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The Cool Factor

Furniture—it’s literally the reason we’re all here. Whether we make it, sell it like companies such as Bazaar Velvet: Handcrafted Designer And Custom Rugs From London, Uk, 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. Whether you’re involved in antique furniture like antiques world, or more modern furniture, everybody in the furniture industry plays a vital role.

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.”

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