The numbers are sobering. With 22 million Americans out of work, home furnishings sales were down 26 percent last month — a number that’s almost sure to decline even more when April figures are released next month.
In the Home Furnishings Association’s weekly webinar series Thursday, industry analyst Jerry Epperson acknowledged the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on furniture retailers, but he also offered heaping doses of optimism and hope for an industry in need of both.
Epperson said he expects small rural pockets of the nation to begin reopening in stages as early as next month. He said the economy would start to warm up in September if school systems and universities are able to reopen. “I think we’re going to see the major turn (in the economy) come in September if that happens,” said Epperson. “When we open the schools, that’s when we’ll all start to feel better, and with that comes the opening of retail across the country to less restrictions.”
In the same breath, Epperson acknowledged that September seems a long way off, but he added that retailers should be working now to prepare. That starts with your staff, he told retailers. With so much government assistance available or soon to be available, there’s not a better time for store owners to rethink their staffing levels.
“Every company out there is using this opportunity not necessarily to downsize, but you need to look at your company, your people, your operating techniques, your vendor list. You’re never going to have an opportunity to upgrade who you are and what you’re doing and have the kind of assistance from government to help with the people you’re not going to keep. This isn’t a bad time if you going to lay off people from your team because they’re going to have a lot of opportunity from government.”
Epperson said furniture retailers need to be in discussions with their manufacturers now in preparation for reopening. “The really smart retailers who were able to stay open are going to be buying inventory knowing we’re going to have shortages when we come out of this,” he said. “That’s going to give them an edge, and you need to catch up.”
Epperson said Asian manufacturing plants were just starting to get back up when American retailers began canceling orders. He said supply chains will be in fits of starting and stopping over the next several months. “There’s going to be an important period of time this or that product is not be available for you,” he said. “You should be on the phone with your preferred vendors now finding out what’s available, what you need and getting the ball rolling, showing them that you support them and want to work with them. They need you as much as you need them.”
Epperson said he expects national furniture sales to get back to even sometime in the fall and slowly start climbing after that, but that the overall economy will take at least three years to fully recover. He predicts as much as 30 percent of the retail base will be shed when all is said and done. “It doesn’t have to be your store,” he said. “Not if you’re thinking lean and working now to get ready.”
For more of Epperson’s insights, check out his HFA Webinar here. The webinar is part of the HFA’s weekly conversations with some of the furniture industry’s best and brightest minds.