Showroom Strategies for a Furniture Maker

A successful niche furniture maker looks for ways to broaden his appeal in his local market. October 3, 2011

I'm going to be building some furniture for a show room. What items and features are great sellers or make most clients say "wow"? Most people love the soft close but not all are willing to pay for it. Most people like the rich dark colors over the lighter ones. Everyone seems to like shaker doors, and while they are not everyoneís favorite they appeal to most. Corbels and flutes seem to be about 50/50.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
I wouldn't even consider placing work in a gallery unless they show confidence and firsthand knowledge that my work would sell. Furthermore I would expect them to push my work to the right buyers. Remember that they probably won't like it if youíre selling work direct, or through other competitors. They will need to sell in quantity as I am sure they won't be happy if you sell your work elsewhere.

At the end of the day youíre paying the gallery a steep commission to sell your product. Youíre not loaning it to them for people to look at, with the hope it might sell. As far as what sells to their clients, I would hope they would know that answer. Otherwise I would doubt their ability to sell my work.

From the original questioner:
I'm not selling in a gallery, itís a rented space. I'm not selling high end furniture, itís just regular furniture for the average person. I want to appeal to the biggest audience possible. I am looking for ideas on what makes good selling items.

From contributor K:
So you are trying to sell low-mid level furniture to the widest audience possible, while fabricating it also? In that market, you are competing against people who have stores that are purchasing mass-produced items from China, etc. that are a fraction of what you can produce them for. In addition to shop overhead, you will also have the showroom overhead. Have you really thought this through?

1. If you want to know what is selling in your market to the widest audience, pick up the circulars or visit the showrooms that are currently selling mass-produced product. They spend more money on research than they average shop could.

2. After doing this, come up with designs that are similar but offer more benefits. For example, look at Thomasville furniture and create pieces in that flavor that include extra's that their distributor would have to charge more for. Then offer it for a bit less or for the same. Come up with RTA kits that you can also sell online for less.

Personally, I think you are better off going after the custom market, as there is much less competition than the mass-production market (hence, the US manufacturer demise in that market). You have to produce and sell much more product in the mass-produced market than you do in the custom. And you have to drive people to your showroom through advertising. Instead, create a name for yourself within your community. Every time you sell to someone and do a great job for them, farm their warm market, because they will be showing it off. Whether that is at the next party, having a friend over, whatever.

As far as furniture goes:

1. Entertainment units - DVD/CD storage, remote-extenders, XBox/WII storage, photo album storage, glass doors, open design not monolithic, cord-access, sound system all tied into their flat screen but hidden, etc.

2. Bedroom - think organized. When people see high-end furniture on TV shows of the rich and famous, they see things that keep people organized.

3. Kids furniture - themed sets, bunk beds with combo desk, shelves, Captain Bed/with another bed/drawers for sleepover underneath.

4. The world is replete with CD's/DVD's. Come up with a unique way to do this that can incorporate the game systems, especially in kids rooms (maybe combo book shelf/game storage - appealing to parents who think their kids need to think about something else besides screens). Just a couple of things to get the juices flowing.

From the original questioner:
To the original questioner: I have already been in this market for a while. Itís not new to me, I do offer custom sizes and finishes but I want to get away from it, it isnít very popular for some reason. I think people are scared of the price going up when they customize. I have no problem competing with China, buying local is big in my area. I think people are becoming less and less willing to buy products from China and will pay a small premium for quality local made product. I will be building furniture for my showroom so I was curious as to what are some popular selling features. My products sell randomly and I am looking for features so that I can get some popular selling items.

From the original questioner:
The thread isnít really heading where I imagined it would. I already have a niche product for the middle class, which I do well with. I already have the showroom with my products there. I want to expand to a bigger market and have something for most everyone. The problem with niche products are that they aren't for everyone. Now I'm working on furniture that will appeal to the large majority of people.

From contributor S:
If you are making money then that is what matters. But if you have been doing this as long as you make it sound like, I am surprised you have to ask these questions. In general show the best and sell to the budget. My "show room" is all Blum soft close, real wood veneers, imported lumbers and the like. It is easy to switch the doors on the display to represent a lower end solution. It is easy to tell the client we can omit the soft-close and save cash.

Some tricks - all my show room island cabinets are double sided, there are two fronts with different door styles. All the base cabinets and tall cabinets are half depth and have no convenience hardware. There is one wall of standard depth cabinets that have all the hardware mounted inside (magic corners, lift up doors, pantry organizers, spice racks, etc).

We have several complete sets of door/drawer fronts that can be exchanged on the cabinets. If the customer is interested in wooden doors we change out the entire show room to reflect that (takes about 30 minutes). If they want a contemporary layout we use those doors.

Usually our clients make an appointment so this is all arranged in advance. Not sure how this applies to your business as furniture is different from cabinets. But you can definitely use some of these ideas. Show a piece in its standard configuration, then show options using detail parts mounted to boards.

From contributor M:
I don't intend to be critical, but I have spent days, if not weeks thinking about the same questions myself. I hope what I can share, is constructive. Youíre going to have a hard time selling decent quality furniture to people without a good bit of disposable income. If youíre looking for a quality product to sell to the vast majority of people, look at what you can make well, but sell in their budget.

Things like cutting boards, picture frames, etc are a way to sell scrap, or leftover material. They can be made to a high standard of quality, and sold for under $50.00. Other accessories such as mirrors, magazine racks, wall shelves, office or kitchen accessories, benches, media storage, accent items etc could be used to fill the gap between your sub $50 items, and furniture.

Focus on making a quality product that is above the competition. I am sure there are some exceptions, and in a few limited cases decent furniture can be made at a mass market price. I have been playing with a few ideas myself utilizing parts that are almost exclusively CNC machined from solid hardwood, with little to no assembly required. All that would be left would be sanding and finishing. If you do find something, by all means experiment. Try making some different things and see what sells. Good luck with your showroom. I am finishing up renovations in preparation to open up my own.

From the original questioner:
Making more money is better, I want to be bigger. I donít have to ask these questions, but they definitely help to find out what sells best in different areas of the country. I live in a small place and it takes a while for trends to make it here, so if something is popular in your area it will be a year or so before it hits here.

Right now I am selling mostly furniture that would be on par with the pottery barn only solid wood. I would like a lineup of furniture similar to Ethan Allen, style wise. I consider both of these as mid level furniture, would that be correct? Ethan Allen is obviously better but I still think its falls under mid level furniture. I would not be interested in building anything in the craft level, I have some shelves that start around $125-150, thatís about as low as I want to sell.

From contributor R:
Have you considered looking into a small wholesale line or perhaps working with some retailers in your surrounding area? It sounds like we have a similar situation as you in that we have a small retail space and are working to have a small line of stock/production items (though on a trivial scale compared to a production furniture factory). The line, as most all, will of course be ever evolving and changing as interests/requests change and also as we tire of a given item.

I think one of the upsides to this sort of setup is you are able to bend your offering far more easily and far quicker to meet your customers wants and needs. Itís not like you have a big production line that has to be upset to change a profile on an edge or make a small change in color or dimension for a given customer (for an upcharge of course).

Back to the wholesale, what we find is that when you factor in what it costs to do retail in total dollars the hit you take selling wholesale is really not that bad. After factoring in retail shop hours, collecting and paying sales tax, Merchant accounts, lost time schmoozing and chatting if your retail space is part of your shop, browsers, the "do you have that in a little lighter brown", and then the fact that many customers will just plain try to pull with the maker that they simply wonít ever think of trying with a retailer of a product. Additionally many retail outlets can be great sources of information with information like "you know what everyone asks me for but I canít find anywhere."

I donít think people are moving towards quality and or locally made on mass. But what I do think is the people who are already of that mindset are being more aggressive in their pursuit of it and perhaps holding the line to a higher percentage of their purchases. That's just my personal take on it. I think the vast majority of people who have been casting our manufacturing abroad in their never ending pursuit of cheaper and cheaper goods are forging ahead full steam and there is no move afoot to slow or stop it. Thatís not to say you canít snag some sales from them but they are not likely to be your customer.

While we are not interested in making craft items either we live in an area that is infested with the "primitive" movement. I liken it to the "country" movement of years ago (slate blue cows, ducks, and hearts sponge stamped on a flat latex painted board with some coat spindles). I have no problem taking some influence from this stuff but making my work a bit nicer and of higher quality given the sales are there. We have had some success over the years in setting up retailers that wont overlap and donít have to compete with each other. It may be worth looking into.

From the original questioner:
I did wholesale for a while but stopped. I did not like the amount of work for the dollars made. I felt I was giving away to much potential profit. I am now doing less work and making more money.

From contributor V:
I think you hit the nail on the head. Back to the original - you listed Potter Barn and Ethan Allen. If these are the things you do and want to grow to go to stores exactly like that and take note of what is selling. Then after going to several stores the things that are alike and sell well in several stores should give you an idea of what is and will sell and even better give you an idea of the pricing you have to match in order to sell it. You can also do some of the same research by visiting some of the websites to compare as well.