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October 21st, 2009 - Pamela A. Grady

Furniture industry adapts as recession-hit consumers seek value, practicality

When housing sales slowed in late 2008, one of the first retail sectors affected was the furniture industry. A slowdown in residential construction led to fewer buyers in the market for home furnishings.

When housing sales slowed in late 2008, one of the first retail sectors affected was the furniture industry. A slowdown in residential construction led to fewer buyers in the market for home furnishings.

Consumers began portraying a more cautious spending behavior, with some simply living with less.

Bruno's Home Furnishing's President Gina Bruno says she's seen a big difference in the way people are spending, adding that she believes consumers have been reluctant to spend money, taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I think people stopped shopping at first," she says. "It's been a tough year. But I also think people are tired of hearing about the doom and gloom, and are just ready for things to get back to normal."

From a business owner's perspective, she says she believes the recession has forced many of them to look at the way they operate and how they can differentiate themselves from the competition. She has evaluated her own marketing strategies and her company's overall product choice that fills the store's 35,000 square feet.

"We've had to regroup and figure out what has worked in the past and what we think will work in the future," Bruno says. "We've taken a look at the overall product choice that we have, and we've brought in probably less expensive items that are still high-quality items, but more affordable."

Bruno says her store has always offered traditional furnishings, but she's also offering more contemporary accessories and diversified and transitional products.

Jeff and Sherry Burt, who in 1976 took over Jeff Burt's parents' furniture business - Suburban Contemporary Furnishings, 201 N Portland Ave. - says his company is known for its focus on contemporary furniture. He says his store looks different than a lot of other furniture stores in the metro area, as well as across the country, and he strives to keep it that way.

Burt says while he's fortunate that Oklahoma City hasn't felt the downturn in business as much as other cities around the country, he is committed to making sure his store remains competitive.

Three years ago, the Burts joined Contemporary Design Group, a group of independently owned contemporary stores that get together once a year for a five-day conference to discuss their specialty industry. Topics range from different product lines offered and new buyers in the market to advice on marketing, customer service and industry trends.

"We get different input from people to make better decisions," Burt says, adding the group has storeowners from San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City and many other cities who have been affected by the economy. "A lot of those places, it's really tough right now."

For the most part, Burt says he receives a lot of repeat business from customers who have been buying from his store for years, even decades. He says 2007 was the best year his store had seen.

"And in 2008, we had that beat all year until December and the first few months of 2009," he says.

Bruno says her designers are kept busy painting, moving furniture around and adding "unique" merchandise to her store.

"When people are ready to shop, they don't want to come back to your store and have it be the same as when they were here a year ago," she says. "They want it to be new and exciting."

What do they want?
Burt says consumers are looking for value, comfort and affordability in their purchases, and furnishings that will hold up for a longer period of time. And they're willing to spend more on a piece as an investment if it's made better and will last longer.

"When all of the Chinese product came onto the market a few years back, well, it was so inexpensive because of the labor that you couldn't compete with a North American or European-made product," he says, "because people would just buy the Chinese version of the product. But, we're getting away from the throwaways - buying a sofa for $499 and a few years later buying another one."

Consumers also are becoming more conscious about purchasing goods made in North America or "going green" by selecting furnishings that are made from recycled metals and woods.

During difficult economic times, people seem to put off that big family vacation, or they're home more and want to do more things with their residence, such as selecting comfortable pieces in their family room or home theater. For the longest time, that meant individual recliners and theater seating, but Burt says that's transitioned to people putting in big sofas and "things that they can curl up with the kids, the dog, and the whole family is there together watching a movie."

He's also seeing innovative furnishings trends that lean toward loft living.

Bruno and Burt both say consumers most certainly are looking at price.

"I think you have to give people more of an incentive to shop, and we've definitely been on sale for probably a year," Bruno says.

Same with Burt. This year marks Suburban Contemporary Furnishings' 50th anniversary, and recently the Burts brought in Michael Payne from HGTV's "Designing for the Sexes" to visit with consumers. The couple also has been running a 50% off sale throughout 2009 to celebrate the store's half-century in business.

Both agree they believe conditions are turning around in the industry, as both stores saw a rise in sales during the month of July.

"I think if you have the money, it's a great time to buy a house," Bruno says. "I think the trend will come back to the furnishings because once they get a new home and get established, then they'll go shop again."

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