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The Dirty Little Secret of the Furniture Business

Did you know there was an Ernest Hemingway collection of furniture? Or one inspired by Disney for kids? How about Oscar de la Renta? Ever see one of his sofas? The list of celebrity names and well-known designers from other fields is seemingly endless when it comes to furniture. It’s also pretty much totally irrelevant.

The furniture business, like so many consumer product categories retailers sell, has forever been drawn to famous names. Be they TV stars, fashion icons, athletes (?) or just plain old celebrities famous for being famous, the industry has been putting their names and likenesses on its sofas, bedroom sets and credenzas for much of the past 50 years.

The recently completed High Point Market, the leading wholesale trade show for furniture located in central North Carolina, was no exception. One could visit many of the thousands – yes, thousands – of companies that show in its 10 million or so square feet of exhibition space – yes, 10 million – and come across an endless array of both new and existing collections with a well-known individual’s name. This market alone saw the introduction of new programs from HGTV stars like Hillary Farr (Love It or List It), Libby Langdon (NBC Today among other shows) and successful celebrity businesswoman Kathy Ireland who got her start in the Sports Illustrated swimwear issues. More long-running famous names could be found elsewhere in the sprawling market complex, including talk show icon Ellen DeGeneres, TV’s Property Brothers Jonathon and Drew Scott and such perennials as Ralph Lauren and Joanna Gaines of Magnolia Home and TV’s Fixer Upper fame.

Phantom Fame

The list goes way beyond just these names, but you get the picture: the furniture business loves names popularized elsewhere that they can place on their products and programs.

And while they were everywhere in High Point, they will end up being practically nowhere once you leave the city limits. And that’s not because the products won’t sell many of these programs are huge sellers and have been so for years.

It’s just that once these products hit the retail selling floor, the celebrity branding seems to vanish. Yes, you may find it on a hang tag on a sofa or on a plaque inside a dresser drawer but the big splashy in-store point-of-sale promotional efforts you see for so many other brands in so many other product classifications are virtually non-existent in stores.

It’s a fascinating dynamic that at least partially defies explanation. You can understand some of it by the way furniture stores display their products: often by category rather than brand. Sofas are shown together, recliners are lined up in rows and all the dining room sets are in another part of the store. It’s the way most people shop for furniture, so it makes sense when you think about it: shoppers want a new bedroom set, not a house full of Ellen.

But many retailers have found a way around this buying dynamic, perhaps by setting up a cross-merchandised shop in addition to the product-specific displays. Heaven knows most furniture stores are big enough for at least one or two of these to act as focal points on the selling floor.

But it almost never happens. Ralph Lauren tried it when the designer who practically invented the concept of cross-merchandised lifestyle shops first got into the business. But retailers resisted and where you see Lauren or Polo branded product on the floor now, you would never know it unless you really lifted a lot of sofa cushions. Even the so-called lifestyle stores like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and CB2, which are increasingly using third party-branded programs and have a heritage of cross-merchandising on the selling floor, can’t seem to get it right. The products may be adjacent to each other, but you just don’t see the high-profile point-of-sale signage, banners and displays one might expect from them.

Unbranded

Ironically, the retailers that are trying to reverse this trend come from the mass merchandiser ranks. Target, which has an exclusive on some Magnolia Home products, has been successful showing all of it together in a pad adjacent to the home aisles. Likewise, Kohl’s, which has just introduced the Scott Brothers program into its stores, has a nice display just inside its store entrances for the program and then groups many of the products together in the back of the store as well.

When one goes online, the picture gets better and most retailers will call out their celebrity and/or designer brands more prominently but still one often has to search around to find them. And once you get on their landing page, you often see the same static template of products stacked up in the same grid as non-branded products. It’s amazing how few sites even use a picture of what should be attention-getting familiar faces on their pages.

As the home furnishings customer gets ever more sophisticated and celebrities – especially from HGTV and other home-centric TV shows – are used more often for branding, this disconnect from wholesale showroom level (not to mention national advertising in print and online) to retail selling floor will likely continue.

This lack of promoting the very brands that could drive business remains the furniture industry’s dirty little secret…emphasis on the word “secret.”

Warren Shoulberg once spent half an hour looking for a Ralph Lauren sofa on a department store selling floor. He knew it was there…somewhere.

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