HIGH POINT — As momentum builds for a First Tuesday initiative, with more and more High Point exhibitors signaling they’ll open up for retailers the first Tuesday of every month, Home News Now moved to gauge the initial interest on the retail side.
And it’s mixed.
Several Top 100 companies said it was a good, if not great, idea. Others were less sold on it as the solution that will meet their needs at a time when normal furniture markets are anything but normal. For most, however, the importance of reaching a critical mass of open showrooms is going to be key to the initiative succeeding.
First, a brief take on what First Tuesday is all about. Early this month, Guy Ray, CEO of upholstery producer Manwah floated the idea as an alternative to furniture markets during these pandemic times when retailers (and suppliers and reps for that matter) aren’t particularly keen on showing up in crowded venues. The idea is to develop enough showrooms ready to open their doors on the first Tuesday of each month, starting in December, to make it worthwhile yet safe for everyone involved.
Already, at least 16 other exhibitors have signed on to participate, according to a report by Furniture Today, including some, who, like Manwah, already had announced plans that go beyond that — with showrooms open by appointment year-round.
“I think it’s a very smart idea,” said Jeff Seaman, CEO of Seffner, Fla.-based Rooms To Go. “I don’t know if it has to be Tuesday. It could be Tuesday and Wednesday to accommodate more people and space everybody out. But I think opening monthly is a very good idea.”
RTG has been coming to High Point at least monthly since the summer, even without a First Tuesday. Dual headquarters in Atlanta and Seffner and its own house in the High Point area makes the trip fairly easy, he said. Some team members can even drive here if they prefer.
Typically a group of four or five people would travel up for a day or two, Seaman said. The number of suppliers they see varies, “but it’s several. It’s not random shopping; it’s more appointments we set up over two days.
“So it’s not hard,” he said. “And we have a place to stay when we go. So we felt it was never really a risk.”
First Tuesday, in one sense, formalizes what RTG has already been doing for months now. “Without formal markets,” Seaman added, the ability for people to go when they need to go is smart.”
At the other end of the spectrum is a Top 100 retailer who declined to be identified and who wasn’t fond of the concept.
“It’s no way to shop a market,” the retailer said. “The whole idea of a market is you go through and you compare and see different offerings. First Tuesday sounds more like (retailers) going (to High Point) to check on projects, and the really big players already do that now.”
This retail executive, who hasn’t been to a market since COVID, said, “I love the idea “of not being imprisoned by markets,” which is something a First Tuesday would seem to offer. “But there’s a reason the markets developed,” the retailer added. “It’s the only way you can see a lot of people and a lot of product in a short period of time. I personally don’t see (First Tuesday) as a viable means of shopping.”
Keith Koenig, CEO of Tamarac, Fla.-based City Furniture had been traveling and was still catching up on the First Tuesday concept when he talked to Home News Now, but, “I don’t think that would change our shopping pattern,” he said.
“We’re in Florida, so flying up for a day or two, unless a lot of people are showing something new,” wouldn’t be a priority.
“I tend to like the market cadence for major introductions,” Koenig said. “If there was something new, and a few vendors were offering new product and it was worthwhile, we might do it.”
The last Premarket might be the perfect example of “worthwhile” for City. Normally, the retailer sends a small team for two nights at the most during Premarket and sends a somewhat larger team for five or six days for the official High Point Market. This time, because of the pandemic and because of the increased exhibitor participation at Premarket, City sort of flipped that and brought a team of about six people for five days to Premarket and a slightly smaller team for three days in October.
The company typically goes to Las Vegas Market, too, but skipped it this summer because its suppliers signaled they weren’t bringing out anything new.
“It’s all about product,” Koenig said. If First Tuesday answers that call, City may participate.
It should be noted that First Tuesday isn’t designed to replace or function as a market or even a Premarket, but is rather positioned as a temporary alternative to full-fledged markets at a time when the industry really can’t have major markets, or, at least, can’t safely manage full-blown markets with thousands of attendees.
Between the time April High Point Market was canceled and the three-phase October Market took place, there were two successful events in the city — the so-called “mini-market” in June and September Premarket. Both were well attended and had strong exhibitor participation.
In contrast, most of the major retailers (and more than a few suppliers) didn’t attend October Market, partly out of safety concerns over the coronavirus and a desire to keep employees safe and clear of a potentially crowded venue. High Point Market Authority and the building owners and exhibitors went to great lengths to ensure Market was, in fact, safe, but it wasn’t enough for some, especially after they got so much business done in September.
In a sense, “they voted on a more controlled environment that is catered to their needs,” said Kevin Castellani, Manwah’s director of corporate communications. “The behavior of the industry during this pandemic justifies we consider alternative ideas.”
“This will be individualized, customized, edited showroom tours in a truly safe environment,” he added. “We’re not trying to create a show once a week, once a month or every day. What we’re trying to do is give the industry a place that’s available, that is showroom-ready, where they can come in and see product and have business conversations now, without having to worry about crowds.”
Irv Blumkin, CEO of Omaha, Neb.-based Nebraska Furniture Mart, was just learning about First Tuesday when contacted by HNN.
“I do think the industry needs to get innovative around the markets,” he said. “I’m not sure this solution is the best solution, but you don’t know if you don’t try.”
For a retailer like NFM to come to North Carolina over a short timeframe, “I’d want to have multiple showrooms open,” he said. “Whether or not they can get that done is another story.” And then there’s the question of whether or not it’s cost-effective and productive. But in order for it to be productive for NFM, there would have to be enough exhibitors open to make it worthwhile.
How many is “enough” isn’t yet clear and will vary, but NFM would need a “fairly large amount,” if it was going to send a group here for a day. Blumkin couldn’t say exactly how many, but “I know it’s more than 20; I don’t know if it’s 50.”
NFM doesn’t typically come to High Point outside the regular market cycle, but it did attend Premarket, “and the reason we liked Premarket this time was because they had a lot of showrooms open so we could make good utilization of the time.”
Eric Easter, CEO of Indianapolis-based Kittle’s, questioned whether the First Tuesday organizers’ definition of “critical mass” is the same as Kittle’s definition, considering just how fragmented the furniture industry remains.
“If they’ve got nine or 15 signed up, the odds of these nine or 15 all being critical to us is pretty remote,” Easter said. On the other hand, he said it could be just enough to lead Kittle to reach out to other vendors who aren’t participating, to let them know the retailer will be down on Tuesday because a couple of its suppliers are open and ask it might ask them to consider opening, too.
But it would take a lot of vendors opening (Easter doesn’t know exactly what “a lot” looks like but “at least dozens”) for Kittle’s to alter a plan of connecting with suppliers that’s already in motion.
“Our plan is just to reach out to our vendors one at a time and schedule things down there, do a series of trips if we need to — two- or three-day trips. One of the attractions of doing it that way is individual attention, the privacy that allows and the one-on-one.”
Easter said Kittle’s also is doing virtual tours with vendors now and some are coming to see the retailer in Indianapolis. And he’s an advocate for those vendors planning to keep their showrooms open and set year-round.
“I think that’s a brilliant strategy, and it’s kind of what the mattress people have been doing for years,” he said. “We were just down to Lexington (N.C.), two weeks ago at Tempur Sealy, and it was just my buyer and me in the showroom. We got a lot done in a short period of time. It was productive and then we turned around and came back.”
Oscar Miskelly CEO of Jackson, Miss.-based Miskelly Furniture questioned how convenient First Tuesday will be unless you happen to be a retailer located close to High Point.
“And I don’t really understand if all the heads of the companies would be there, the people who can make decisions, the people we want to see.” Miskelly said he would need more information about the format before he can determine exactly how interested he’d be in attending.
“But during these times’ I’m open to anything,” he added. “If it would help get us in front of my suppliers to expedite shipments, I’m willing to take a train to North Carolina.”
Atlanta-based Havertys’ merchandise team’s focus is on buying to support the Haverty brand, which consists of proprietary product, said John Gill, executive vice president merchandising. “Our vendor partners will meet our team members in High Point or ship samples to our distribution center as we work on developing projects together,” he said.
“The concept of having showrooms ready and in use more than several times a year seems like a good idea for vendors and retailers. As we have seen this year, things do not always change on a six-month schedule.”
NFM’s Blumkin, who spoke of the need to innovate around markets, said old paradigms and “the way we’ve done it in the past may or may not be what the future looks like,” for the furniture industry.
“Generally, nothing is forever,” he said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I do know the electronics and appliance industries are not doing their shows virtually to a degree and in different parts of the country.” The furniture industry is different, so the solution may be different.
“But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking for different ways to introduce products,” he said.
And Manwah’s Castellani would add there’s a need for different ways to keep the industry connected at a time when it’s difficult to do so safely under the regular market system. First Tuesday is an attempt at that, he said, and it will adjust along the way as a committee of participants is formed to weigh in and as it becomes “semi-organized, supported by the High Point Market Authority and other associations.”
“What we’re trying to do is create a venue that serves as a temporary alternative to help this industry navigate through this unchartered territory,” Castellani said.
“Business is great right now, but as an industry, we have to make it better. We have to give the consumer an incredible experience. We have to show new product. We have to do so much, and we’re not going to be able to do it if we’re not getting together.”