Upholstery Goes Upscale

July2019_Product Focus-cover story featured imageStyle, comfort and functionality still lead the list when consumers are looking for upholstery.

Storage, reversible chaises – even fur – are finding their way into the category

Despite uncertainty over trade policy, the forecast for upholstered furniture remains positive.

“I think we’ll have a pretty good year,” said Jerry Epperson, a furniture industry analyst and managing director at research firm Mann, Armistead and Epperson in Richmond, Va. “We’ll probably end up with a four to five percent increase in sales once we get a trade agreement with China signed and some other things sorted out.”

That forecast – made before a flare-up in trade tensions in early May – includes increased demand for power motion items, eye-popping designs and eco-friendly materials.

“From what we’ve seen in upholstery, people are also looking for more curvy shapes,” said designer Tina Nicole, co-founder of furniture-maker Nathan Anthony, based in Vernon, Ca. “Things like rounded-back chairs, that are more artfully crafted, things that soften up the space and bring more character and personality. People are also looking more for high fashion or high-contrast patterns, big statement pieces, but still with a soft look.”

Motion Furniture
Motion furniture is no longer a novelty in upholstery – it’s here to stay.

Upholstered items are responsible for 16 percent of global furniture sales, according to “Upholstered Furniture: World Market Outlook 2019,” a report released by the Centre for Industrial Studies research firm. The upholstered sector is valued at about $70 billion.

In the United States, according to the report, upholstered items make up about 20 percent of furniture sales, generating about $17 billion. Imports accounted for about $7 billion of that.

The report also noted that upholstered furniture sales grew by 23 percent worldwide between 2008 and 2017, with Asia responsible for much of that growth.

Speaking earlier this year, Epperson said many consumers were waiting for “some things to clear up” before making decisions on big purchases.

“Certain things, like housing, have been slow, but we’re seeing some signs that things in the spring will get a little bit better,” he said. “But it’s still a deferrable purchase, especially if you think you might owe taxes, instead of getting a nice refund like you did last year.”

Because of changes in withholding over the past year, many people were concerned they would receive a smaller refund and held off on making spending plans. Ultimately, Internal Revenue Service figures showed only a slight decrease in average refunds.

Within the industry, upholstery manufacturers, as well as retailers, were keeping an eye on trade negotiations with China. Last year, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office made plans to levy a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of goods from China. That was put on hold twice as U.S. and Chinese officials tried to work out a broad trade deal. It appeared they were making progress until early May, when President Donald Trump accused the Chinese of back-tracking on agreements and began escalating tariffs and making further threats. China responded with threats of its own. Nevertheless, negotiations continued, creating a chance that everything could be settled favorably before much more damage is done.

Sarah Hughey of American Signature says consumers are moving from neutrals to bold colors.

“There’s been mass confusion,” Epperson said even before the latest flurry. “A lot of manufacturers are having to eat that tariff, and it’s just added to cost. Also, a lot of fabrics come from China these days. And a lot of times they (furniture manufacturers) are buying pre-cut frames, and a lot of these are coming from overseas. Even if the upholstery is assembled in the U.S., it’s still being impacted.”

Epperson said he sees plenty of opportunity for smaller-scale pieces.

“We’ve let much of our upholstery get too big,” he said. “And I think, especially young people need something that’s a little more space-friendly. Last year, you saw a 24 percent increase in town homes. And town homes aren’t necessarily small. But the furnishings tend to need to be smaller for that. We’ve been in an apartment building boom. They tend to be smaller. A big sofa doesn’t do you any good if you can’t put it in the room for which it’s intended.”

Power motion upholstery, which allows people to adjust footrests, headrests and the like at the touch of a button has also been selling well lately, Epperson said.

“When people see the new power motion items demonstrated, they love that,” he said. “That’s taking square footage on floors from other products. There’s the novelty, and there’s the comfort. And then you step up to power headrest and the lighted drink holders, and then the other features. It’s a good way to step the consumer up with features and benefits. For a few more dollars, you can get this. For a few more dollars, you can get that.”

Nicole, of Nathan Anthony, said designers have been getting away from the Scandinavian Hygge look, which emphasized a sense of coziness.

 “We’re seeing some high-contrast patterns, like orange and blue, or yellow and green, or yellow and blue, along with geometric prints,” she said. “I see that designers are pairing rich hues, like blues, forest greens and ox blood with pink and gray.”

Sarah Hughey, upholstery merchant for American Signature and Value City Furniture, said lately there has also been a shift toward “glam” products.

“Fur is a new staple in upholstery,” she said. “Anything with velvet, anything with fur is getting a lot of traction. Anything that feels a little more over the top, that’s what we use to define glam.”

She said the upholstery sector has also had success with functionality.

“Unique storage options, storage ottomans, storage chaises and especially slipcovers have been very popular,” Hughey said. “We also have reversible chaises, so if a customer is moving, she can move her sofa around to fit how she wants to design her room. We know also that people are constantly looking to update their space, especially heading into spring cleaning. … And we’re seeing a lot of millennials gravitate toward bench seats. We have a style called the Ethan. They’re very clean looking. It’s easy to take a nap on them on a lazy Saturday afternoon.”

Sawyer Upholstery reflects the curvy look consumers are attracted to in the category.

Kristin Drohan, founder and chief executive officer of Kristin Drohan Designs in Atlanta, said caramel and cooler undertones of brown, as well as blues, have been popular.

“Blue has always been a favorite color,” she said. “And there are so many variants of it. I see a lot of navy, some turquoise undertones. We’re even seeing a lot of the lighter powder blue. And I just think it goes with a lot of things. And there are just so many different tones which have broad appeal.”

Customers are also seeking out more eco-friendly materials.

 “People are really starting to take notice of what’s in their furniture,” Drohan said. “Now I’m seeing chemical sensitivity coming to light more and more. There’s always been a little bit of a niche business for that, but you go on Instagram now, you see the hashtag #chemicalfree. I do see in general that that is becoming more popular for millennials and Gen Z, who are really excited about that.”

Among other things, she uses soy-based foam, sustainably grown wood, and organic fiber fabrics in her designs.

 Nicole said Nathan Anthony avoids adding any chemicals to the furniture it makes.

“Right now, people are conscious about making sure the manufacturing processes are clean,” she said. “They’re aware of the environment. It’s not so much talked about all the time, but it is something people are passionate about. And we use recycled springs also, wood from sustainably harvested forests. We have tried reducing our waste products.”

Demand has also been good in the custom field, Drohan said.

“I think people are starting to value handmade construction,” she said. “People really need the option to customize upholstery. I think we will see people seeking longevity and higher quality in their upholstery.”

Nicole said customers want to “put their own spin on things.”

“They want to put their own personality into what they’re getting, maybe based on what they’ve seen on social media or magazines,” she said. “But people are going more toward that hand-crafted authenticity, more artful pieces. I think they’re making more informed decisions. They want to work more with designers, who can give their homes more personality. And they want something that’s more long-lasting.”

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About the Author

Robert Lopez
Robert Lopez is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C. A native Hoosier, he spent 12 years as a daily newspaper reporter and has written for a number of publications around the country. He can be reached at roberto.lopez79@gmail.com.