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Summing Up High Point

October 26, 2009

In reviewing my notes and observations, these developments stand out:

Interior designers
 are most important to the high end of the home furnishings business. As creators of upscale home products, as specifiers, and as buyers for their clients, they are the seducers who have long occupied and energized the upper ranks of the industry

Only the most recent and current include Jacques Garcia, Tony Duquette,  Barbara Barry (most recently at Henredon), to name but a handful of an army of creators Baker Furniture has recruited over the years. Larry Laslo and, soon, David Eastman for Ferguson Copeland, Thomas O’Brien, Alexa Hampton, Marietta Himes Gomez and Suzanne Kasler at Hickory Chair, Richard Frinier at Century, Lillian August starting with Drexel Heritage now designs for Hickory White. And that’s a very incomplete list.

How far interior designers have come to influence the industry is evident in the same names popping up in other product categories. For fine designer rugs, Safavieh has cornered five of the designers mentioned above and will shortly add Jamie Drake. Many of the same designers also create lighting for Vision Comfort and/or are designing home textiles for Kravet, Robert Allen and Harry Hinson, among others.

Granted, these are all up-market sources and not all sell their products to home furnishings retailers, although some do and others maintain and manage their own retail stores, among them Marietta Himes Gomez, Lillian August, Charlotte Moss and Thomas O’Brien.

Customization: Never before have more choices been offered within one and the same collections of both case goods and upholstery. Whether changes in dimensions, woods, finishes or hardware, they are all offered within a company’s proprietary vocabulary of decorative elements. That’s a revolutionary change for the industry and is directly attributable to interior designers who know and understand how one and the same product can be varied to become virtually one-of-a-kind for each individual client.

In upholstery, customization is, today, taken for granted. From the frames, which may be manipulated, to greatly expanded fabric lines, the choices have never been more plentiful. Solid fabrics in particular, the linens, velvets, faux suedes, silks, are often offered in up to 50 colors (Pearson is just one example) and more to be used on their own or in expected as well as unexpected combination with wovens or prints. LaneVenture took its Raymond Waites upholstery line one step further by simplifying pricing for retailers with a set fixed price range within to choose frames, sizes and treatments.

Celebrities to the Rescue: Typically below the top tier price range are celebrity designers, or, often more accurately, endorsers of new home products. Among those who actually design are Candice Olson of HGTV fame and Thom Filicia of TV’s "Dress My Nest." Both are active in several product categories: furniture, rugs, home textiles and bedding. And let’s not forget Martha Stewart, who built her design celebrity the hard way: she earned it.

Fashion designers were the first group of industry outsiders to try and open manufacturers’ and retailers’ eyes to understanding what consumers want and need. Above all, that’s attractive, sometimes even glamorous, comfortable and fashion-right product and usefulness. Among those who made their mark: Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Liz Claiborne, Nautica, Jessica McClintock and now, Ralph Lauren for both E.J. Victor and Lauren for Schnadig - all took their turn in teaching and practicing eclecticism versus suite marketing, which, in spite of their efforts, still persists in the ranks of some stubborn retailers who refuse to adjust to a more enlightened consumer who’s bypassing them.

Those who should be considered endorsers include ex-models Kathy Ireland, Cindy Crawford, B. Smith and, undoubtedly, more to come. Also TV personalities, such as Jaclyn Smith, and writers, such as Frances Mays (“Under the Tuscan Sun”), not to mention the indomitable Donald Trump.

Continuing as catalysts for new collections are historic sites: Biltmore, St. Simeon, Williamsburg, Giverny, the Claude Monet Museum, Althorp and the Museum of New Mexico.

Shelter magazines “Better Homes & Gardens” and “Country Living” are doing their share to their experience in Lifestyle Merchandising.

What, do you wonder, have all of these people and places in common and why does the industry need them to design, promote and market their wares?

If you connect the dots, there is one very simple answer: all of them have direct contact with the consumer - either because they deal with them every day, or, they have made the virtual connection via apparel consumers buy, shelter magazines they read, TV and runway shows they watch, and design destinations they visit.

Altogether, these influences take away customers from brick-and-mortar retailers who fail to draw consumers to their stores with innovative, exciting product and in-store presentations and services that prove irresistible. Just exactly how many Bloomingdale’s, Crate & Barrels and Robb & Stuckey’s are there? You can count them on one hand.

Far too many continue to live in denial and seek refuge in ever deeper discounts and hide their failure behind the recession. When the recession is finally over, hold-out retailers for the same old, same old will not only fall further behind but will face extinction.

Which brings me back to the direct-to-consumer connection. Watch ecommerce fill the void. Already, 5% of all purchases in the US are transacted over the Internet, a figure set to double by 2012. Furniture retailers take note.