retail watch | Jun 10, 2021 |
Masks off, wallets out: High Point bounces back

They came—in smaller numbers than usual, but still more than most expected. They bought—though there was less to buy, given the industry’s supply chain struggles. And they conquered—proving that an in-person market event can be held in the latter stages (knock on wood) of a pandemic.

It wasn’t quite business as usual at High Point Market, the industry’s largest trade show, but it was certainly less than it’s been in close to a year and a half.

On Wednesday, the High Point Market Authority told its board of directors that traffic was about 21 percent off from the most recent Spring Market, in 2019. On the ground, those numbers felt about right. It was clear that traffic was lighter than what one would expect at a “normal” Spring Market, but also up substantially from October of 2020 (which was 60 percent off typical attendance). The crowds, such as they were, also appeared to be heavily weighted toward interior designers rather than business-suited teams from big furniture retailers—a continuation of an ongoing trend the event has been experiencing for several years.

Nevertheless, the industry seemed to breathe a sigh of relief—generally without masks or social distancing—that it was returning to live, rather than virtual, buying. And if it still seemed to deviate from historical patterns, there were plenty of reasons why.

Most notably, the June timing—a pandemic-induced two-month delay from the usual April dates—threw off traditional buying cycles that have been the norm for decades. Add to that an especially robust Pre-Market in May that was dominated by larger retailers, who all seemed to respond to the chance to get in early to see introductions and get out of town just as easily. (Vendors said many major retail commitments that would have normally been made during Market were instead locked in at Pre-Market.)

Then there was the nearly unprecedented supply-and-demand challenges that have come to define the entire home furnishings sector during the pandemic. While consumers have been spending serious money on their homes over the past year, the supply chain has been hampered by a number of factors that will by now sound familiar: reduced manufacturing capacities in Asia; raw material shortages in both natural (lumber and cotton) and man-made components (synthetic fibers); a reduced labor force due to COVID-19 and also possibly government stimulus efforts; and, most of all, delivery delays caused by port backups, shipping container shortfalls and a general overload of the entire supply chain.

These issues caused some vendors to restrict how many new introductions they debuted, knowing they were challenged to fill existing orders, much less accept new ones. While it was a seller’s market, it was one where buyers seemed to understand the business landscape and were anxious to at least get in the queue for deliveries later in the year.

All of this played out amid a quiet social scene—there were fewer parties, noticeable cutbacks in free lunches and open bars, and a paucity of tote bags, giveaways and other trade show swag. That said, with the absence of masks on most Market-goers, the industry saw, literally and figuratively, a sight it hasn’t been able to behold in more than 16 months: people smiling.

Homepage photo: A view of Showplace at High Point Market | Courtesy of HPMA

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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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