Colin Wong, left, West Coast sales director for MLily USA, gives sales presentation in the showroom to Isabelle and Steve Sayler (in white shirt), owners of Modern Home Furniture in Everett, Wash. Also pictured is Charlie Wong of MLily.
By Larry Thomas
Special to Furniture Today
LAS VEGAS — Amid business conditions described with superlatives such as “robust,” “off the charts” and “gangbusters,” a subdued and lightly attended Las Vegas Market generated heavy order-writing from the buyers who did show up, and it gave exhibitors and market organizers hope that furniture markets were not becoming an anachronism.
The event, which was the home furnishing industry’s first major market since the onset of the pandemic, took place without the usual fanfare of parties, celebrity appearances, ribbon cuttings and high-profile product launches. Alcohol was banned from the World Market Center campus, and the few showrooms that did serve food had to use pre-packaged snacks and box lunches.
And of course, everyone had to wear a mask covering their nose and mouth, with reminders on signage throughout the property and “mask monitors” who roamed the campus.
Officials with International Market Centers, which owns the WMC, AmericasMart in Atlanta and about 60% of the showroom space in High Point, said about 40% of the WMC permanent showrooms were open. Buyer attendance was about 20% of what it was at the summer 2019 market, and more than three-fourths of those buyers were from the western United States, primarily California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Texas.
Those don’t sound like big numbers to people used to attending traditional markets with crowded elevators, long registration lines and traffic jams, but IMC President Bob Maricich said the event will serve as a blueprint for operating markets safely in the future.
“We probably spent twice as much money (getting ready for market) for 20% of the crowd, but I’m very proud of our team for developing all the safety protocols and enforcing them,” Maricich said. “Being the first event in Las Vegas in a long time, we’re being watched very carefully by everyone from the local health department to the governor’s task force.”
Added Dorothy Belshaw, IMC’s executive vice president and chief marketing and digital officer, “We now know what it takes to put on a market safely. It’s really about getting back to business as usual.”
IMC officials and exhibitors agreed that business probably won’t be returning to “normal” anytime soon but said the home furnishings business at retail is booming as consumers continue to spend a higher percentage of their discretionary income on their home.
“For the past three months, our business has been triple the usual level. We’re doing everything we can to increase capacity,” said Steve Lush, president of leather upholstery resource Kuka Home North America. “It has been phenomenal.”
He said demand has been particularly strong for motion furniture and anything with casual styling. Plus, buyers showed increased interest in mixed media items such as stationary leather sofas that have wood or metal legs.
Lush said showroom traffic at market was very light, but few, if any buyers left without writing an order, a sentiment echoed by most other exhibitors.
“Everyone wants to know what we have in stock that can be shipped right away,” said Bill Dominguez, vice president of research, development and international operations for full-line resource New Classic. “Demand is strong across all categories.”
That made order-writing a given, he said, noting that few buyers who walked into the New Classic showroom left without placing an order. “One of our reps wrote an order for 18 containers,” Dominguez noted. “That made it worthwhile to come to market right there.”
He said he was not surprised by the low attendance, but he said the company felt it was important to open the showroom during market because so many retail customers need inventory. Many customers told him how much they appreciate the company’s presence.
Caroline Hipple, president of custom upholstery producer Norwalk Furniture agreed, noting that her company has its biggest backlog ever but is still able to ship its custom products within 35 days.
“We didn’t really know what to expect at market, but we felt it was important for us to be here. Just showing up is a big deal in times like this,” she said. “But we’ve had a few customers in here just about all the time. There is a lot of awful out there, but there also is a lot of good.”
Virtual and in person
Several exhibitors said they spent a considerable time at market working through virtual appointments, which involved giving a customer a showroom tour via a cellphone or tablet.
“We had more virtual appointments than ever.” said Serena Martin, marketing manager at decorative accessories resource Sagebrook Home. “Some of them have taken one or two hours.”
Although she believes buyers gradually will start to feel comfortable traveling to in-person market, she expects virtual markets to continue to increase in importance. “The technology is advancing rapidly, and people are getting more familiar with it,” Martin said.
Sagebrook Home was one of the few exhibitors with a heavy load of product introductions — some 700 in all — but many exhibitors said they felt it was important focus on in-line goods that can be shipped quickly since many retailers appear to be low on inventory.
“We’re here, and we have stock. That’s our message,” said Hoekun Lee, vice president of sales at case good resource Sunny Designs. “Business is still strong, and consumers are still spending money, so the biggest issue right now is inventory.”
Luis Ruesga, president of full-line resource Zuo Modern, agreed, noting that pinch-points in the supply chain such as raw materials shortages and transportation problems are the only things that could hurt business in the short- and medium term.
In early 2020, he said it cost $1,200 to $1,800 to ship a container of goods from Asia to the West Coast. That same container now costs upwards of $4,500 to ship, if container space can be found.
“It’s getting to the point where the shipping is more expensive than the sofas inside of it,” he said.
At market, he said Zuo had dozens of virtual appointments with dealers, and the showroom also had a number of in-person appointments and walk-ins. And in virtually each instance, the customer needed product as quickly as possible.
“There definitely is a need for product, all across the board,” Ruesga said. “I applaud the IMC for trying to put on this market. They didn’t just give up on it.”
Chuck Reilly, executive vice president of full-line resource AICO, said demand for the long-running Michael Amini-Jane Seymour collection remains strong, as does demand for the much newer Michael Amini-Kathy Ireland line.
“Traffic obviously wasn’t at the level we usually see here, but we had a steady flow of customers,” he said. “We’ve got product available, and that’s mostly what people are looking for.”
Marshall Evans III, senior manager at upholstery importer Leather Italia, said the company’s strong relationships with its Chinese suppliers has paid off as business has spiked in recent months. The factories are giving priority to Leather Italia production, and as a result, the company has worked through its backlog and was writing orders at market.
“We didn’t bail on our factory partners when the tariffs were added, and now it’s paying off,” he said.
Bedding players on tap
Las Vegas typically is the nation’s premiere bedding market, with producers promoting their showrooms heavily through banners on the sides of WMC buildings and product displays on the courtyard. Except for a single display by specialty bedding supplier MLily USA, none of that was evident here, and the majority of bedding showrooms were closed.
But at least two producers that did open their showrooms — Magniflex and Diamond Mattress — unveiled new boxed bedding products, while and Intellibed rolled out a lower-priced lineup of mattresses with its signature Gel Matrix cushioning.
“We had low expectations about market, but we needed to be here,” said Intellibed CEO Colin House. “Business has been good, and people need product.”
House said the new Gelee line has price points of $1,499 to $2,999 in queen, which is more than $1,000 below its traditional lineup.
Magniflex’ boxed entry was an Italian-made mattress called Gino that can be set up and ready for use in nine minutes, while Diamond rolled out five bed-in-box collections, from the popular hybrids to all-foam constructions, and featuring natural and organic materials, GOLS certified organic latex, Diamond’s patented zoned and nested coils system, phase-change material foams and CoolTouch fabric covers. All new mattresses carry a 20-year warranty and are shippable nationwide.
“Our business is up 30%, but we’re still able to deliver on time because of our vertical integration,” said Patrick Wolf, Diamond Mattress vice president of sales and education.
Billy Curtright, national sales manager at Magniflex USA, said the boxed bed already has been a hit in the e-commerce channel, and several dealers at market were interested in adding it to their online offerings.
“Business has been on a slow, steady climb since states ended their lockdowns,” Curtright said. “Nearly all of our dealers have re-opened.”
Stephen Chen, president of MLily USA, said his company recorded record-breaking sales the past three months, and its factory in South Carolina, which has been open less than a year, is already operating at capacity. A second U.S. factory in Arizona will be open by the end of this year.
“We’re really happy where we are right now,” Chen said. “All of our retail, OEM and private-label products are being made domestically, and people at market seem to appreciate that.”