Visitors entering the Wade Upholstery showroom are greeted with a deep red crushed velvet Chesterfield with chrome studding and floral scatters. Where once a feature fish pond stood, there is instead dark wooden flooring, a mini stage with fabric hangings, and spotlights for a dramatic effect. Everything about the refurbishment says ‘change’. Wade’s new sales and marketing director Chris Everist tells Furniture News editor Paul Farley why this is an apt message …
I catch Chris Everist in what he describes as the “aftermath” of the Minerva buying group show. He is a man well versed in exhibitions, yet this summer the run has been particularly intense. “It’s a hell of a rollercoaster,” he says. This is not only due to the number of shows at which Wade Upholstery is showing – from Spring Long Point to Minerva, Midpoint and the Manchester Furniture Show – but because so much hinges on how the brand’s new incarnation is received by retailers.
Long Point saw the unveiling of Wade’s new brand position, and, to Chris’ great relief, the trade reacted warmly. “Wade had a very, very encouraging show,” he says, “both from a visitor point of view and commitment from retailers. I came out of it with such a buzz. We needed to communicate our activities to the widest possible audience – going into the show was absolutely nerve-wracking for us! For three months leading up to the launch, we were letting our stockists know there was going to be a change …”
The term ‘change’ is an understatement. Wade Upholstery has undergone a radical transformation to ensure its effectiveness – nay, survival – in the market. “Yes, the changes are certainly significant,” says Chris. “Essentially we’re lowering our pricing structure in reaction to a time of austerity.”
Wade’s management has dealt with the issue from a number of fresh perspectives. With the retirement of long-term MD David Gray last December, and thanks to the production-savvy expertise of his replacement Eddie O’Dwyer – also MD of JDP Group company JDP Frames – the landscape at the renowned Long Eaton upholsterer has evolved almost beyond recognition.
Chris too entered his current role from within the JDP Group. Formerly the sales and marketing director of YP Furniture, Chris has a long history of brand representation and development within the furniture industry, starting in 1984, when he embarked upon a retail management training course at House of Fraser. Following that, he worked in sales management and marketing positions with iconic brands including Nathan, Parker Knoll, Ducal and Christie Tyler.
Chris came to the JDP group nine years ago, working in sales and marketing at YP Furniture before taking up his current position at Wade last December. With a career chiefly comprising sales and brand management, the opportunity to guide the respected upholstery brand through a significant re-imagining was too good for Chris to pass up.
“I was offered an incredibly challenging and exciting position at Wade,” he says. “It’s great to come into a brand that has all the ingredients to be a success.”
Chris and Eddie began their task by talking to the customers. Chris explains: “The exisiting Wade business was not working properly – it was not generating sufficient orders or profit. John Payne [chairman of the JDP Group] gave us a relatively open brief – to make the brand more appealing and restore its profitability.
“The feedback from stockists revealed overwhelming affection for the Wade brand itself. People really wanted Wade to work, but had become disillusioned with it over the past few years – the product hadn’t moved on, and the covers were unexciting. We had a vast mix of product, and a very complex model offering – to this day, I still don’t know all of the names! All of those factors combined to make the factory very inefficient.
“Ultimately, Wade was not producing a product that was commercial enough for the independent retailers. It had become unclear what the brand stood for, and where we fitted in the retailers’ portfolio – many prefer to pigeonhole brands within their buying portfolios.”
The Wade story serves as a reminder that brands, no matter how popular, cannot afford to stand still, and must react to evolving market conditions to remain competitive – however, they must also move in the right direction.
“Price had been the key issue,” explains Chris. “Wade focused on budget, de-specced, mass-market models with the introduction of the Wade Studio collection. The decision to do it was probably right at the time, but it was not a comfortable move for the brand. For the past 90 years, Wade had been a top-quality brand – customers became confused. While the cheaper models gave us a bit of volume, they hadn’t helped our business overall.”
With this in mind, Wade Upholstery is returning firmly to the top end of the middle market with its new offering. “We’re focusing on our core values of comfort, quality and design, rather than trying to be all things to all people. In doing that, we’ve put a lot of spec back into the product – we’ve moved back to mesh top coil and sprung-edge suspension systems, and all-hardwood frames. We’ve tightened business with our suppliers, and have started purchasing their top-end components, based on specification.”
Chris acknowledges that all of this sounds like a recipe for a price increase – however, he is confident that the company’s new approach to manufacture and pricing will happily offset the jump in quality. He cites fabric as an example: “Fabric is an area which can dramatically effect price, but whereas beforehand the price levels jumped quite significantly with each upgrade, we’ve now changed our structure and increased the number of our pricing bands, so the increments are much smaller.
“Basically, we’re focusing on a set pound note cost per unit – we’re not making our margin on the fabric. It’s the same production and delivery process cost for all models – rather than just applying a margin to an overall product including fabric, the price is derived from a contribution-per-piece requirement. And why should it be any other way? We’re an upholstery manufacturer, not a fabric supplier!
“Eddie [O’Dwyer] looked at the way the factory operates, and identified the inefficiencies – every product we’ve kept, moving forward, has been re-costed, basically bringing the business into 2012. Previously, the operation was typical of most upholstery manufacturers – which, for many years, was the right way for Wade. 15 years ago, we had the volume mix to enable us to manufacture and sell lots of high-end products, but as buying habits changed, the margins became unrealistic and volume fell due to prices being too high.
“Our new business model is reliant on an uplift in volume – but we’re sure we are working with the right shapes and fabrics. We are looking for an increase in volume that will give us the efficiencies to go back to our suppliers with improved purchasing power.”
The launch comprised four new ranges – Floyd, Jasper, Elliot and Wellington – 15 fabric collections comprising 125 new fabrics, and price decreases of up to 30% on existing models, meaning a drop of up to £400 on some sofas. The bulk of the fabrics are sourced from Belgium, Italy and Turkey – the right manufacturing countries, according to Chris, to make the product “really sing”. He is confident that the collection ticks all the boxes.
“Upholstery is very much a fashion industry – once you’ve got your core shapes right, it’s about dressing them. The fabric must attract. The comfort must be right, and the price tag must be acceptable. I think we’ve got a good mix.”
Chris acknowledges that big ticket items can be a hard sell at the moment: “We are in competition for consumers’ cash with the hi-tech boys – big tellys, computers and holidays. If people have spare cash, they want to spend it on something that gives them an instant buzz. But we have our advantages. The trend is moving back towards soft-cover upholstery, and UK-manufactured goods are becoming more appealing, thanks to the increasing costs of container shipping and freight.”
Despite these rising costs, he does not rule out exports – which account for around 15% of its business – as an area ripe for growth in 12-18 months’ time, following the re-establishment of the UK trade. “It’s an area in which we know we can increase sales fairly quickly,” he adds.
Wade’s story reflects a wider trend among Long Eaton’s finest – and well-established brands nationwide – towards reinvention and modernisation. A well-regarded company with a 91-year history of hand-making furniture, Wade’s transition into a new era is significant, and Chris is excited by the prospects.
“This is a complete step-change in the business,” he says. “Small changes had been attempted in the past, but this time it had to be all or nothing. In a nutshell, it’s a repositioning of a brand, with a hell of a product development programme behind it – and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Wade will exhibit in the Manchester Furniture Show foyer this month, and Chris invites all comers to “sit down, chat, and enjoy the selection”.