously shops for American-made product. In fact, nearly 85 percent of his inventory is domestic. When Garrison transitioned to mid- and high-end product a few years ago, his customers predominately wanted American-made, better built goods.

“All around our store you’ll see Made in America tags,” he said. “We occasionally run events and offer discounts only on the American made products. It’s absolutely a selling point for us. Our salespeople are more proud and excited to sell American made product and that enthusiasm often transfers to the customer.”

Tim Koerner owns Koerner Furniture in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, along with his brother Mark. While he doesn’t specifically shop for domestic product, he looks for the best value for his customers; sometimes that’s domestic and sometimes it’s imported. Koerner highlights domestic product by putting American flags throughout the showroom. One observation he’s gleaned from his customers? Men care more about where something is made and women tend to care more about the “best bang for the buck.”

He says country of origin isn’t always a selling point, nor is it necessarily an indicator of quality—price point is. It’s harder to find domestic product at lower price points, but Koerner’s discovered there are consumers who will pay for quality.

“The 55+ age group has money and they are willing to pay for nicer goods,” he said. “They don’t want to overpay, but if you can show them some of the reasons the goods are worth the money, the older generation will pay for it. One of the nice things about the American-made goods is that you can special order it. The customization side of American-made goods is where we have seen lots of success. I have always believed that American manufacturing would come back when the consumer was willing to pay for what they want. Importing special order is near impossible for me.”

Garrison thinks his customers do care where their product is sourced from, especially when it comes to better goods. “This is true up to a point though,” he added. “As much as a customer thinks they care, if the price is significantly more for an American-made product than an imported one (without a huge quality difference) most customers will still side with saving money. However if salespeople can sell the “story” of the product and/or the company making the product, that story will build value in the product, and people will spend more.”

Both retailers say they’ve seen an increase in demand for American product in recent years, though maybe not for reasons you’d think.

“When customers say they want American-made, they usually mean not made in China,” Garrison said. “Customers tend to be more accepting of imported product if it’s from anywhere but China. That being said, we are starting to see another shift towards American made.”

Koerner says he’s not sure if the increased demand is because of a push from consumers seeking the product or more retailers advertising the product—either way he’s seen a resurgence.

“I do believe in American-made goods, but not to the point I will put American on the floor just because it is American made,” Koerner said. “The American-made goods have to be worth the price.”
Jody Oettel, vice president of sales for Interiors in Lancaster, Pa., says her store supports buying locally to help the region’s economy and businesses, and she sees that in the same vein as consciously buying products made in America.

“There are customers who do ask about items that are are made in America and we are happy to show them many upholstery lines that are manufactured in the USA,” Oettel said. “Case goods are a bit more difficult, but there are choices available. We are proud to tell them the Stickley story about American-made wood pieces.”

Oettel says many consumers have no idea where furniture is made and are surprised to learn it’s imported. They’re even more surprised when they find out how that affects the product’s price. “They often want made in America, but with pricing that is not found on that type of product,” she said.

Lancaster is known for its Amish communities and Amish handmade furniture. “I believe our area is more aware of furniture made locally and in the USA by craftsmen because of that,” she said.
Furniture manufacturing moved off shore because it made more economic sense at one time. But as labor costs are rising around the world manufacturing in Asia isn’t automatically the most cost-effective option for U.S. furniture manufacturers. According to a manufacturing survey by The Boston Consulting Group, U.S. manufacturers (not just of furniture) are reconsidering domestic production because of labor costs, proximity to customers and product quality along with access to skilled labor, transportation costs, supply-chain lead time and ease of business. The study says furniture manufacturers could be overestimating their savings from off-shoring by up to 30 percent.
There are still some furniture manufacturers left who make their product domestically, but Koerner brings up some interesting points about made in America.

There are some manufacturers who make parts of their product in the U.S. or import components and manufacture them here. The federal regulation regarding Made-in-American labeling is administered by the Federal Trade Commission. It states that for a company to label its product “Made in America” the product must be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S., which includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories and possessions. “All or virtually all” means all significant parts and processing must be of U.S. origin. The product’s final assembly or processing must take place in the United States.

California’s requirements are more stringent. California prohibits the use of “Made in USA” labels or claims “when the merchandise or any article, unit, or part thereof, has been entirely or substantially made, manufactured, or produced outside of the United States.”

Some furniture manufacturers who label their product “Made in America” have gone so far as to make specifications such as “using domestic and globally sourced components” or listing the specific components that are made in the U.S.

“That’s why it is getting hard to be 100 percent made in the USA,” Koerner said. He points out that companies such as La-Z-Boy, for example, employ lots of people in the U.S. but they can’t (and don’t) claim to be made here. “On the case goods side, there is a lot of lumber imported from Canada, the environmentalists have made it to where we can’t cut our trees, we have to cut Canada’s trees,” Koerner said. “The world is truly turning into a world community. NAFTA is part of the success of made in America. I am trying not to import as much furniture, but I have no control over where manufactures source their materials. Part of me is not concerned with where the materials come from, as long as the USA continues to create new goods; there will be manufacturing of goods here in the USA, we just might be importing the raw materials.”

Koerner said about 20 percent of his product mix is made in the U.S.

One manufacturer that can make the unequivocal claim that their product is made in America is Gat Creek, based in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Owner Gat Caperton says made in America has become its own category. Gat Creek products are 100 percent American made and it sources more than 95 percent of its raw materials from within a 350-mile radius of its factory.

Caperton began designing furniture in 1996 after buying a small manufacturing company that had built antique reproductions for more than 40 years. Gat Creek’s employees hand craft each piece of furniture from Appalachian cherry and each piece is signed by the person who builds it. Caperton said, “Made in America is a critical part of our story and marketing. It’s also a good selling point.”

He does see demand increasing, but only slightly, while the attitude toward the category has changed dramatically. “Five to 10 years ago, people looked at me with pity when I told them I manufactured domestically,” he said. “It looks cool today.”

Last year the company was recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce for its export growth over the past year. The company exports to 28 countries.

Caperton sees many benefits to domestic production. “It allows me and our employees to live in the U.S.” he said. “Our folks really are a cornerstone to this community. Our workforce includes volunteer fire fighters, EMTs, and Sunday school teachers. We pay the taxes that fund local schools and our far-flung military. On the consumer side, all these things are nice and I like to call it sustainability. Buying U.S. sustains. It sustains our forests (more trees and tree mass in the Appalachian forests today than 30, 60 and 100 years ago), our environment (lower energy use = less carbon and other pollutants in our atmosphere), our communities and the American way of life.”
The downside is the “unfair” competition from Asia—government subsidized dumping of products into our markets.

For Caperton, the biggest reason Gat Creek is American made is the sense of responsibility he feels to the people who build the furniture, some of whom have been doing so for more than 40 years. “We have a great factory, truly world class in almost any measure, and talented people who care. I never wanted to become a marketing company like Thomasville and many of the other old-timers in the industry. I’ve always wanted to be a manufacturer.”

Randy Gleckman, national sales manager for Omnia Leather tells a similar story from the west coast. Chino, Calif.-based Omnia is a second-generation, family-owned business founded in 1989.
“Omnia has always been made in southern California,” he said. “Everything is designed and manufactured right here. There are a lot of companies that make leather in the U.S. and have a subdivision outside the U.S. for lower price points, but we don’t.”

Gleckman says many middle to better quality retailers do seek out American made product, when it’s not a price sensitive situation; and in fact when you say import “there’s a stigma of being inferior.”

Being domestically made is part of Omnia’s marketing story and it’s a selling point. Gleckman says though there are many advantages to being American made, one of the biggest is Omnia’s ability to offer the number of SKUs it does. “We sell a wide assortment of options, leathers, colors; we’re versatile,” he said. “When you go to imports it’s different. With us you can have it any way you want; with imports you can have it any way you want as long as that’s how it’s coming out of the container. We have a very loyal following that understands and appreciates what we do.”

Omnia also prides itself in its service and being able to react quickly, something the company couldn’t do if it was in the import business. “We’re more flexible,” Gleckman said. “We aren’t jamming retailers up with having to buy containers. We’re geared toward special orders. Whatever configuration, whatever color, we can do it.”

That flexibility does have a flip side though because it means having to carry more inventory so the customer doesn’t have to. Omnia manages to do this with about 200 employees and two buildings.
He agrees with Caperton and others that the appreciation for American-made product is growing.
“A lot of first-time buyers go for lower price point, the disposable furniture; but when they have to replace that they realize they should get something that lasts three times as long,” Gleckman said. “You get what you pay for. There is a pendulum swing coming back to U.S.-made products. People take pride in buying it now.”

March 3, 2015 —

When it comes to customer service, are you practicing on the sales floor what you preach in the employee lounge? Lee Cockerell, the former executive vice president of operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort, says the knee-jerk reply of many business leaders is “Absolutely!”

Yet Cockerell knows better.

“If you follow the leader around for a day in their office or furniture store you find that what they say and what they do are sometimes two very different things,” says Cockerell. “They might tell their employees that it is absolutely forbidden to send or receive texts while out on the sales floor. That’s a good policy to have because you want your staff’s attention focused on the customer. But I can’t tell you how many times those same leaders pull out their phones on the floor and start texting. Oh, sure, they’ll tell you it’s different for them because they’re big, important people, but what kind of message do you think they are sending their employees?”

Cockerell knows a few things about the messages we send—or don’t send—to customers, having spent the past 40-plus years working with Marriott hotels and, most recently, Disney’s resorts. More often than not, an employee learns customer service skills not from a book, but from their leader or supervisor who models how service should be carried out. Cockerell will share his insights on blending leadership and customer service at NAHFA’s Home Furnishings Networking Conference (HFNC) in Orlando on May 19.

Lee CockerellFormer Disney executive Lee Cockerell is one of many business and industry experts sharing their thoughts and talents at NAHFA’s Home Furnishings Networking Conference, May 17-19 at Walt Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida.

Conference attendees will enjoy exclusive access to Disney Institute Main Stage sessions, behind-the-scenes tours and park tickets (for attendees staying at the Coronado.) For more information and registration visit thehfnc.com or call 800-422-3778.

“Is the customer always right?” Cockerell asks. “Of course the answer is no. But does that customer have a credit card? The answer is yes, and if you want to keep that customer and their credit card coming back to your store you need to find alternatives to making them happy—even if it’s going to take the next three weeks.”

Cockerell says 70 to 75 percent of Disney’s customers are repeat customers. “That might be unthinkable right now in your furniture store, but it’s not impossible,” Cockerell says. Hiring the right employees is important, but so is having the right managers to lead them, he says.

“Think of you and the leaders in your business as parents,” says Cockerell. “Some parents want to be their children’s best friend, but it can’t always be that way. Your company’s leaders need to show the rest of your employees what’s right and wrong through their own actions.”

At the HFNC, Cockerell will spend an evening talking about what good customer service looks and feels like. He’ll also talk about the importance of training your employees how to achieve that level of service on a daily basis. “It’s not enough to hire nice people anymore,” he says. “Nice people who aren’t trained are a disaster waiting to happen because niceness only goes so far.”

Good customer service is as much an investment as lighting, technology and advertising. And like those elements of your business, Cockerell says you need to educate up front. “You can’t perform your customer-service training on your customers,” says Cockerell. “Would you want a surgeon training for a procedure on you?”

January 5, 2015 —

Generally speaking there are three types of home goods retail selling environments:

A) The “Live on the Traffic” Operation
B) The “Room Design” Operation
C) The “Hybrid” Operation

The “Live on the Traffic” operations typically are highly promotional and focused on closing the deal when the customer comes in the door the first time. Salespeople perform little prospecting on their own. They tend to sell from stock types of operators and offer various financing programs.

The “Room Design” operations are much less promotional. They build a following through spending a greater amount of time with each client. They don’t need the traffic counts that promotional retailers need because they generally produce a larger ticket size per customer. They tend to be special order, room planning and customer in-home focused operators.

The “Hybrid” operation, as the name implies, is a mix of these two. They have a blend of promotions to drive traffic and also offer some special order, but usually are limited on the actual in-home design services.

I have seen great successes, dismal failures and everything in between in all of these environments. So there is no right or wrong type of operation. The main thing is that you know who you are and how to improve. That’s what the sales equation will help you do. It sets the stage for improvement in your top line revenue in any selling environment. Here’s the equation:

Sales = Customer Opportunities (Traffic) x Close Rate x Average Sale

Whether you are a “Live on the Traffic” or a “Room Design” type of operation, determining the elements that make up your sales equation are a critical and a necessary part of improving it. If a promotional type operation has interactions with 2,000 customers in one month and closed 35 percent at $1,000 each on average that equals monthly sales volume of $700,000. At the other end of the spectrum, a home design operation might get the same sale results with a different mix. If they have 700 customer interactions with a 25 percent close rate and a $4,000 average ticket, they would also produce $700,000 in monthly sales volume.

The Value of Improving the Elements

I will use the first example to illustrate the impact of what a 10 percent increase in each of the elements in the equation would have on overall sales. So, customer interactions become 2,200, close rate becomes 38.5%, and average sale becomes $1,100. The result is sales of $931,700. That is a 33% increase in sales based on just a 10 percent increase in the elements.

The reason I am showing you this is to encourage you to take the first step, which is to become familiar with your sales equation. You should know these performance indicators for any given date range and definitely track it on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis for all stores, salespeople and categories.

To get the data, you will either need a software system or go through the tabulation manually in Excel. As long as your information is accurate, the resulting information will help you set a strategy to improve your top line.

Customer Opportunities (Traffic)

This can be the most challenging part. If you just ask your salespeople to report their selling opportunities to you, you will likely get mixed results. The best way that I have seen businesses get accurate traffic counts is through using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software system where salespeople record their customer counts. This data is compared to a visual proof traffic counting system. These two systems ensure a level of accuracy. In fact, several stores I have worked with are reporting 95 percent CRM opportunities recorded vs. traffic counts.

Traffic is one of the most important Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in retail. I often say, “Knowing Traffic is Retail 101.” Along with being a vital part of the sales equation, it helps you judge the effectiveness of your advertising. If you executed a certain promotion, a measure of its results in bringing people to your store is seen in your selling opportunities during the promo period. Or, if you are an operation that is less promotional, the number of selling opportunities is an equally important indicator of how well the salespeople are doing in engaging their customer base.

Traffic is also an important factor in determining correct staffing levels. One of the top reasons a sales floor underperforms is not having the appropriate number of properly trained sales associates. Without traffic numbers, you may be guessing at your correct staffing level. With this, a store that lives on the traffic will need a much higher number of sales people per customer ratio than a highly design-oriented store. For example, I have seen high-traffic stores operate with 180 to 200 customers per salesperson per month and design operations operate successfully with 80 to 100. You’ll have to find the right ratio for your store.

Close Rate

Once you know your traffic, this part is fairly easy. Just take your number of sales and divide that by your selling opportunities. This will vary by the type of operation and category of merchandise, too. Categories such as mattresses or appliances, for example, should get a high close rate. Often, these are necessity purchases so closing on the first visit is important to success. I have seen verified annual close rates over 60 percent and as high as 80 percent in these categories.

Also, for operations that do not follow up with customers who are “just looking,” it is very important to focus on tracking and improving close rates as they are relying on making the sale on the first visit. Because once they’re gone, you won’t have any way to contact them.

Other operations that do more follow-up, design work and in-home visits, may have several face-to-face meetings with a customer until a sale is finally made. They may have a lower close rate overall because they are good with follow-up and actually engage their customers more often. Close rates in full-line furniture tend to be between 15 and 30 percent.

Average Sale

Finally, average sale is the total of all tickets per customer per day divided by the total volume. Whatever type of operation you run, high-end, low-end, special-order or stocking focus, average sale is a critical performance measure.

Know where you are overall in your business on a monthly and quarterly basis.

Set minimum performance standards for your sales teams to achieve overall and individually.

Constantly Implement Strategies to Improve

Whether you are a high-turn operation with an average sale of $1,000 or a room-planning operation with an average sale of $2,500, a $100 dollar improvement means exactly the same thing for each sale completed. When a business is above its break-even sales level, that extra $100 equates to typically 30 to 40 percent in extra profit. So it really matters and adds up. In the home furnishings industry, I have seen average sales range from as low as $500 to as high as $5,000.

Whatever type of operation you run, start by implementing processes to collect data so you know why your sales volume is what it is. From there you can set clear expectations for each metric to achieve your desired volume. Then you can develop a strategy for improvement. Continually tracking the sales equation will act as your report card. Keep improving your selling, marketing and customer follow-up processes. You will likely see improvements in traffic, close rate, average sale size and, of course, your overall volume of business.

David McMahonDavid McMahon is a management consultant and certified management accountant. He is director of consulting and performance groups for PROFITsystems, a HighJump product. You can reach him to discuss improving your situation at david.mcmahon@accellos.com.