18 June 2024, 07:21
By Furniture News Jul 04, 2019

Risk and reward

What dictates the furniture we buy – supply, or demand? In a new report compiled for the second edition of Furniture News’ Connect trade directory, Paul Farley explores the drivers behind how furniture trends are developed and deployed. In this article, Paul draws on the report’s findings to ask whether being risk-averse is really all that bad …

The next time you’re visiting a furniture store or browsing an interiors website, stop for a moment to consider which styles, shapes, colours and materials you’re looking at, and why. 

A new report published in the second edition of Connect – The Furniture Trade Directory investigates product selection and development in the UK furniture market, drawing on the opinions of various industry thought leaders to help explain why certain styles of furniture are created, selected, bought and sold.

The stakeholders involved in deciding what people buy for their homes are manifold – from product designers, manufacturers and retailers to the consumers themselves, and the influencers around them.

With the exception of truly vertically-integrated businesses, the supply chain is complex – a product’s development is driven by a mixture of demand (usually expressed through sales and customer feedback), material realities and cost pressures, plus countless contributory factors.

The industry’s traditional models of supply and demand have been disrupted by the advent of a new digital age of ecommerce and social media, which enables trends to transcend borders, gives innovations a chance to shine, and makes competition all the fiercer.

So, given that level of complexity, who has the biggest say in which product trends dominate UK retail? Is the customer king, or do people simply buy what they’re told to? Does the type and location of a business matter? The report attempts to answer these questions and more, before concluding with a summary of the big emerging trends and some advice on making the most of the situation.

Risky business

One area the report tackles is the degree of risk taken in the mainstream furniture industry. With the exception of some digital brands, new furniture is generally introduced to retailers – and their customers – two or three times a year, but the overall rate of change on the shopfloor is relatively slow compared with many other consumer goods sectors. 

It takes significant time and money to bring high-volume product to the market, and those doing so face a dilemma – for larger items of furniture in particular, how can a seller galvanise fresh interest and encourage repeat purchases while billing a purchase as a long-lasting investment?

Consequently, trends can take years to rise and fall, and the pace of this change often creates the impression that the market – both retail and consumer – is conservative in taste, which can further stifle innovation.

“Most consumers will go with a safe choice,” states the MD of MattressOnline, Steve Adams. “Pieces of furniture are relatively big-ticket items, so a trend has to be rock solid for consumers to invest in a more out-there purchase.”

Trend forecaster Caroline Till points to an element of collective psychology: “The market has a cognitive impact,” she says. “We are sheep, and our brains are wired to follow one another. We get a dopamine hit whenever we do the same thing as someone else.”

This behaviour is often echoed in the supply chain. Continues Steve Adams: “Our industry is even more conservative than our consumers! Especially in the mattress and divan segment – the wider furniture market has more licence to push boundaries, but generally it’s marginal, which is not surprising given the investment required in creating new, untested product designs.”

AKA PR’s Jan Turner adds: “Furniture buyers do have a bit of a reputation for asking manufacturers what their bestsellers are before committing to an order …”

Furniture designer Rob Scarlett agrees that the trade can be slow to take a leap of faith into new product lines. “People don’t want to get on board until someone else does,” he says.

The long game

Yet there is something of an upside to playing it safe. While the furniture market has its share of fast-moving (often disposable) lines, in the main it champions longevity. And this can resonate in an economy in which consumers increasingly value the ethics and environmental impact of their purchases.

“Maybe we should just be comfortable with our conservativeness,” continues Rob. “Let’s resist this move to fashion-first, and develop things we can live with.”

Caroline Till concurs. “Furniture tends to involve massive investment in a long-lasting product,” she says. “But in the last 10 years, we’ve seen plenty of examples of furniture following fashion trends, and that’s really scary – the cycles are just unsustainable.”

The bed sector has begun to resist the pressure to deliver newness for newness’ sake, and the issue of sustainable manufacture is rapidly gaining prominence, becoming a serious, consumer-driven trend in its own right. For a sector which already aligns its marketing messages with health and wellbeing, green credentials seem a natural fit.

Neil Robinson, sales and marketing director at Sealy UK, says: “Health and wellbeing, and a more inclusive, environmentally sympathetic approach to purchases, is becoming mainstream rather than a discrete subsector.”

Every industry needs a healthy balance of risk. Yet, says Land of Beds’ Mike Murray, it’s probably better to err on the side of innovation that matches demand. “Most product innovation focuses on making incremental improvements to tried-and-tested formulas,” he says. “But perhaps we need to focus on listening to customer feedback and designing products that promote comfort and wellness, rather than trying to start new trends.”

Thinking ahead

Whether a business prefers to lead, follow, or take a path somewhere in between, the breadth of players setting the furnishing trends agenda means good communication with the entire supply chain is vital. Businesses must exploit established frameworks while seizing emerging opportunities, and a greater understanding of the influences behind consumer tastes can help inform everything from purchases to promotional campaigns.

Perhaps the next time you see a bold yellow three-piece suite in a shop window, or a marble table atop your online search results, you’ll stop to question the wisdom of this positioning – and whether refusing to follow the flock was worth the risk.

Paul Farley is the editor-in-chief of Furniture News magazine. The second edition of Connect – The Furniture Trade Directory comprises part of Furniture News’ subscription package. For details, email [email protected], or call 01424 774982.

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