Focus on fit & function

Consumers are getting more sensible and savvy about their real furniture needs, according to this year’s Better Homes & Gardens/ HFD survey of consumers and leading retailers.

They’re looking for space-saving furniture for smaller living areas. And they’d like to find more compact wall storage systems, down-sized upholstered chairs for living and family rooms, and much smaller scale dining room furniture.

Everything has to be more functional as well. Multipurpose home entertainment centers in many styles, higher-quality sleeper sofas, and motion furniture–particularly recliners–are in demand. There’s more interest in “premium’ sleep products, and excitement about flotation sleep too.

The BH&G survey for 1985, based on responses from 416 consumer readers, shows that more people look at decorating as a major investment today. In fact, survey respondents ranked furniture as the second most important discretionary purchase after cars, taking precedence over vacations and boats. Burdine’s Linda Martin, director of design, confirmed that “consumers now buy furniture the same way they purchase a home.’

Shoppers are doing a lot more homework when they buy furniture. They’re shopping around more, reading shelter magazines, scanning catalogs, and writing away for manufacturers’ literature.

Also, the male influence in furniture purchase decisions is stronger than ever. According to the BH&G survey, it’s a joint decision for eight out of 10 couples. “The wife used to make the decision. But we’re seeing more younger couples selecting furniture together. It’s a big purchase for these couples,’ said Manny Stratos, divisional merchandising manager of furniture for Hess’s in Allentown, Pa.

Stores like Glick’s in Columbus, Ohio, are adjusting their hours to meet the needs of these joint decision makers. “We now have early morning sales and later ones too,’ said Ronald Blank, executive vice president.

These assure young buyers shop around for furniture just the way they do when they buy their cars. Three fourths of the consumers interviewed in the BH&G poll visited several stores before making their last furniture purchase.

Retailers observed this trend too. “Our customers absolutely shop the competition. They make at least two or three shopping comparisons. Construction, quality, and value are important to them,’ explained Blank.

Larry Kirchner, director of trend merchandising for the Dayton Hudson Department Store Co., in Minneapolis, said, “Consumers have preconceived ideas about furniture. The shelter magazines and our stores have influenced and educated them,’ he suggested. “We’ve promoted leather as a quality investment, and it’s doing well.’

Educated consumers

Almost half of the BH&G consumers interviewed read how-to-buy articles, and a third of those polled write away for manufacturers’ literature. About two thirds said they get help by looking at pictures and advertisements of room settings.

These disciplined consumers may take up to six months to look for a planned purchase. Most often they buy one item and will decorate only one room at a time. But retailers have found consumers are willing to pay more for quality furniture. “We are seeing more single quantity purchases,’ said Jerry Christophersen, upholstery merchandise manager for Gabbert’s in Minneapolis. Glick’s Blank agreed that the average ticket price is increasing.

The 1985 style preferences are country casual and traditional, according to BH&G/HFD consumers and retailers surveyed. Although traditional is a stronger volume business, retailers said contemporary design is still a growth category. Eclectic buying is also on the rise.

The living room still leads in decorating expenditure, according to the survey. “Consumers want eclectic pieces for the living room,’ Kirchner advised. But he pointed out that consumers still choose matched dining room and bedroom pieces. Burdine’s Linda Martin said she has conducted seminars to help consumers update matched suite living rooms with eclectic design and individual pieces.

Bill Peterson, store manager for Freed’s in Dallas, agreed that consumers seek single pieces for the living room that they “correlate’ to one another. He also confirmed the BH&G survey’s findings when he said consumers mainly buy traditional matched pieces for master bedrooms and dining areas. He noted that although customers may buy matched tables and chairs for a dining area, they will add a lacquer china to the set.

Scale and function are primary considerations in furniture purchases. “Consumers are still combining rooms. They’re putting living and dining areas together or planning second bedrooms with computer desk arrangements. So they want smaller scale pieces. We also see them using more sleeper sofas in these rooms,’ Peterson summarized.

Over 17 percent more of those interviewed favor smaller scale furniture this year, compared to a year ago, according to the poll. There’s even a trend toward less formal, smaller-scale dining areas, according to retailers. Tom Kozlowski, merchandising manager for Trenton, N.J.’s Park Lane Furniture, said consumers are buying smaller dining room tables and fewer chairs.

Kirchner noted that he’s seeing more interest in flip-top tables. Multipurpose extension dining tables and tables that can be used as desks are popular, according to Linda Martin. Manny Stratos has also observed more interest in smaller dinettes.

Diverse wall systems

The trend to combine living spaces is changing the furniture mix for Carafiol’s in St. Louis, according to Harvey Carafiol, merchandising vice president. “The hottest categories for us aren’t just smaller scale pieces. The multifunctional home entertainment centers and motion furniture categories are strong,’ he said.

Home entertainment centers continue to be the important new furniture purchase according to other retailers. Kozlowski said, “These centers are 1985’s purchase to hold 1984’s VCR and other electronic components.’

Consumers want extra storage space in home entertainment centers, according to Kirchner, who asserted that his “customers want these centers in a broad variety of styles and designs to use in living rooms and family rooms.’

Ronald Blank revealed Glick’s strategy of targeting furniture in this category to all income levels. “We’ve expanded our line of wall storage systems and home entertainment centers to include budget chic to middle range and quality pieces.’ He also said consumers want multifunctional upholstered furniture to go along with these new storage systems.

“Multifunctional furniture becomes a focal point in the living room now,’ Kozlowski said, adding, “Consumers are willing to spend more for something that looks good, and is durable and functional.’

Value in bedding sought

Sleeper sofas are being promoted as multifunctional furniture, and consumers are buying them for almost every room. Jerry Christophersen said that quality and size are the biggest concerns in best sleeper sofa selection.

Besides having an interest in scale and function, consumers are more concerned about the quality of their sleep this year. They’re willing to pay more for premium sleep products, and they’re looking for new ways to sleep too. Nearly two thirds of the BH&G respondents said they would buy a queen- or king-size bed. And a surprising 18.5 percent of those surveyed said they would select a waterbed.

“Consumers have had enough of 50-100 percent off in bedding. They want value and know a good price,’ related Kozlowski. “The store’s reputation, brand name, and warranty are all important,’ added Dayton Hudson’s Kirchner, who acknowledged that premium bedding is a top category for his stores.

The flotation sleep area has more than a murmur of interest. “Our requests for hybrids outnumber those for traditional waterbeds by nearly eight to one.’ Glick’s Blank said, emphasizing that brand name helps in this category. Expecting to see growth in hybrids, because they can be used with regular lines, is Stratos, who said, “We have six hybrid galleries, but they haven’t set the world on fire yet.’

Peterson saw hybrid systems as a trend too. “They account for 10-15 percent of Freed’s bedding sales,’ he said. Tom Kozlowski thinks waterbeds are a growing category for specialty stores rather than for full-line furniture stores.

About brand names

Brand name often influences buying decisions in the sleep and recliner categories according to retailers interviewed. In other furniture categories, most retailers admit that it’s only a third or fourth place consideration.

Hess’s Stratos said brand name awareness is only important for higher-end furniture purchases. Larry Kirchner claimed that his customers look for a national name in wood furniture. Bob Brandt, president of Bayles Furniture, in Rochester, N.Y., agreed that “consumers rely on recognized brand awareness for categories like brass beds or upholstered furniture.’ Harvey Carafiol and Larry Kirchner suggested that styling and quality were higher priorities in these categories.

Accessories are icing on the cake for most retailers. They are tie-in purchases, retailers reveal. The majority of BH&G consumers polled said they changed or added accessories in one or more rooms in the last two years. Almost half of them said they added a “country’ accent too.

It’s the way a store merchandises accessories that determines local trends, retailers believed. Manny Stratos suggested that crystal lamps have been dramatic sellers. The California and Southwest themes in accessories have been big, according to Jerry Christophersen. Larry Kirchner said consumers are buying fewer and larger accessories from his company’s stores. Linda Martin also said that fewer large-scale pieces are a more important look in accessories.

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