18 May 2024, 15:21
By Furniture News Jun 22, 2018

Bulgaria – a world of opportunity?

Reflecting Bulgaria’s relatively small population – just over seven million (and shrinking) – the country’s annual furniture fair is a modestly-sized event. Comprising Technomebel (machinery-focused) and World of Furniture (finished product) – the latter some three years younger, and less developed for it – the event reaches out through a hosted buyers programme each year, and cites the UK as a priority market for exports. Paul Farley was dispatched to Sofia’s Inter Expo Center to find out more …

Despite some misgivings surrounding Brexit, the UK represents an import export destination for the show’s exhibitors, and Bulgaria’s low prices mean its furniture exporters may reward closer inspection – when one is able to overcome the immediate barriers to trade.

“The company owners usually insist on manning the stands at the show, and they don’t always speak English as well as other might back in the office,” admits Ivaylo Todorov, export manager of Bulgaria’s Branch Chamber of the Woodworking and Furniture Industry (BBCWFI), a non-profit trade organisation that represents the interests of some 350 Bulgarian furniture and machinery manufacturers, traders and consultants. Two thirds of the BBCWFI’s members are export oriented, and the majority are strongest when it comes to upholstery and dining chairs.

“Bulgaria is not quite so advanced in solid wood cabinet products due to the lack of quality oak here,” says Ivaylo, who points towards the use of linden, pine and beech instead. “We are fighting to establish sustainable ways forward in our forestry operations, however.”

Bulgaria’s government has set ambitious GDP growth targets, and thanks to the impressive performance of furniture exports – Ivaylo says that these have more than doubled in the last 10 years – its officials have “started to take the sector seriously”.

Although Technomebel/World of Furniture does not represent the entirety of Bulgaria’s industry players, it does feature some 190 of them, representing around 350 brands and companies. Over 90% of the exhibitors are Bulgarian, says Krasimir Stoilov, the venue’s senior project manager – and the bulk of the visitors (Ivaylo cites the visitor count at around 19,000, 17,000 of them professionals) are from Bulgaria and its neighbours.

Ivaylo says that the event is enjoying modest YoY growth – +2% in exhibitor numbers, and an attendance upturn of some +3-5% is anticipated [a final visitor account of 10,500 is quoted] – and that its presentation is better than ever. 

Despite the show remaining a little rough around the edges – if functional and hospitable enough – aside from the more professional branded booths that populate Technomebel, there are stand-out exhibitors in World of Furniture, and many of them are looking to grow UK business.

Metal and wooden chair manufacturer GS Malmgren Interiors, which is focusing its export attentions on Italy and the UK, is run by Galin Gospodinov, who is also chair of the BBCWFI. This is the company’s fourth year at the show.

“Our UK-facing business is good,” says Galin. “Home Retail Group visited Bulgaria on a trade mission a few years ago, and we worked with them for a time, before they decided to relocate sourcing to China (the prices are 10-12% lower than ours, but the returns are much higher – I think it was a decision based on just one part of the spreadsheet!).”

Galin says the strengths of Bulgarian furniture manufacture are “experience, low salary, technology and machinery, and some of the lowest taxes in Europe”. The country is within easy reach of the rest of Europe (a four- to five-week delivery window is typical), and, according to Galin, product quality is improving each year.

“We’re in the same league as Poland and Romania,” he says, “and our industry as a whole is focused on opening Bulgaria up to wider European opportunities.”

One company exploiting that opportunity effectively is Ted Bed, the country’s second-largest mattress manufacturer. Founded in 1990, Ted Bed’s parent company boasts considerable export reach and a 1000-store multinational retail base. Having opted to break a five-year run of exhibiting in Milan due to “not seeing enough new visitors”, the brand is squarely focused on new markets, says product manager Darina Marcheva.

“About 50% of our output goes into Bulgaria’s domestic market,” she says, “but the rest travels far and wide. That includes the UK – working with hotels and cruise ships means we’ve had to cover the appropriate FR levels.”

Through a UK-based agent, Ted Bed is looking for large-scale stockists for its mattresses – two of which are already certified by SATRA. 

Employing technologies and components as varied as enriched foams, amber, and magnetic wave dispersal systems across the domestic and hospitality markets, Ted Bed is finding an audience through the likes of imm cologne, Ambiente and Heimtextil, and Darina believes the brand offers excellent value. “Made in Bulgaria means good product at fair prices,” she says, “and we’re making a higher level of bed than many of the international sector leaders.”

Another Bulgarian manufacturer with strong UK contract connections is dining furniture and seating producer Bulgaru, whose project client list includes Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquito’s and Costa. Despite this contract bias, Tseno Petrov, manager, says that World of Furniture has become a more useful platform since he began reaching out to the domestic market this year, and his experience has been “better than expected”.

“We have domestic product that will work very well in the UK,” says Tseno, who is working alongside members of the UK design community to decide upon the best approach to the market. 

Bulgaria’s furniture designers are also finding a voice in Cherga, a collective featuring 20 members who come together for two weeks each year at a workshop to fulfil specific manufacturing briefs. Nearby is a special exhibit presenting a forestry school student project on self-assembly furniture, while other creative features include the Bulgarian Furniture of the Year design competition, and The Design Meets Interior, a forum exploring market trends.

It may be small and unfocused, but World of Furniture screams untapped potential, and could prove the gateway to a relatively underexploited manufacturing base that’s both cost effective and welcoming – next year’s edition will take place from 26-30th March.

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