Retailers, suppliers cautiously optimistic about 2021

Increased demand and shipping issues were among the topics of discussion among the panelists.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a mixed bag of record sales, production delays and material shortages to the furniture industry, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers have been forced to adapt to a “new normal.”

That was the topic of discussion during a recent virtual roundtable hosted by the International Textile Alliance (ITA). Jack Eger of Crypton Home Fabrics moderated the chat with Jeff Harris of Furnitureland South, George Jordan of The MT Company, Kathryn Richardson of Libeco, Greg Thomases of Swavelle Mill Creek and Patrick Shelton of Valdese Weavers.

The group—which included retailers, manufacturers and textile suppliers—shared their experiences dealing with unexpected consumer demand, production disruptions and shortages of raw materials. 

Retailers like Harris have enjoyed a boom in business in the months since shelter-at-home restrictions eased. Furnitureland South had their biggest month in the store’s 51-year history in August, had their largest quarter in Q3 and their busiest September and October this year. Harris said the store’s web traffic is up 50% and foot traffic is up 30%.

“None of us had a crystal ball back in April and May, but who could foresee this incredible consumer demand for this industry’s products, who thought it would come roaring back,” said Harris. “People in Furnitureland’s demographic have more disposable income—they’re not going to sporting events or concerts, they’re not traveling or going to restaurants.”

But with that surge in business, Furnitureland South has faced the same challenge befalling many furniture retailers, finding product to meet surging consumer demand.

“How do we keep up this demand, because 80% of our business is not selling inventory, it’s special order from vendors,” said Harris. “We’ve had to alter our selling strategies to make sure we’re selling more domestic, the people who can get their hands on the fabrics and the material goods.”

Material shortages on top of reduced staffing because of COVID and increased demand have forced brands like The MT Company to lengthen lead times on deliveries. 

“We went from 4-6 weeks to easily double that,” said Jordan. “Our ability to forecast even that window is incredibly difficult—there’s a lot of components that go into what we do, and we’re not staffed to move tens of thousands of pieces.”

Labor issues due to the virus have been a problem for many companies, with workers getting sick or taking leave because of fear of exposure.

“Labor shortages—we’re definitely having that challenge,” said Thomases. “If you lose a weaver because someone in the family is positive or quarantined, you can’t replace them.”

Thomases said that due to their location in the Northeast, Swavelle has been cautious with employees returning to work, limiting the number of people allowed in their New York offices.

Shelton said that Valdese Weavers was able to weather some of the disruptions better due to being a completely vertical operation, but even they haven’t been immune to material shortages.

“Global olefin shortages impact a portion of our business,” he said. “And the growth in business didn’t happen across the board—we saw spikes in different products we make that tax diff parts of our business or supply chain. We had runs in increased levels of demand, and trying to manage the complexity and all the tools we offer was difficult.”

But with the first rounds of the COVID vaccine administered this week, the panelists feel cautiously optimistic about 2021.

“With the year we’ve ended up having, with the promise of next year and beyond, we’re continuing to set ambitious goals for growth,” said Harris. “The thing that’s challenging is finding vendors who can fulfill orders for us and ship in a reasonable time.” 

Jennifer Bringle

Jennifer Bringle is the executive editor of Casual News Now. She has served as editor-in-chief of Casual Living, the leading trade publication covering the outdoor furnishings and accessories industry. She also served as managing editor of Designers Today, a trade publication focused on the interior design community. Prior to that, she served as editor-in-chief of Kids Today magazine, the leading trade publication of the infant and juvenile home furnishings and accessories industry. Jennifer also has been featured on Good Morning America, The Plum and the Associated Press.  Jennifer is a 2001 graduate of North Carolina State University with a B.A. in mass communication with a minor in journalism.

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