Variety in styles and sizes mirrors the expanding section for kids
Don Bumgardner takes a walk through the showroom at Donco Trading Co in High Point, N.C. Bunk beds fill the space. But when Bumgardner looks around, he says, only somewhat in jest, that he sees “residential real estate.”
These are not your father’s bunk beds. Heck, they’re not even your bunk bed. These bunk beds have porches. They have deer blinds. They have storage. Some of Donco’s beds even have stairs. They look like little log cabins, little beach cabanas, little pink houses. They look almost spacious enough for an adult to take up residence.
“It’s kind of a new direction for us,” said Bumgardner, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based Donco. “It’s fun to do. It’s pretty cool. We’ve got all the old standards, too. But before, bunk beds were low-margin, low-profit, low-price point. And this is a way to put more profitability into kids’ furniture.”
Other makers of children’s furniture are putting out little sectional sofas, along with little armchairs and little ottomans. They’re putting out designs that would fit right in at High Point’s high-end showrooms. And they’re offering custom pieces for those in tight spaces.
“In kids’ furniture, there are key considerations that I think every retailer is going to be aware of,” said Anne Jensen, marketing director for Maxwood Furniture of Mount Pleasant, S.C. “You’ve got safety, something you’re going to be a little more concerned about than if you’re buying adult furniture. It’s got to be fun. There are style trends that we follow. But you’ve also got functionality, making sure you have enough storage, making sure the beds fit into the space you’ve got available.”
According to a 2016 study released by market research company Technavio, children’s furniture sales made up about 8 percent of the furniture industry’s revenue.
That growth shows no sign of slowing. The study also predicted a compound annual growth rate for the children’s furniture sector of 4.5 percent between 2016 and 2020. The report cited “a rise in demand for multifunctional children’s furniture” as one of the main reasons for the growth, noting that many newer items come with a good deal of storage space. Furniture intended for those between the ages of 5 and 12 made up about 62 percent of the market in the children’s furniture sector, according to the report.
Birth rates in the United States are at a 32-year low, with the number of children born falling by 2 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But demand for children’s furniture, manufacturers say, has been good over the past year.
“(Children’s furniture) is a category that’s critical, it’s something that you’ll always have people looking for,” Jensen said. “It’s an easy add-on for furniture stores. It’s just a matter of hitting the right target and price points, which is why we offer a wide selection that covers the lower, medium and higher ends. We have an option for any store out there.”
Jesse McNeese, president of the Tupelo, Miss.,-based Kangaroo Trading Company, said that, as recently as five years ago, the company did the bulk of its sales in the third and fourth quarters of the year. That’s starting to change, however.
“Now, you’re seeing more throughout the year,” he said. “You still get a spike at the end of the year, around Christmas. But we’re seeing steadier sales in the first half of the year. And a lot of that is due to the internet. Kids’ furniture is smaller, it’s easier to ship. You get a lot of people ordering birthday presents.”
And Corey Westerman, vice president at New York-based Delta Children, said the industry is even expecting a bit of a boom. “Millennials have put off having children until later in life,” he said. “But they represent the biggest demographic of consumers, and we will see a spike once they start having more kids in the coming years.”
Need for versatility
Furniture makers and retailers say that parents are looking for versatile furniture that can still be used as the child ages. At Delta Children, for example, a four-in-one crib has been selling well. It converts from a crib to a toddler bed to a daybed to a full-sized bed.
Color is important, too. Maxwood is focusing on blue right now. That might seem sexist and ignoring half the market, but Jensen disagrees. “It’s a color that works for both girls and boys,” she said. “It’s an easy-to-style color. And in the kids’ furniture space, it’s about the functionality. Blue has really done well for us and has become kind of a flagship for us for 2019.”
Francis Laufer, director of sales and design for Brooklyn, N.Y.,-based Casa Kids, said many parents, especially those who live in tight spaces in big cities, are also looking for furniture with a smaller footprint. The company, he said, does a good bit of custom work.
“New York, where we’re based, is known for its small apartments,” he said. “When you’re trying to fit as many kids as you can in the smallest space, you have a need for small, low-profile furniture. With our custom work, we help families work around their small angled rooms.”
He also said more people are casting an eye toward sustainability.
“People like to know that they’re getting a good quality product that’s safe on the environment, that they can use for years,” he said. “We use, for example, Baltic birch plywood, where they replant the trees that they take. And there’s very little waste in the way it’s made. It’s a harder plywood.”
Casa Kids produces a line of furniture with light finishes and simple Scandinavian-inspired designs. The company doesn’t deal much with themes, though it recently began producing a graffiti-inspired bed that was designed in collaboration with artist Katie Merz. It features engravings of motifs that, as the company’s website explains, recall “Egyptian hieroglyphics, to Pre-Columbian inscriptions, to Roman friezes, to the carvings of medieval cathedrals, all the way to New York graffiti, and even body tattoos.”
Laufer said the company also draws ideas from its own customers.
“We have families come into our shop, and families will make suggestions to Roberto (Gil, owner of the company),” Laufer said. “And he’ll listen to what families are looking for, what they don’t have but wish they had. And by interacting with customers on a personal basis, we are able to adapt and modify our designs to really fit what the consumer is looking for.”
Rough and tumble
More than objects of play, Lindsey Christian said, furniture offers kids a chance to emulate mom and dad.
“Kids look at their parents, and they want to be like them,” she said. “They can sit in this (miniature armchair) and be like mom and dad. This gives them their own little space to feel special.”
Christian is a designer at Kangaroo Trading Company, which offers furniture for both small children and tweens.
Among the items she was showing off during the High Point Market in April was a line of miniature sectional sofas. Because they are made of foam, the pieces are lightweight but sturdy.
“The kids can rearrange it and do whatever little designs they feel like playing with that day,” she said. “If they’ve got friends over, they can all line up down through there. And you can take the covers off and wash them, because they’re not attached to a wood frame. You can just take it off, wash it and go again.”
Bumgardner from Donco said more often it’s “the kids doing the shopping” when the family heads out to the furniture store.
“You put up a little children’s department in your store and the kids will migrate to it,” he said. “It’s like a playground in the store. It keeps the kids out of mom and dad’s hair while they’re looking at sofas and dinettes. And then the kids lead the parents to the items they want.”
Lately, Bumgardner said, kids’ furniture has taken on more of a distressed look, which holds up well to the sort of wear and tear children might inflict. He likens some of the beds he sells to playhouses.
“You can hide in there,” he said. “We’ve got low lofts with slides. They can climb, slide down. We try to make it look old, so if it gets scratched, it looks like it belongs on there.”
Jensen said the products in Maxwood’s Maxtrix line for kids are made from hardwood.
“The reason why that has done so well over the years is that no matter how much horseplay happens, that product will look new,” she said. “And that’s important to parents. With larger families, especially, they may hand down their bedroom sets to younger siblings. So, there are multiple kids who go through a product.”