If optimism is an indicator, then the furniture business is ready for rebound | Bill McLoughlin

There was every reason at the most recent High Point Market for people to be crying the blues. Retail foot traffic and overall sales are soft. The key drivers of the business — household formation, housing starts and discretionary spending — are all well below optimal levels. Inflation, and correspondingly interest rates, remain stubbornly high … and the “R” word (recession) is once again being bandied about as an impending concern.

So, it was a weak market, right?

Not at all.

Despite ongoing economic, demographic and geopolitical challenges, the mood at the market was decidedly optimistic. Anecdotally, there was talk of commitments being made and orders being placed at levels that have not been seen in recent markets.

The massive influx of new products that characterized October’s market continued this spring and expanded to encompass myriad creative new and aggressively priced promotional offerings. Instead of gloom and doom, there was a clear sense that there is business to be done and opportunities upon which to capitalize.

That’s not to say that every showroom was bustling or that there were no complaints. The day that happens, expect to find pigs flying in formation over the city. There is, of course, acknowledgment that conditions are difficult, and there will certainly be those who do not come out the other side.

There continues to be widespread discussions around M&A possibilities, and there are several retailers, some major, who are finding it difficult to get factored, a process for insuring receivables that minimizes manufacturer risk.

Despite that, there was a very clear sense that the current slate of industry challenges is more recognizable, more predictable and more manageable than the whipsaw shifts of the past four years. There is also a near-industry-wide determination to lure consumers back into stores with a wave of “newness.”

After more than two years where inventory challenges and misaligned buys from the pandemic made selling floors somewhat stale, there is a major effort underway to refresh assortments and to give consumers a reason to come back into stores.

While much of that newness this spring was centered around risk-averse neutrals and naturals there was no shortage of updates, upgrades and fresh takes to help jumpstart sales.

On another note, the “market creep” that has seen growing numbers of dealers arrive days before the official opening of market became even more pronounced this time as some of the designer traffic appears to have embraced the practice. The result is a pushing forward of market parties and events, with many starting fully two days before the market’s official opening to accommodate the growing number of major dealers who are arriving, working and departing before the market’s “opening day.”

The result is an almost bifurcated market, with the first round happening Tuesday through Friday and the second running Saturday to Tuesday afternoon, and in some cases Wednesday. The practice has made the traditional anecdotal measures of market traffic — parking lot activity, food and elevator lines — almost irrelevant, as attendance is now spread across a seven-to-nine-day window.

Overall, however, the mood was determinedly positive, which should bode well for the remainder of 2024.

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