retail watch | May 6, 2021 |
What do new trade show patterns mean for High Point and beyond?

For an industry that hates change—and doesn’t handle it particularly well when it comes—the last year has forced seismic shifts. New show and market patterns have emerged in the wake of the tumult, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be permanent changes or mere blips in the business-as-usual cycle.

The business of buying furniture remains in flux, with traditional shows postponed or rescheduled, while new formats have emerged that threaten the status quo. All of this comes during a period when supplies are limited, inventories are low and the supply chain is tangled up, yet business is as strong as it’s been in decades. While American business and society is starting to reemerge from its home-bound hibernation, the furniture industry is still feeling the aftershocks in its retail rituals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ground zero for furniture, High Point, North Carolina.

In 2020, the spring show was postponed, rescheduled and then canceled completely. The fall show took place, but was a shadow of its usual self, with attendance and participation at the 25 percent level at best. The spring 2021 show, normally held in April, was also postponed; it’s now set to take place starting on June 5 and continue through the following week. But two new spins on the High Point Market have appeared, and it’s unclear if they will become permanent fixtures or pandemic-era anomalies.

The first is Premarket, an event traditionally held about four weeks before true market, which traces its roots back to the days when furniture dealers would travel to Southern and Midwestern manufacturer factories to see seasonal product prototypes and mock-ups. The thinking was that vendors would get helpful feedback on finishes, fabrics, shapes and silhouettes from their biggest buyers before they went into full production on their new lines. Premarket eventually morphed into a showroom event where retailers were shown essentially finished product and could place pre-orders, potentially setting up exclusives or nabbing first cuttings before competitors. Still, it was largely limited to big suppliers and customers.

During the pandemic, Premarket rose as a way for limited numbers of people to work showrooms and place orders. Premarket this spring was probably the largest it has ever been, with hundreds of showrooms reportedly open—including mainstream furniture producers, home accessories and decor suppliers. Some dealers planned to do the majority of their buying at Premarket and send a smaller contingency to market itself.

Joining Premarket this year on the alternative show calendar is a new event called First Tuesday. Essentially, showrooms open on that date every month and retailers can come to town to shop. At first, only a few dozen companies participated, but that number has grown—last month, Furniture Today reported about 150 showrooms open for the April First Tuesday. For a city that has essentially been a ghost town in the showroom district, this is a radical reordering of the schedule.

It remains to be seen if either Premarket or First Tuesday will retain their popularity once the conventional market week regains momentum. In the meantime, they have seriously thrown off business as usual and all bets are off on what June furniture market will be like in terms of attendance and product introductions.

The situation in High Point plays off a developing story in the other major furniture market location, at the World Market Center in Las Vegas. Over the years—and particularly since both markets came under the same IMC ownership—it has become the West Coast alternative for companies not wishing to go to High Point. Many vendors operated showrooms in both locations, though High Point was substantially larger.

Las Vegas also has had postponements, cancellations and rescheduled events over the past 15 months and its most recent show, in April, was a replacement for its usual January window. However, falling right before High Point Premarket and with many furniture companies sold out of goods, Las Vegas was very slow on the furniture side. (Its gift and home decor sector, meanwhile, was relatively robust.) Some big companies chose not to open their showrooms at all, which resulted in dealers opting not to attend. While a few furniture companies have closed their Las Vegas showrooms permanently, many more remain open, and there is still a strong mattress and home decor representation at the World Market Center.

Also worth noting are efforts by market centers in Dallas and Atlanta (the latter also owned by IMC) to make plays for the furniture business, albeit with limited success so far. With some predicting a localization of the entire wholesale buying process, it is unclear how their initiatives will turn out. Adding yet another layer of complexity are digital marketplaces, both from show organizers and third-party operators, which have made greater inroads in gift and decor than in mainstream furniture.

These are only the latest geographical and timing twists in the furniture industry’s long and convoluted show history. Manufacturers originally showed in market centers in northern cities like New York; Chicago; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Jamestown, New York, before High Point began to gain traction as the industry’s epicenter nearly a century ago. Post-World War II, the greater North Carolina area was the center of wholesale activity stretching 100 miles across the state. In the 1970s, Dallas and Atlanta attracted substantial numbers of furniture exhibitors, but by the early 1990s, the industry had retreated to High Point, building out more than 12 million square feet of showroom space. The alternative market in Las Vegas started strong, but its recent activity suggests its fate remains unknown.

For 2021, the furniture industry finds itself at a crossroads: Whichever direction it chooses, history suggests it won’t be the last.

Homepage photo: Market Square in High Point, North Carolina | Courtesy of HPMKT

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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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