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 us an A+ school yard beating.
Still . . . does that mean we’re doomed?
The U.S. market is FILLED with options – from clothing to dining, appliances to cosmetics. And not everyone is competing on cost.
When new furniture moved so aggressively, almost universally towards value engineering, they fatally hobbled our ability to compete on price alone. . . But I’m not so sure they did us a disservice.
Because now we have to find other strategies for marketing our services.
I don’t know about you, but 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 of defeat just yet. What doors did manufacturing leave unattended? Where do we yet have the 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.
Meanwhile, nothing is more sustainable than keeping what you own, or saving something from discard. 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 for your clients, or look for ways to separate and recycle old materials.
Just like we can’t touch manufacturing on price, they can’t touch us on sustainability: This round goes to us.
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.
And generally? They’re all busy.
Why? All those revelers could be at home drinking Budweiser for less.
Because they value the local experience. They value small batch craftsmanship. They value knowing where their beverage came from, and knowing where their dollars go. They value possessing and enjoying something special.
Here again: we win. It’s not even close.
It’s heartening to me, in the age of social media and online marketing, that the little guy truly has some advantage. Consumers LOVE authenticity. They love a REAL PERSON and a positive, human connection.
It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about a big box brand.
Manufacturers wish they had a story as good as yours. They wish they had a connection as local as yours. So listen to me now: GET. YOUR. FACE. IN. YOUR. MARKETING.
If you think consumers are just buying services, 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 hate that question. 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 new furniture is as tricky as reading labels in the yogurt aisle. They are SO GOOD at slight of hand, calling your attention to the positives while conveniently hurrying you past 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! You value coil springs! Yes it has coil springs (in a vastly inferior poorly constructed drop-in unit) High density foam? Yes, we have that too! (about two inches of it, wrapped in 8 layers of batting.) Leather, yes! Leather is superior in quality! (Except for this rebonded leather, but hey! It’s LEATHER!)
I used to work at A-1 Foam and Upholstery – I sold a LOT of foam. One day, a woman asked if we had any of that, “Lifetime warranty foam” like a big name furniture brand. “Lifetime? I’m sorry, no, there’s no such thing. I can show you our best foam, and tell you how long it’s likely to last with every day use (10-15 years) but nothing lasts forever, and there are too many variables to suggest otherwise.” A few weeks later, another woman came in and mentioned the same warranty – which she had. “It’s wonderful – 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.
I think consumers have been baited and switched enough in the past 20 years to be justifiably wary. I don’t know about you, 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 many furniture brands shot themselves in the foot racing to cut price tags.
I think trust in small businesses is on the rise. Let’s live up to it.
Customized shopping experience.
I swear, I once sold an upholstery job because the client was excited to name her project for social media.
Another told me, upon completion of his sofa, “It’s kind of like climbing Everest, you know? It’s the journey, not just the moment of arrival – which is so brief.”
In our fast-food culture, human connection is often hard to come by. One of the beautiful aspects of custom upholstery is that we can tailor products and services to each client. We can share the journey of their project. We can tell a story. We can solicit their input on the nitty gritty details. We can make our clients feel heard and valued and cared for.
We can make a great. Big. Deal.
Low prices depend upon streamlining options. Go into a big box store and ask for a few minor modifications. 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.
Chin up, now. Upholstery isn’t dying – we’re merely recalibrating.
I’d encourage you in the weeks ahead to consider yourself as a consumer – where do you knowingly pass on the least expensive option and why? What do you value? How can you apply that information to your own marketing? We are not obligated to be the least expensive avenue – which is good, because in most cases, we can’t be.