November 25, 2014 —
Whether you call it a sofa, couch, divan, davenport or settee, few can refute the satisfaction it brings to plop down and relax on a comfy surface at the end of a long day. RetailerNOW spoke with four upholstery manufacturers for this snapshot of the market—Reyna Moore, vice president of marketing and merchandising for Norwalk Furniture, Len Burke, vice president of marketing at Klaussner Furniture, Mark Gilmore, vice president of sales at CR Laine and La-Z-Boy’s Paula Hoyas, vice president of merchandising, Chuck Seilnacht, director of retail excellence and Mark Wagner, vice president of brand and retail marketing.
RetailerNOW: What’s been the biggest innovation in upholstery in the last five years?
Moore: Function and technology. Consumers want to maximize the use of their furniture. We’re not just talking about ottomans with built in storage but also about pieces traditionally reserved for use in one room showing up elsewhere. People are building master suites with sitting rooms furnished with elegant chairs and smaller sofas. Technology has been the biggest change in the industry. We need to embrace how we use technology to reach consumers. Norwalk has launched an app for our Kent group—retailers download the app in-store and consumers can “play” with the furniture, changing arms, seats, fabric. It’s a nice tool to discover the collection and it diffuses the nervousness people may have about buying furniture; it’s a great icebreaker.
Norwalk makes furniture shopping fun and interactive with its mobile app developed exclusively for its Kent collection.
Burke: It’s important to keep up with technology so you can anticipate how that will translate to consumers’ furniture needs. For example, we used to have to keep in mind that users would need to sit right in front of the TV for maximum viewing pleasure—that’s not true today. To keep up with new technology, Klaussner sends staff to the Consumer Electronics Show. We need to know what’s happening in technology. We’re fighting for disposable income and competing with electronics, travel, auto, not just furniture. CES is a very exciting show and we try to bring that back to our showroom. We show 12-15 big screens (55”— 90” TVs) and the new 4K; we do it to show dealers what they’re competing with. We partner with one of the largest electronic distributors in the U.S. to make these TVs available. Dealers need to embrace technology—not run from it. We also have to keep up with components that are compatible with Apple products. Everyone is sitting there with iPads/iPhones; everyone is connected and everyone is looking to integrate those components into the furniture. Tech dictates the consumers’ lives.
Klaussner’s Studio theater seating (below) is the perfect mix of comfort and technology with its power recliners and lighted cup holders.
Hoyas: In motion the innovation is all about power, power, and more power. It’s finally here—I’ve been in the industry for many years and always felt it was coming. Powered motion offers comfort and adjustability literally at the touch of the button. The technology and design offer more angle options and the ability to independently recline the back or the foot rest. And the wallaways are perfect for smaller spaces.
Gilmore: Absolutely the changes in technology, from the way we communicate via social media to our dealer’s ability to access information through our web portal. We’re using iPads and at some point catalogs won’t be used as much (though not right now). Five years ago the social media platforms didn’t exist like they do today. Facebook has slowed and Instagram is huge. Houzz, Twitter, Pinterest—they allow us to reach out to consumers and inspire designers. They’re looking for ideas and using these tools. Our dealer portal on the website is filled with information and available 24/7 so they can look up orders, fabrics, access the digital library—our customers don’t have to wait to get their questions answered. Then there’s the technology in manufacturing itself—we’ve made several capital expenditures in our cutting equipment and manufacturing that’s helped us with capacity in that last few years.
RetailerNOW: There are so many colors and patterns in upholstery at market, but on the retail floor there are a lot of blues/browns and neutrals. What is the consumer really after and are we giving them what they want?
Moore: Consumers want their furniture to have longevity; they add more color with accent chairs and pillows not necessarily the big pieces. When we look at our patterns we don’t judge the performance of a fabric by the yard, but where it’s placed. Consumers are trying to be more on trend and with us having more custom options they’re able to do that.
Burke: As domestic business comes back to the U.S. you’ll see more retailers using color. Before, if you ordered a container of red sofas for example, and it didn’t sell you were stuck with lots of red sofas. We offer 600 fabrics but 40 percent of our business is special order. We give retailers choices; our business has come back and retailers are looking for a domestic supplier. This is a fashion industry and everything derives from apparel and paint; we’re seeing retailers taking a bit more risks now.
Hoyas: We’ve been enamored with color; consumers love it and tell us that and then when they have all of the options in front of them they pay homage to the neutrals. But the colors can come in accessories and accent pieces so their investment is safe for a number of years with the base colors. Retailers are pulling in more color on their sales floor. With patterns we see a lot of the smaller scale patterns, geometrics, abstracts, floral abstracts. We’re also seeing more traditional transitional looks—consumers want a traditional foundation but not grandma’s traditional. Think textural menswear looks, leather, tweed and natural fibers—the foundation is tradition, but updated it’s actually what you’re seeing in fashion with boyfriend cuts and oversized menswear cuts in women’s wear. Furniture always follows fashion, but with everything out there on TV and the Internet, we’re closing the gap and people don’t have to go off to study these designs or styles—everything is instantaneously available.
CR Laine provides dealers with tools and resources to help them recreate the vignettes that draw consumers attention.
Gilmore: Market is the fashion runway; everything we do will get somewhat boiled down to the end consumer and the end consumer plays it far safer. Consumers want design help; they say ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ We try to help dealers see the possibilities or ideas and then replicate them in their showrooms. We give them paint colors, and design ideas and information on the vendors we use for our lighting, rugs, accessories, etc. We’re trying to inspire the dealer to do this so the customer will just walk in and love it—and buy it. The reality is it doesn’t always happen that way. The way we merchandise our showroom takes a significant financial commitment; but retailers can take pieces of it and make it their own. We put quite a bit of time and effort twice a year into designing and merchandising our showrooms, but retailers are doing it every day and that’s hard work. Their sales floors are always changing. When dealers sell stuff it’s great, but it adds to your work. It takes a significant amount of effort to be done right.
RetailerNOW: How do the ever-changing regulations (such as in flame retardants) impact your business? Do your retail partners seem concerned about this issue?
Moore: In areas of the country where people are a little more exposed to the information, we get more questions. Moms are concerned about safety in the home—those customers are asking for it. Norwalk is more of any early adopter of these types of things; we want to take a position of leadership.
Burke: The retailers are asking questions. There’s been a lot of press about it; is it harmful? Is it not harmful? For us it hasn’t been an issue because we pour our own foam, we aren’t dependent on a third-party supplier and we can react quickly to whatever needs to be done. We’ve been able to adjust to that.
Gilmore: The issue is the regulations are an ever-moving target for manufacturers and what [legislators] don’t realize is the number of steps in the manufacturing process. It’s not as simple as slapping a label on something. The reality of the flame retardant issue is very few dealers ask the questions. Quite some time ago we took the (flame retardants) out. There are a few who are socially minded who are asking.
RetailerNOW: What type of product information or training do you offer your retail partners?
Moore: We have a corporate trainer and we have training here at the factory. We just hosted a two-day training class and we had everyone from a new designer to someone who’s been selling for 15 years. After market we bring product back to the factory and merchandise our showroom here because we use it as a training ground. We do product training and sales techniques. Right now we have monthly classes, 35 people per class, and retailers are asking for regional training. Coming here is a huge success because they can see the factory and see how product is made. We follow their sales afterwards and we see huge spikes.
Burke: We launched Klaussner University in April, an online training course for sales associations. There are modules on Klaussner product knowledge, upholstery, casegoods, motion, sleepers, and leather. It’s interactive and allows them to work at their own pace. There’s backend reporting for managers, printable worksheets and testing and certification. Training is important and our reps do a good job but this new program provides instant training.
Seilnacht: La-Z-Boy offers all of our retailers a comprehensive online training curriculum. Our product knowledge courses cover upholstered products, new introductions, and mattresses. Our selling techniques courses include a seven-module series and other selling skills courses are focused on presenting finance options, selling casegoods, and more. We also have a suite of more than 20 management training courses that has both basic management skills training and courses specific to retail management.
Gilmore: The web portal is helpful, but our reps are consistently out in front of the dealers—training is important. Retail stores have turnover so you are constantly training; we have product-knowledge meetings multiple times a year. For the last three years we’ve offered intensive two-day training sessions here at CR Laine. The training is on things they should know about selling leather furniture or patterns on curved backed chairs, not specific to our product—we keep the numbers low—small groups (20 people). When they walk out of here they feel confident. More knowledge brings confidence, confidence brings trust and trust brings sales. If you can achieve those things…if you show that confidence to the consumer they will believe you and they will buy, it’s not complicated.
RetailerNOW: How are you effectively marketing to Millennials and/or how are you helping your retail partners do the same?
Moore: We’re marketing to them through social media and we’re reaching out to younger retailers to see how to go after that group. Our Urban Studio collection was designed for the younger customers as well as small space living (baby boomers downsizing). It’s for the young executive who invests in quality product and they tend to be more contemporary; they’re also more comfortable with colors and the color palette in that collection is strong. This members of this demographic group are curators of their own home and we recognize that.
Burke: We’re obviously designing product for them. We’re trying to stay informed on social media and we’re keeping our retailers tuned in. Photography changes every day, videos are important and we supply the marketing assets and ideas to the retailers; our brand is the dealer’s brand; we have to help them come up with ideas.
Wagner: Our products are designed to appeal to consumers who are interested in creating a comfortable and inviting home, and are seeking high-quality furniture at a great value.
We market to more of a mindset, rather than a specific age demographic. We offer consumers a full line of products in a wide range of customized styles for the living room and family room. We support retail partners with comprehensive marketing programs, including national media campaigns, in-store promotions, public relations and social media efforts.
Gilmore: Our focus is how to meet consumer needs not just one demographic. We build a product with the consumer in mind—does it have the right sit, pitch, comfort, styling, color. There are people in their 20-50s driving Mercedes; Mercedes doesn’t go after a certain demographic.
Here’s something that might come as a surprise to you: The majority of upholstery sold in the United States is made in the United States.
“These are not jobs that have returned home, these are jobs that never left,” said Pat Bowling, vice president of communications for the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA).
Interestingly enough, these upholstery factories are having a hard time finding workers. AHFA’s Solutions Partners division is trying to help uncover the reasons why these jobs have been difficult to fill and possibly develop a campaign to help recruit new workers.
Part of the problem may be training. Lower end upholstery factories used to be a training ground for factories that specialize in higher end, more custom products. But as production of lower priced products moved overseas, U.S. factories lost their pipeline of trained workers.
Another problem might be the misconception that all the furniture jobs are going overseas. “If you think about it, all the media attention focused on plant closings over the last decade has most people thinking ‘no one makes furniture in the U.S. anymore’,” Bowling said.
Mark Gilmore, vice president of sales, CR Laine said “It takes a trained person to do eight-way hand tied and it’s not as simple to get those people. There aren’t as many people out there doing that.”
Gilmore and others in the upholstery industry are encouraged however. Catawba Valley Community College, Hickory, N.C. now offers a two-year course in upholstery manufacturing and it’s first class (soon to be graduates) was full.