retail watch | Oct 18, 2023 |
Industry insiders at High Point hold out hope in spite of tough conditions

I went to the High Point furniture market and all I got was a headache—and a confusing sense of both exhilaration and depression.

The furniture industry finds itself in a pretty severe slump, still dealing with its post-Covid hangover amid troubling rumblings on both the supplier and retailer sides.

That’s what was so confusing: Business is bad, but there were few moping, doom-and-gloom faces on the streets, hallways and buffets at Market. Maybe it’s because the idea of going to physical shows has returned in full force, and that just feels good. Maybe it’s because after that huge spike in business from 2020 through early 2022, there are still some residual good feelings out there. Then again, it could just be denial and the blind hope that the fabled recovery is just around the next credenza.

If there was one big takeaway from the week, it is the ongoing redefining of the market geography to reflect who is coming and what they are there for. A good 60 percent of the headcount at market is now the interior designer trade, according to show organizers—an irony that shouldn’t be lost on anyone who remembers when many showrooms had hand-written signs at their entrances telling those designers to just go away.

Now that they are the biggest demographic—though, importantly, not the biggest spenders in order writing—exhibitors are changing their business models. They are pursuing trimmed-down showrooms, often located away from the massive International Home Furnishings Center complex that looms over downtown. They are relocating to outlying buildings, especially in the Hamilton Wrenn district, or setting up shop in freestanding locations about town.

It’s a fundamental shift in supplier sourcing practices, and if it continues to accelerate, it has the potential to change traffic patterns, rental strategies and even the physical nature of the market complex. This is big, and it’s something market organizers, exhibitors and attendees all need to understand better. Hence the headache.

Wherever the conversations were happening, many of them were about the haunting feeling that more crash-and-burns and bankruptcies are coming on both the vendor and retail sides following several high-profile collapses, including Klaussner and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams most recently. Sure enough, Market wasn’t even done when specialty retailer Z Gallerie filed Chapter 11, on what looks like its way to liquidation.

There could be more to come, some insiders speculated, although specifics were very much hush-hush. But with business soft, interest rates still rising and consumers not in any hurry to leave their cozy mortgages to relocate, it seems only logical that the industry hasn’t seen the end of its current malaise. That’s the depressing part.

Which takes us back to that fabled mood-of-the-market reading. Given all that’s going on out there, it wasn’t terrible at all. My extremely unscientific mimosa-and-tote-bag index was at a healthy level, indicating market goers are feeling OK about riding this thing out, at least for a while. So, exhilaration may be too strong a word, but the industry grades on a curve, so they’ll take it.

And if you were wondering how my forecasts on the top five market topic conversations as prognosticated in BOH last week went, here’s my scorecard:

1. Bankruptcies: Absolutely. This was a huge topic of conversation everywhere I went.

2. An alternative to the boom-and-bust cycle driven by the housing market: There were no big ideas to report.

3. Markets are back: You bet.

4. The appeal of visiting High Point off-season: not so much.

5. When conditions will improve: Nobody has a clue.

By the way, I heard zero conversations about AI—which actually was kind of refreshing, given its ubiquity in the rest of civilization.

See you in April.

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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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