Not in furniture, where neutral fabrics still reign
For decades industry pundits described furniture store floors as a sea of brown, bemoaning the lack of excitement due to a preponderance of dark wood furnishings in largely traditional styles. (Think 18th century and a fascination with a certain French king). These days the tide has turned, and store floors are less brown and more a sea of beige. And no one can point the finger at casegoods.
Retailers say soft, neutral colors are entrenched in showrooms across the country, though not everyone is happy with the trend. HFA member Dorian Stacy Sims, president of Stacy Furniture & Design with stores in in Grapevine, Allen, and Plano, Texas, says, “I’m trying my best to change it, but if you walked into my stores this very minute, that’s what you would see: a variety of neutrals.”
“I think you probably have a quote from me about 30 years ago regarding the ‘Gap’-ing of America,” Ronna Griest, design director at better-end upholstered furniture maker Paul Robert, sighs. “Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and the rest of the specialty stores taught consumers how easy it is to decorate with neutral fabrics on their furniture, using color as an accent…the pillows, the rug, the wall décor.”
Even at national retailer Calico Corners, which offers some 7,500 fabrics at its 75 stores for use in everything from top of bed to window treatments, fabric buyer Jennifer Mayer admits the company has a lot of neutral colors—especially in furniture fabric. “In fact,” says Mayer, “our top five fabrics are all different shades of beige. It’s the way people are living now. They like to keep their sofas, the bigger upholstered pieces, neutral, adding pops of color with their window treatments and their side chairs and pillows.”
But Sims suggests that the lack of color and pattern on store floors may have as much to do with what the industry offers, as current consumer decorating preferences. “In Texas we have a huge population and lot of different age brackets and incomes and we definitely need a variety of collections, but we’re limited in what we can offer in both case goods and upholstery because, like we so often do in our industry, we’ve over-corrected once again. For us, specifically at the starting price points, I need product that can ship quickly because that customer doesn’t want to wait. You can get it, but everybody is doing these two- and three-version cut-and-sew kits in three different versions of gray or beige. We’re wanting to see some blues and some color, just something different.”
Griest, long known for her ability to read the marketplace, as well as her fashion sense, theorizes that this is a more important issue for brick-and-mortar stores than many may realize. “It’s crazy that people buy upholstered furniture online, but they do. And I think it has something to do with what they see online, which are often pieces from companies that we don’t even think of as being in the upholstered furniture business. They are often decorative accessories people who are selling accent chairs and dining room chairs and other pieces and parts of a room that are fashionable and stylish, and yes, colorful.”
In other words, options they may not be finding in stores. “We are giving away categories to people who are willing to sell options we don’t show,” Griest says.
“While it’s still a variety of neutrals whether we like it or not, we are seeing customers who are embracing color now,” Sims says, and she believes adding more color to store floors has growth potential at the high-end. “The designers can help communicate with clients who may not be confident enough to work with color and pattern. I personally miss prints, and I’m finally starting to see them coming back from the mills, but it seems that by the time they get diluted down through the manufacturers and the number of fabrics they carry, they never make it to us.”
Choosing a Path
Preston Matthews at Brown Squirrel in Knoxville, Tenn., is in the midst of another expansion with the help of retail strategist Connie Post that will take his store to 90,000-square-feet. “When you have a store with as many slots as we do—185 when complete—you really have to watch how you merchandise. When you’ve got a footprint this big, you can’t stock everything, because the warehouse simply couldn’t hold it.”
Matthews partnered with England on a special-order gallery program that is “already producing $450 per square foot. People want their own special style that no one else has. They want special order, but they don’t want to wait four to six weeks, or eight to 10 or longer. But they don’t mind waiting 14 days, which is what we offer on custom-order upholstery with England. The program has evolved over the last three years and it’s growing, and growing, and growing.”
Matthews said his store offers more than 125 styles, so they might show 40 different frames on their floor, but offer multiple configurations on each SKU, and all in 600 fabrics and leathers, and available in a consumer’s home in 14 days or less. “That’s something that the online business world simply cannot do,” Matthews said.
Customers are pre-sold before they walk in the store. “We have banners promoting the program in our parking lot and lots of point-of-purchase throughout the gallery explaining the process so if a customer is not walking with a salesperson there is a lot of information at hand. It really creates a lot of interest,” says Matthews.
“Salespeople can direct customers to a large digital screen in the middle of the gallery to show them how the fabric drapes over the frame so they can visualize it before purchase,” he says. “There are a lot of companies doing that, but not at the level England is, and it really enables us to engage and connect with the customers. In fact, after three years of doing this, we have never had a single bad review from a customer about their experience.”
Keith Koenig, chief executive at HFA member City Furniture, with 19 stores in Florida, found himself frustrated years ago with the custom-order conundrum.
“We’re all about same-day delivery or next-day delivery, so delivering a sofa weeks later is contrary to where our head is at,” he explains. “Now, we have Ashley stores, and I think Ashley is the best furniture manufacturer in the world, but people would go to our Ashley HomeStore and see sectional XYZ and say, ‘Oh, I like that sectional. Does it come in other colors?’ Or, ‘Can I change the pillows?’ And as a merchant, I would say, ‘You know, pillows are really a small part of the deal, you can switch pillows, or you can buy a different pillow and put it on there,’ but you know what? The customer didn’t get it. They’d walk on to the next sofa hoping to find themselves inspired by the whole thing.”
The executive’s solution to the problem was to start his own state-of-the-art upholstery factory in New Albany, Miss., calling the brand Kevin Charles (in honor of his late brother). The Kevin Charles brand allows City Furniture the flexibility to respond to the customer’s needs of value, style, and quick availability.
“We’re not the cheapest in the world, but we do make a really good quality product and we can merchandise it to the customer in ways that I don’t know anybody else is doing,” Koenig says.
Via the factory, Koenig is now able to stock multiple SKUs in three to four fabrics with three to four pillows. “So, you can come in and literally pick out the sectional you want in one of the fabrics you like, and thanks to the pillow display we created, pick out the pillows you want and get it delivered tonight,” he says.
For now, however, neutral reigns supreme in home furnishings, particularly at lower price points. But as consumers push for more pop in their upholstery, retailers who meet that demand are the ones who will differentiate themselves from the masses—and benefit the most.