Blog: Furniture hall of famer Joe Carroll reminisces

From an ever growing list of distribution channels to consumers’ reluctance to recognize the value of home furnishings, Carroll offers his thoughts on all that’s changed and all that has not

When I was asked if I would like to write a guest column for Home News Now, my immediate reaction was who wants to hear about the reminiscences of some guy who retired over 10 years ago? What would I write about that could possibly have any relevance to today’s business conditions? I sidestepped the request by saying I would think about it.

After gathering my thoughts, it occurred to me that for some of the younger members of our industry there may be some value in looking at how the industry has changed since I attended my first furniture Market (Chicago) in 1970. For you old timers this will just refresh your memory. Some thoughts in no particular order:

Channels of distribution

Joe Carroll

When I was growing up there were basically three places you could buy furniture: a furniture store, a department store or a mass merchandiser such as Sears, JCPenney or Ward. Decades later, in 1980, my third year at Furniture Today, I was chatting with a manufacturer who told me he was selling a lot of furniture to PX’s at military bases. I began to think about other non-mainstream channels that sold furniture. When I returned to the office I met with some of my colleagues and we came up with a list of 18 channels. I began keeping a list of channels, adding to it over the years, and by the time I retired in 2010, it had reached 88 

The moral of this story is that there are still many opportunities to sell your product where you may encounter less competition and have a steady and loyal customer. 

To cite a channel that exceeded expectations, consider mail order catalogs. When Crate & Barrel introduced a blue and white striped sofa in their catalog, I recall many manufacturers scoffing and predicting consumers would not buy furniture they could not see, touch or sit in. How mistaken they were. In just a few years mail order grew to a $1.5 billion business. Today, online selling is enormous. I understand it is approximately 12% of total furniture sales. So much for the skeptics.

Changing tastes in styles

When I got into the industry I was told that style tastes were very generational. Young married couples (in their 20’s in those days) would start their households with Early American furniture. Of course, all the living room and bedroom pieces had to match. In their 30’s their tastes changed to traditional – something the kids could play on that was still presentable to guests. In their 40’s, when the kids had moved out of the house, many would turn to contemporary – possibly to enjoy the freedom of their youth. After 50, when there was more money at their disposal and tastes had changed, they would purchase 18th century or antique furniture. 

In the 1990’s a furniture executive told me that he and his wife had told their grown son and daughter that they were quite proud of the nice pieces of furniture they had collected over the years. Rather than argue about which child would inherit which piece, they could now choose what they would like to have when mom and dad are gone. The son replied, “We don’t want to hurt your feelings but this isn’t our kind of furniture.” The father swallowed his pride and asked what kind of furniture they liked. They said, “We like something you don’t have to keep a lifetime, maybe something you can replace every five years or so. Stuff like IKEA or Pottery Barn.” We may have been witnessing the trend to today’s eclectic tastes in furniture and no more matchy-matchy.

Relationships

One of the strengths of the industry was the relationships between manufacturers, suppliers, reps and retailers. Many of the leading companies were family-owned, Bassett, Broyhill and Hooker to name a few plus countless retailers. Trust was a key factor. I can’t tell you how many reps have told me that their retail customers would ask them to decide which of their new introductions they should carry. Upholstery manufacturers would routinely borrow fabric from a competitor when they ran short during production. They were competitors during the day, friends over drinks or dinner in the evening.  

From what I am told, today it’s all about money and getting a “good deal.” (There is a way around this and I will get to this later.)

The unpredictable consumer

I still find it ironic that the average consumer still thinks furniture is expensive. I still have people tell me they would like to redecorate their home but just can’t afford to buy new furniture. If I begin to talk about how technology has improved the quality of furniture: stronger construction, better finishes, more durable fabrics, without significantly raising the price over the past few decades, they simply look incredulous and are really not interested in hearing any details. I pointed this out to a friend who had recently purchased an iPhone for $1,200 but was holding off on buying a new sofa because they were too expensive — a guy, by the way, who changes phones every two or three years.  

For as long as I can remember, you could safely bet that some speaker at an industry conference would ask, “What do we have to do to get our share of the consumer’s disposable dollar? Our competition is not another retailer, it’s electronics, cars, vacations, etc.” Well, we finally know the answer: have a pandemic. Of course, the irony here is that now that people are spending more time at home and wanting to purchase furniture, the pandemic has either closed or slowed down many factories in the U.S. or Asia so that demand far exceeds supply.  

Imports

Many consumers still believe China is the bad guy who undercut our prices and forced us to close many factories. For the record, I recall when Universal Furniture started importing unassembled furniture from Taiwan and assembling it in their factory in California. They were able to offer a quality product at value prices. Soon many other manufacturers were supplementing their line with goods made in Taiwan. As Taiwanese workers began demanding higher wages, many Taiwanese manufacturers moved to China seeking lower labor costs. Then, when anti-dumping tariffs were placed upon Chinese case goods the industry moved to Vietnam.

As Vietnam at first lacked the capacity to meet U.S. demand, manufacturers began seeking new and cheaper sources in Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. Currently, due to delays and increased container costs in shipping from Asia manufacturers, U.S. Manufacturers are turning to Mexico. I recall attending trade shows in Mexico back in the 90’s when Mexican manufacturers badly wanted our business but were being turned down because they could not produce our volume demands and meet delivery schedules.

I am reminded of a speaker at an industry conference at least 20 years ago who said, “Many years from now, when we have searched the four corners of the world for a source that will make our goods at a lower price we will learn that to be an industry leader you need to offer two things: first-class quality and fast delivery.” If it were not for supply issues due to the pandemic, we were well on our way to that prediction.   

Joe Carroll was publisher of Furniture Today. He is a member of the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame  

5 thoughts on “Blog: Furniture hall of famer Joe Carroll reminisces

  1. Discovering great furniture online is simpler now! Your blog gives helpful tips for buying furniture online, making it easy for anyone looking to upgrade their home.

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