retail watch | Oct 27, 2022 |
High Point found the industry at a crossroads

This week’s High Point Market was all about the haves and the have-too-muches. While the biannual gathering of the furniture faithful has still not quite returned to its pre-COVID levels of attendance, it looked and felt as close to normal as anything the industry has seen in three years. Hallways, parking lots, food trucks—and, yes, even showrooms—were buzzing with activity.

It was the nature of that activity that determined what kind of a Market you were having. The industry is still coming down from the sugar high of 2020 and 2021, when anything that wasn’t nailed down could be sold. That rush was balanced by a supply chain meltdown that caused massive shortages and rising prices, with retailers and suppliers alike waking up every morning not knowing what to expect next.

What most of the industry woke up to sometime in March was a stunning reversal of fortune. Demand collapsed, and the supply gates burst open—and it has been pretty ugly ever since. Buying activity in High Point this week reflected this new unreal reality.

For many of the larger retailers, particularly national or regional chains that live and die by the container load, challenges still center on too much inventory—and too much of the wrong inventory—clogging up their warehouses. These dealers came into town knowing they needed new merchandise for the first half of 2023 while trying to balance checkbooks and loading docks. Those with better balance sheets and the financial wherewithal were buying, albeit perhaps more modestly than they might have under pre-pandemic conditions.

Furniture retailers without such resources were “just looking, thanks” while plotting big clearances for the next 90 days, hoping to return to Market next April with their proverbial buying pencils newly sharpened. And some, many posited, wouldn’t be back at all—victims of fatal turmoil. One supplier said he had seen an increased number of local dealers calling it quits already.

All of this was balanced by the higher-end retailers, which typically depend more on custom-orders and carry little to no inventory. They are the ones without overloaded stockrooms, who came to Market looking for new product for next year—and who have the credit lines to pull it off. Those dealers found that while prices are higher, they seem to have begun to level off, with the shipping surcharges that have plagued the ordering process suddenly, thankfully, sailing off into the Pacific sunset.

Yet the overall nature of a furniture market dominated by stocking dealers continued to define the business climate this week, even as the meteorological climate was downright delightful. Many in the industry remain pessimistic about prospects for 2023, especially as their treasured backlogs, which have kept everyone in good financial spirits since demand slowed in the spring, start to wind down. New orders will define the coming year—and there may simply not be enough to keep everyone smiling in the days ahead.

But that’s still jumping ahead. If the furniture industry has learned anything from the past three years, it’s that attempting to make forecasts is foolish—and often a waste of time. Maybe that’s why we saw more smiling faces on the streets and in the showrooms of High Point this week. Then again, maybe it was just because we weren’t wearing masks anymore.

Homepage image: Showplace in High Point | Courtesy of IMC


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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