retail watch | Apr 7, 2022 |
The highs and lows of High Point Market

To say this week’s High Point Market was back to normal isn’t quite right. While the event was a significant improvement over the past two pandemic years—and far less abnormal than anything we’ve seen since October 2019—it’s still not quite the way it was.

There were a number of good and bad elements at the Market, which is firmly entrenched as the leading furniture and decor trade event in the country for both retailers and interior designers. The fact that the good clearly outweighed the bad says a lot about the recovery that the industry—and the overall American economy—has made since the darkest days of the pandemic.

High: Attendance has to be the most obvious improvement over the past four Markets in 2020 and 2021. A rough estimate put the number of attendees at 80 or 85 percent of pre-pandemic events. (Official figures have not been released yet.)

Low: U.S. business travel is rapidly returning, but that’s not necessarily the case for overseas visitors. With quarantine rules still in effect in some countries, the international attendance this week was limited. That was especially the case for Chinese visitors as their country continues to have among the most stringent travel regulations in the world. Recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in several large cities in China seem to indicate those restrictions will not be lifted anytime soon.

High: After at least a year where very few vendors showed new product, the majority came to Market this time with new programs and collections. For an industry that has always relied on newness to drive retail traffic, it was invigorating to see fresh merchandise.

Low: Even as there were new products, they were not in the same numbers as at a traditional Market. Big suppliers that might have once introduced two or three collections only had one to show, and when it came to high-profile and celebrity-branded programs, the pickings were slim. Until the supply chain issues are resolved and deliveries regain some sense of normalcy, this pattern is likely to continue.

High: In a clear show of confidence in the future of High Point Market, the International Market Centers (the primary landlord for most of the large showroom buildings, it leases 70 percent of the Market’s total space) announced that it would begin a major reorganization of the International Home Furnishings Center. The project, which will begin in the fall, will work to locate similar showrooms in clusters, much as IMC has done at its Atlanta and Las Vegas properties. Some 20 suppliers will be relocated in a seven-story block, while the fifth floor will be repositioned as an accessories location.

Low: Nobody will ever accuse the High Point Market colossus—more than 180 individual buildings owned by more than 100 landlords and totaling more than 12 million square feet—of being an easy venue to shop. Yet this move by IMC is the first step in a long-awaited reorganization that is designed to make the overall Market easier for show-goers. It’s a long process, but at least it’s started.

High: Finally, there are the overall business conditions for the furniture market. Coming off two years of double-digit growth and virtually unparalleled demand, the industry has seen strong sales (and profits too) that have been boosted by significant price increases to the consumer. Those increases have been largely accepted, setting a new floor for the industry’s products. It’s a boost that one hopes can be maintained as sales start to level off.

Low: Make no mistake about it, that leveling off is well underway as consumers shift their spending to out-of-home pursuits like travel and entertainment. Wherever that balance of spending on goods and services eventually lands, it’s almost universally believed that the furniture business may end up being flat at best in 2022. Those rising prices may have also finally hit a nerve, given the inflationary pressures on other consumer expenditures like gas and food.

High Point remains one of the most distinctive and unique market events in all of the consumer products world. That the show—quirks and all—was back in near full-force this month might be the highest point of all.

Homepage photo: Courtesy of High Point Market Authority

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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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