Blog: New metrics needed for market success

‘Traffic is down, but orders are up’ a mantra in need of retirement

“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” — John Naisbitt, Megatrends (1982)

Recalling the gauzy experience covering the High Point furniture market, including the deadline pressures of daily print editions during that market’s four primary event days, I remember well trying to untie the Gordian knot of meaningfully gauging “success” for exhibitors on the record and ready for publication while the event was still in full swing. 

Few if any participants are willing to admit that the colossal effort to bring new product to market, woo buyers and close deals had defied all that effort and proven to be a failure, inspiring exhibitors to re-define “success” in ways that suit them (or, more simply, just send the otherwise intrepid reporter on his or her way with another innocuous quote). 

A joke in the newsroom, particularly during “down” markets, was that manufacturers and importers were reporting “traffic down, but orders up.” Fewer buyers through the doors, but enough business per buyer that against all odds, for at least that exhibitor, the down market had proven a “success.” In that quintessentially American value of declaring winners and losers, winners always abounded, and this was true in High Point, Tupelo, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Cologne, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. 

As for the “losers”? Well, a reporter with limited time has no incentive to wander into empty showrooms to conduct interviews about traffic patterns and order volume, reinforcing the false or at least superficial narrative. 

Thus, I read with interest, empathy and even nostalgia Thomas Russell’s extensive survey of exhibitors at the recent Las Vegas market, winter edition. 

His is an impossible task: To discern success or failure of a market while that market is still happening and report on that discernment in ways that help the industry make sense of what just happened. We do the same thing in academia: We ask students to do course evaluations in the 13th week of the semester, or well before the entire course has even been delivered, and weeks or even months or years before any one 18- to 21-year-old could possibly appreciate what he or she had or had not “learned” or logged enough aggregate experience with college courses to meaningfully evaluate the instructor. But that’s a column for another audience.

Between a rock and a hard place

Russell followed all the unwritten rules for attempting his Sisyphean task. He talked to major players, because with very limited time and only opportune exposure to furniture executives during their major event, the remedy to the problem of lacking empirical data or a statistically representative sample of exhibitors is to speak to enough major participants whose collective market share is substantial. He spoke with enough exhibitors to do what journalists are trained to do, which is to spot trends, patterns and phenomena that transcend the episodic or anecdotal. He got a smattering of good quotes, which is to say, quotes that say the same, old thing but in a slightly new way. And he did it all on deadline, or in real time, without the benefit of perspective or Monday morning quarterbacking. 

His lede (journalistic jargon for the first paragraph): “Case goods and upholstery resources said they were pleased overall with traffic at the winter Las Vegas Market as it gave them and their sales forces a chance to reconnect with retailers they have not have seen in some time.”

Implicit in this characterization are low expectations, one of the many enduring effects of pandemic. We all have lower expectations for basically everything, from going grocery shopping to making travel plans to exhibiting in major industry events. This is natural and even rational, but it complicates further the questionable efficacy of measuring market success (and by contrast “failure,” a word never used in any of these sorts of assessments), especially before hard data is available and knowing that hard data won’t be shared anyway. 

Todd Wanek, president and CEO at Ashley, reported that the company had a strong response to its introductions as well as in-line products that are currently shipping, a response that “exceeded expectations.” This is a characterization that Wanek could have and probably has used for every market Ashley has ever participated in on his watch, which is to say a really, really large number of markets. In fact, I’m sure Ron Wanek told me this in virtually the same words and on more than one or even several occasions in High Point two decades ago. 

It’s not useful. It doesn’t help anyone make sense of anything. For that, we would need to know precisely what Ashley’s expectations were, what “strong” means or is being compared against, and just what in those “strong” responses provided the company with intelligence regarding industry or even market trends that on the basis of which the company might make changes. 

As a supposed macro trend, to say the two largest furniture categories were “pleased overall” is also to avoid any meaningful sense of what just happened (or, because the report comes out during the market, of what is still happening). 

Again, absent are any sense of just what precisely those lower expectations were per exhibitor, how much business was, in fact, conducted or closed, and to what degree any one executive feels it necessary to justify what is a significant expense of time, resource and even lost time with respect to pulling sales reps out of the field to even “do” market. 

Like weddings or even house parties, hosts need to feel like the whole affair was successful, even a big hit. And hell hath no fury like a market scorned. I remember well phone calls from market organizers any time we reported even a hint or smell of “failure.” Do we want the functional equivalent of Instagram: A selfie of the industry having a good time, in Vegas no less, created to be shared and liked? 


Thus, even when traffic is down, perhaps significantly down, inevitably the decisions made during market, euphemistically referred to as “orders,” somehow justified the whole thing. Sociologists call this confabulation: “Knowing” something before having any evidence, then shopping for the “right” evidence to substantiate that “knowledge,” or premise. “The dress is black!” “The dress is gold!”

And after such long-term, unrelenting restrictions on face-to-face contact demanded of us by pandemic, “success” likely would require a great deal less to simply feel as though market-going was “successful,” even vital and life-giving. Recalling lunches at Vaughan-Bassett, espressos at Natuzzi, afternoon popcorn at Powell & Co., and kibitzing at the cocktail parties at Stickley, Drexel and Thomasville, I can only imagine the therapy of re-connecting with sources, customers and perhaps even reporters. These are Hallmark moments. But kibitzing doesn’t a “successful” market make. 

We need new metrics. 

We need metrics that provide apples with which we can compare to other apples, as opposed to oranges, avocados and kumquats. Market organizers sometimes report overall numbers long after the event dust has settled, but it’s just a top line number, often confused by a day or two during which the event was open to the public, or absent the unofficial visits just before the official open, usually by VIPs and (really) big customers accustomed to semi-private access and negotiation conditions. 

I’m not smart or vested enough to know what these metrics might be, but it’s not rocket science. And if enough market players saw the benefit of sharing data that would be reported only anonymously, as aggregates, they might be willing to report out more meaningful, more comparable data. Relative to other major industries, home furnishings rather infamously lacks widely available meaningful data. And we live in an increasingly Big Data-driven world. 

One last note: Nothing written here is to criticize Mr. Russell, who has a job he has to do and who did it really well (see Russell’s follow-up blog here), or Mr. Wanek, who has no incentive to cede intelligence to competitors in a public forum. But the impressionism and abstractions of this type of reporting are little more than a Hallmark card to the industry that, in really difficult conditions, everyone is doing good work. Keep it up!

Or, as another Hallmark might put it, “Get well soon!”

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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