Getting Past Fast Furniture

April 07, 2020

Getting Past Fast Furniture

 

Prior to the mid-1980s, residential furniture still had its quality tiers and adult Americans tended to aspire to the highest quality that they could afford to buy. The common mindset was that the pieces were investments. Newlyweds bought sets with the expectation that they would last a lifetime. If unaffordable, they tended to delay the purchase and save until they could make the purchase. In the interim, extended family members often passed on used sets or pieces.  It wasn't unusual for parents to give well-made solid hardwood bedrooms sets or living room sets as wedding gifts. Despite inflation, one might pay $700 for a high-quality solid hardwood bedroom set in the 1960s. 

Sets were defined as multiple pieces of furniture that shared the same key design features, wood species, finish, collection, and brand.  People tended to purchase bedroom and dining room pieces as sets. These pieces were cared for with weekly dusting and polishing and very limited usage. In the absence of another dedicated gathering place for the family,  clear vinyl or knitted and crocheted throws often covered the upholstered seating and parents encouraged kids to sit on the floor. We can have a gasp over the tackiness of a clear vinyl fitted sofa cover. However, I interpret it as a symbol of furniture that is being preserved and will likely never be replaced. One can look at the beautiful and pristine fabric and design details, but can never destroy it. People protected their solid hardwood dining table tops with custom-fitted pads. Businesses still exist that specialize in making custom clear vinyl upholstery covers and fitted pads. 

Popular traditional furniture styles tended to be in vogue for decades. Upholstery fabrics were less trendy, too. People often chose timeless velvets, mohair, and tone on tone damasks. The highest quality furniture was typically the most attractive and comfortable furniture, too. Inexpensive furniture tended to look and feel poorly made, lacking in style and comfort. Often the more modern styles were of lower quality then, as the styles were meant for mass production and distribution.

Once President Clinton signed the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA)  in 1992 the unimaginable started to occur. Large pieces of furniture began to be imported by the container load from overseas. At the time, it was primarily from China where the workforce was plentiful and wages were low compared with those of American furniture makers.  Prior to passing NAFTA, some finished pieces were imported, but most often parts were and the furniture was assembled in the States.

Chinese furniture manufacturers became increasingly adept at interpreting trendy styles and silhouettes of furniture and weaving and printing fashion-forward upholstery fabrics. Their lead times to produce became shorter and their ability to build to specifications improved. They could pivot quickly, too. However, since container loads needed to ship, manufacturers chose to import the increasingly popular lower price point pieces that were mass distributed.

U.S.-based manufacturers who actually made pieces in the states had to contend with losing greater market share to less expensive imports, despite the clear distinction in quality. Ultimately, it was the consumers' decisions to opt for the lower-priced pieces and inferior quality of the imports. Many U.S. based manufacturers quietly chose to open their own factories in China and close their manufacturing plants here in the States, despite keeping their headquarters in the U.S.  Some manufacturers made premium collections in the U.S. and better-priced ones in China. Many U.S. based manufacturers stealthily transitioned production so that consumers thought that they were buying the U.S. made furniture. Labeling laws would eventually be revised to close loopholes that allowed manufacturers to claim that imported products were made in the U.S.

Most Americans are familiar with High Point Furniture Market, held twice a year in High Point N.C. Retailers attend this market to view manufacturers' new collections and to choose brands and styles of new furniture that they will carry in their stores the following season. However, Tupelo Furniture Market has been an industry show since 1987 for low-end furniture. It started as a regional show for the manufacturers in Mississippi who produced lower quality, high volume quick ship pieces in the region. So, clearly, by 1987, the Tupelo Market was established to satisfy the growing appetite for lower-priced furniture. Mississippi-based manufacturers catered to the growing number of retailers who had showroom floor pieces in stock and ready to deliver.  This was in contrast to the higher end brands that offered greater variety in upholstery options and delivered in 12-16 weeks. These were typically made in the States. Eventually, the Mississippi manufacturers would transition to importing most of their furniture from China.

Consumers and their families had started relocating to other geographical regions more frequently with the growth of high-tech in the 1960s. Divorce, single-parent households, and fewer children were other factors in relocation from the 1970s on.  Then their children relocated to attend college and after some took positions in urban areas far from where they grew up. Moving large, heavy pieces of furniture was expensive and inconvenient.

The opening of Ikea in Elizabeth N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in 1990 and its popularity with small apartment dwelling New York City residents was a sign of what younger adult consumers in urban markets preferred.  Modern, unassembled, small scale, minimalist and inexpensive.  Discount mass-market retailers such as Walmart and Target were expanding into suburban areas and they sold ready to assemble or "knockdown" laminate furniture. More promotionally priced regional furniture chain stores started gaining traction, too, with homeowners.  

Consumers' lifestyles and preferred home layouts shifted at the same time. Formal living and dining rooms fell out of favor. Casual living with an emphasis on leisure, media, and ease of maintenance grew in popularity along with open floor plan homes. Even if newly constructed homes had designated living and dining rooms, many home buyers either filled the rooms with nothing or converted them to playrooms for their young children during the years that the children needed close supervision. 

Microfiber upholstery fabric became widely popular when it was reintroduced in the mid-1990s. Some people couldn't distinguish it from suede at that time. (It had been very popular in the 1960s-1970s as branded Ultrasuede or faux suede in apparel.) Most of the microfiber was made in China, washable, soft to the touch, inexpensive and close to indestructible.   It is still a favored upholstery fabric for everyday use. 

The premier established furniture manufacturers making high-quality pieces in the States have continued to struggle over the past 30 years. Many have shuttered. Others have lowered their quality. This applies to both cased goods and upholstered furniture. Many of these established brands were purchased by investors who tried unsuccessfully to turn them around. Drexel Heritage, Pennsylvania House, and  Henredon are just a few of the casualties. Aside from the hefty price tags, their styles didn't resonate with younger consumers who wanted more contemporary and casual pieces. 

Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and West Elm evolved into favored brands for aspiring millennials. RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) became the new benchmark for ready-made luxury, the interior designer's Ikea equivalent. Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel created an entire lifestyle for consumers. Slipcovers that can be washed, sleeper sofas, deep seating, comfortable arms and many pieces made in U.S.  Mitchell Gold and Lee Industries, both made in the U.S. still, are still favored by older consumers.

 Direct-to-consumer online retailers started to sell upholstered furniture approximately five years ago. After 10 years of identity crisis regarding what its specialty is, Wayfair decided to create in house brands for upholstered furniture that it actually sells at perpetually marked down prices. Wayfair became the company that gives consumers many stylish sofa options under $500 with free threshold delivery. It set the standard for even lower prices. (Ikea has always sold sofas, but has stores, requires assembly and doesn't offer free delivery.)

Wayfair Nia Velvet

Their 82" Nia Velvet (polyester microfiber) sleeper sofa rings in at under $400 delivered and it has over 10,000  4.5 star reviews. After reading the reviews, it became apparent that the bar is low for most reviewers since the sofa retails for $389.99. It is a metal-framed foam futon with a back that drops to seat height level. It actually shouldn't retail for any more than it does and referring to it as a sofa is a stretch. The lifespan of a sofa such as this that gets daily use know for certain. However, sofas of this quality typically end up in landfills, abandoned on sides of the road because the quality is so low that they fail to serve their purpose within a few years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for furniture were 31.08% lower in 2020 versus 1997. This is despite inflation. The quality has devolved to a degree where the prices simply reflect the inferior quality and inflation. The stats are similar with apparel due to "fast fashion". 

What seemed to exist in the marketplace until seven years ago were brands whose sofas cost either under $500 or over $2000. West Elm, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and West Elm seemed to be the few high profile companies whose sofas fell somewhere in between. But, the first two’s styles weren’t slick enough and the latter’s were uncomfortable and of questionable quality. Some astute millennials discovered this when shopping for sofas for themselves. They, also, noticed that the furniture industry seemed archaic and could use some disruption. The next round of upholstered furniture companies was birthed- direct-to-consumers.

Joybird, Campaign, Burrow, Interior Define, Article, Maiden Home and Floyd are some of the larger ones to break out, market aggressively, promote themselves as having no middleman and most are backed by investors (other than Joybird). What they all have in common: higher quality than  West Elm, more customizations, expedited lead times for customization, and founded by millennials with no experience or background in the furniture industry and their target market is millennials.

These companies are attempting to produce custom higher quality seating with shorter lead times than the established brands. They are mindful of comfort, quality, style, and sustainability. They are bringing change to the industry by bypassing distributors or retailers. They have pop up shops or work share space to exhibit their collections in millennial heavy urban markets such as San Francisco and New York City. Most make their pieces domestically. (Joybird’s are made in Mexico.)  

Article-Svden-Cascadia 

What these millennial founded and led companies have in their favor are millennial interior decorating bloggers, millennial journalists who write for review websites, millennial tastes, millennial customers and social media savviness. It is impossible to start internet research for high-quality sofas without most of these companies appearing in reviews on page one. Ethan Allen, Lee Industries and many other well-established manufacturers are not mentioned.  Direct-To-Consumer upholstered sofa companies rank high in organic search results. The DTC model is in vogue and what the shelter magazine blogs and rating websites are covering. It is difficult to ignore the reviews.

For those of us who follow either the home furnishings industry or direct-to-consumer business models, it is apparent that many of these companies need to put product in retail stores in order to grow to the next level. Growing to the next level is imperative for many of these companies because they are venture-backed. Many of these venture-backed companies are spending far above average on marketing in order to convert browsers to buyers. The customization and generous return policies make it easy for one to take a chance. Sofas, unlike mattresses, are much trickier to ship directly to homes without their incurring in-transit damages. It remains to be seen if these companies are able to grow and be profitable enough for investors without getting mired in returns and in-transit damages. Historically, pieces were shipped to retailers who had their own delivery trucks and employees doing final mile deliveries. 

Stay tuned.

 

  

 

 




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