Whenever someone talks about “upholstery as a dying industry” they inevitably point to the extremely low cost of most new furniture. Yup. When it came to price wars, manufacturing served up an A+ beat down. Still . . . does that mean we’re doomed?
The U.S. market is full of options – from clothing to dining, appliances to cosmetics – and not everyone is competing on cost.
When new furniture moved so decisively towards value engineering, they fatally hobbled the aftermarket’s ability to compete on price alone. . . But I’m not so sure they did us a disservice. Because if I have to throw out one potential customer, I’d like it to be the hard core price shopper anyway.
So thank you, manufacturing: You can have ’em.
But let’s not run up the white flag just yet. What doors did manufacturing leave unattended? Where do we yet have some competitive advantage?
Consumers are looking HARD at the impact of their purchases, and they’re increasingly deliberate about the companies they support. Furniture manufacturers are responding, but it will take them awhile to pivot that big machine around – especially when they’ve trained shoppers so successfully to rock bottom prices.
And no matter how hard they try, NOTHING is more sustainable than keeping what you own. Upholsterers in the after market are in a prime position to appeal to this modern consumer.
Simply reupholstering is great, considering how much furniture currently goes to landfill. If you want to up the ante, you can specifically source environmentally friendly options, and educate your clients on what it all means. (Check out Natural Upholstery or Two Sister’s EcoTextiles as two places to start learning.)
Did you know there are well over 100 breweries in Minnesota? I just gave up and stopped counting. Many of them are right in Minneapolis and St. Paul. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one.
Why? All those revelers could be at home drinking Budweiser for less. Because they value the experience. They value small batch craftsmanship. They value knowing where their beverage came from, and knowing where their dollars go. They value enjoying something special. It’s heartening to me, in the age of social media and online marketing, that the little guy truly has some advantage. Consumers LOVE a good story. They love the real people behind a business, and a positive, human connection.
It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about a big anonymous chain brand. Manufacturers can leverage many things well, but they can’t fabricate community connections, genuine ROOTS. Sometimes they try, but if it’s all smoke and mirrors, it just translates to gross.
So listen to me now: GET. YOUR. FACE. IN. YOUR. MARKETING.
If you think consumers are just buying furniture, you are dangerously mistaken. You are as much a product as the chairs that leave your shop. Let people know who you are, why you do what you do. Let them be excited to support you in your craft. Give them the opportunity to enthusiastically Shop Small.
Do people ever ask you for recommendations on selecting new furniture? I. HAAAAAAATE that question. And it isn’t because I’d rather they reupholster – it’s because I honestly don’t know what to tell them. Shopping for furniture is trickier than labels in the yogurt aisle. They are SO GOOD at marketing slight of hand, calling your attention to the positives while conveniently skimming the fine print. I would argue it’s downright deceitful.
As soon as manufacturers figure out what shoppers want to hear, they figure out how to include it . . . sort of. Oh! Coil springs, it has those! (in a poorly constructed drop-in version) High density foam? We have that too! (about two inches of it, wrapped in 10″ of batting.) Leather is superior in quality! (Except that this is BONDED leather which shares none of the functional characteristics of the real deal)
I used to work at a foam store – very glamorous! One day, a customer mentioned the amazing “lifetime cushion warranty” that came with her new sofa: “Once a year, my cushions wear out and they send new ones right over.” That, my friends, is not my idea of a warranty. A better product? Hardly. A product so cheap it can be replaced once a year forever. Or until the rest of the sofa falls apart – whichever comes first, and it IS a race to the bottom.
Consumers have been baited and switched enough in the past 20 years to be justifiably wary. I don’t know about you, but I try to be utterly honest with my clients. I’ll be the one standing here if there’s a problem later on, so why wouldn’t I be? Trust takes a long time to build but is very easy to destroy. Low prices always come with a hidden cost, and it’s only a matter of time before customers find out what they were.
Reupholstery stands to provide a better option – let’s live up to it.
Customized shopping experience
I swear, I once sold an upholstery job because the client was excited to see her project on social media: “I think I’ll name it, ‘The Big Easy!'”
Another told me, upon delivery of his heirloom sofa “It’s like climbing Everest, you know? It’s the journey, not just the moment of arrival – which is so brief.”
In our fast-food shopping culture, human connection is hard to come by. One of the beautiful aspects of custom upholstery is that we can share the journey with our customer. We can tell a story. We can solicit their input on the details. We can make our clients feel heard and valued and cared about.
Low prices absolutely depend upon aggressive streamlining and standardization of options. Go into a big box store and ask for a minor modification. Let me know how it goes.
It’s tough to be an upholsterer in the modern market, that is true.
But if we can recognize areas where we have an advantage, perhaps we can rediscover our competitive footing.
And we can joyfully let go of selling points that don’t belong with us.
Upholstery isn’t dying – we’re just re-calibrating.
I’d encourage you in the weeks ahead to consider yourself as a consumer – where do you knowingly bypass the least expensive option and why? What did a higher priced business say, or do, to communicate their value in a way that made sense to you? How can you apply that information to your own marketing?
We are not obligated to be the least expensive buying option – which is good, because in most cases, we can’t.
– Cynthia Bleskachek