23 April 2024, 21:28
By Laraine Janes and Theresa Raymond Oct 19, 2015

25 years of furniture trading at the NEC

As the industry prepares to take part in the 26th furniture event to be held at the NEC in January, current show organisers Laraine Janes and Theresa Raymond look back on the changes, challenges and opportunities that have shaped the sector over the past quarter of a century …

Revived, refreshed and bursting with new ideas, the British furnishings industry has seen some seismic shifts over the past 25 years.

Back on course after one of the longest and deepest recessions in modern times, the industry today is a very different one from that which existed in the early 1990s. Back then, Britain still had a robust manufacturing base, few people had mobile phones, and the internet was in its relative infancy.

British furniture companies were still largely British owned, and brands such as G Plan, Ercol, Stag and Ducal thrived. And the newly-arrived Ikea concept was regarded as a bit of a Scandinavian novelty unlikely to really cut it with more traditional Brits.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the world is a very different place. A significant and growing number of furniture transactions are now executed online, increasingly via the all-important mobile phone.

The number of cabinet manufacturers still operating in the UK can be counted on one hand, and, while the ‘sales, sales, sales’ culture remains especially critical to retailers, the most successful stores present their offer as a lifestyle choice rather than in commodity-style rows of furniture.

The latter has undoubtedly been influenced by the Ikea factor, which wowed Britons with a mix of exciting retail experience, affordable pricing and fun advertising.

As its stores began to open up around Britain, other retailers tried to compete with the value offer by turning to offshore production. Many felt they had hit the jackpot when they started sourcing container loads of furniture from newly-emerging Chinese production facilities. Thanks to low, low wages and a Far Eastern willingness to produce anything and everything at bargain-bucket prices, they too could join the cheap-as-chips bandwagon.

Or so it all seemed. It did not take long before disillusionment with the quality, design copyright, consistency, lead times and after-sales services that came with some imported goods set in. While many retailers and distributors overcame the issues associated with outsourcing cabinet furniture, a significant amount of upholstery production has returned to our shores. And the furniture that is produced overseas is now just as likely to come from Eastern Europe as it is the Far East.

The impact of offshore production on British cabinetmaking has been particularly notable with the demise of many once-great names and flourishing production sites such as Woodberry Bros & Haines. While some names and brands live on through new owners – Stag, Ducal and Morris among them – others, such as Caxton and Beaver and Tapley, disappeared altogether.

The rush to the bottom also saw a seismic shift in consumer attitudes towards furniture. Where previously the average Brit looked to buy furniture that lasted a lifetime, by the late Nineties/early Noughties, furnishings had become just another fashion item, changed on a whim and discarded without conscience.

The switch to commodity trading lured more value-led retailers into the market – enter  Tesco and Asda, among others, with their own take on cheap but cheerful furnishings.

The onslaught of imports saw the industry unite behind such Buy British initiatives as the BFM’s It Is campaign. It also saw the chattering classes move to the moral high ground, encouraging the gradual shift in thinking that has spawned a new culture of upcycling and recycling.

“Back on course after one of the longest and deepest recessions in modern times, the industry today is a very different one from that which existed in the early 1990s”

But by far the biggest impact on the industry in the past decade has been the emergence of online shopping. For those companies which have embraced it and worked with it, online sales now generate their single biggest income stream. Most retailers, even smaller independents, have transactional sites. Others work only online – while yet more have started online and then moved into bricks-and-mortar trading.

No up-to-date and exact figures about the proportion of ecommerce sales across the furnishings sector appear to exist, although in the bed industry alone, nearly 40% of buyers apparently purchase online – whether through an online-only trader or traditional retailer with an ecommerce site.

Consumers themselves are worldly web-wise, researching online the products they intend to buy, with Amazon, eBay and comparison sites holding great sway in their decision making.

Many now even go online in-store to check out the competition. And the very best of retailers accommodate and even facilitate this, including the John Lewis Partnership – which itself has become something of a benchmark furniture retailer in recent years. From simply being a well-respected high street store with no particular pull for the furnishings sector, JLP is now widely regarded as The Place To Be thanks to its sophisticated approach to an expanding furniture choice and its powerful hold on Middle England’s purse.

Household spending itself has been tightly tied to the housing market, effectively locking the furniture industry’s fortunes into the boom and bust rollercoaster of property sales. When the market memorably collapsed in 2008, the reverberations were felt right across the furniture industry, which languished in the doldrums for a full five years.

When it re-emerged, the industry was much changed. The mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies of recessionary Britain had taken their toll – many big names went bust, and a torrent of takeovers saw decades-, if not centuries-old British companies come under foreign ownership.

The companies that survived emerged as much leaner, slicker organisations. The newly emergent were focused, driven and entrepreneurial.

Other long-established names fell prey to changing consumer tastes. As the clutter-happy pine revolution of the Eighties and early Nineties gave way to a much more streamlined, contemporary look, out went the pine and in came a sea of chunky oak.

Hand in hand with this came a brave new world of leather upholstery. Imported suites were often drastically cheaper than home-produced furniture which, up until the Nineties, had been the preserve of those who had done quite well for themselves. Suddenly, leather was highly affordable – if sometimes compromised – and everyone wanted the lean leather look.

This New Minimalism also saw off some of the most revered names in repro furniture. It was bye-bye Restall, Brown and Clennell, farewell Bevan Funnell and adios to William Tillman.

Those who timed it right sold well, but many private equity buyouts did not turn out to be such happy stories. And for a long list of independent furniture shops, retirement meant the end of the line for their retail business. In terms of tastes, the industry has come full circle, re-inventing the Sixties and Seventies penchant for cosy clutter and velvet suites. Today’s more eclectic look shuns the ‘matchy matchy’ tastes of yesteryear, mixing upcycled furnishings with statement pieces and feature furniture.

It has been a fascinating quarter of a century and one which has seen many casualties. But emerging from the corporate holocaust is a new era of hope, innovation and fresh ideas.

We may still be finding our ecommerce feet, and many aspects of the newly-restructured sector have yet to settle down, but the industry is once again thriving and bursting with bright ideas.

So be sure to come and see them at the all-star line-up at the all-new January Furniture Show at the NEC, Birmingham, from January 24-27th! Online registration has already opened, and visitors can see the full list of exhibitors for 2016 and secure their free badge by visiting the website.

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