23 May 2024, 06:44
By Gavin Boden Apr 06, 2018

Furniture agents – your days are numbered

On the 25th July 1986 I walked into Lees Furnishings in Grimsby for my first day on the job. I spent my day moving Duresta sofas around the warehouse, unloading a truck of Duralay underlay, and delivering a solid yew Bevan Funnell dining set. 

It wasn’t for a few weeks on a busy Saturday when I was set free on the shop floor to speak to customers. In the months following, I spent more and more time in the shop rather than on deliveries or working in the warehouse, and it was during these months that I first encountered furniture agents. 

They were all cut from the same cloth – driving around in nice cars, dressed in top-end tweed jackets or wool suits. Compared with today, they had life easy – all they did was drive around and sell their wares, and business was good. 

I’m talking about the times before the Far East imports started hitting the shop floors. Apart from Italian imports, everything – from ornate metal beds to leather chesterfields – was made in the UK, and the agents knew they were in high demand. Whether it was for a lamp table or a big stock order of three-piece suites, they expected to get an order from almost every call they made.  

I remember one time an agent came with a show van, and the buyer ordered 30 suites for the following month and the same for the next two – 90 suites in one visit? In the Eighties it wasn’t uncommon for agents to earn in excess of £100k, and I have heard stories of them earning up to £250,000 in one year.

During the major furniture shows (which were originally organised by the agents) they could afford to take their best customers out for lavish meals every night, knowing that the next day the customer would come onto the stand and place big orders.

But those days are long gone. Unless an agent has a major agency or deals with one or more of the big internet boys, they can be scrambling around worrying about things like the cost of fuel to get out on the road (especially with that being so expensive at the moment).  

If an agent isn’t turning over £50,000 it isn’t worth doing, once you consider expenses, car, fuel, hotels, phone, insurances, technology and other travel costs. 

Once that has been taken into consideration, they might as well go over to the dark side and become an employed rep – and why not? They wouldn’t have to worry about expenses and whether or not their commission cheques were going to be enough to cover their mortgage that month. 

More and more agents are becoming reps because they get a fully-expensed car, phone, laptop/tablet, pension and bonus, and all the other expenses are taken care of. On top of that, they know how much money they will earn each month.

Looking at it from the other side of the fence, what’s best for furniture suppliers – reps or agents?

When a new supplier comes into the market, they want to build business quickly and get product onto the shop floors, but keep their expenses to a minimum. The best way to do this is to take on agents and pay them for what they sell, factoring the commission into the cost price. So, if they sell hardly anything in a month, the supplier doesn’t have to give them a big cheque – but if, on the other hand, the agent does a good job and sells a lot of product, the supplier can end up paying more than they would for a rep. 

If the agent does a really good job over the coming years they can end up earning more than the MD gets paid, which can sometimes leave a bad taste! Also when it gets to this point, the supplier still wants a good proportion of those agents’ time, and can feel like they have no control over their team. This is a big concern for suppliers, and the reason why a lot of them are moving over to employing reps.

In short, suppliers want control over their sales team, but often can’t afford reps in the beginning – but, as the company grows, this becomes a more viable option, and they pay off the agents to transform their sales team into an employed one.

Today, more and more agents are becoming reps, leading to a shortage of good agents – and I think this is going to continue. The days of the furniture agent are numbered – in 10 years we will have a completely different picture. It’s already happened in different industries, and with retail evolving so much, it is only a matter of time for our sector. 

It will be a sad day when the last agent disappears from the industry – agents have played a big part in the traditions and development of the UK furniture industry, and it won’t be the same without them.

Contributed by Gavin Boden, furniture sales & marketing professional.

© 2013 - 2024 Gearing Media Group Ltd. All Rights Reserved.