Furniture Firms Say Home Sales Buoy Industry

THE Bernhardt Furniture Company is a picture of survival in one of America's most recession-battered industries.

"We've changed more in the last 10 years than during the whole 100 preceding years," says Alec Bernhardt, president of the North Carolina company his grandfather founded.

As the International Home Furnishings Market ended here yesterday tallies of new orders were not yet available. But January, February, and March furniture orders booked across the industry were the highest in two years, says Douglas Brackett, executive vice president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.

The upsurge parallels sharp increases in new home starts and existing home sales, key economic indicators for furniture sales. Mr. Brackett expects that the industry will have a 3.7 percent increase in sales this year over last, the first annual increase in three years.

During the past 30 months of industry recession, as competitors closed or merged, Mr. Bernhardt was revamping the family business. Changes he made characterize the future of the furniture business, say industry experts who were here this week for the largest wholesale furniture market in the world.

Bernhardt, as well as other furniture manufacturers, have moved to be more consumer responsive - the watchword at this spring's show. Those unpopular months-long waits for custom-order furniture are being erased with faster production cycles, Bernhardt says. And in an effort to meet the newly savvy consumer - educated in home design by a raft of new shelter magazines - Bernhardt has revamped his furniture line to a pricier, higher fashion product. Hoping to create exclusivity, Bernhardt's company has st arted national advertising and reduced the number of its retail accounts over the past 10 years from 8,000 to just 800. Coast-to-coast retail licensees of the family product are planned.

The changes are the kinds of modernization moves other industries have long since made but that this industry, dominated by small, old-fashioned, family-run operations, has been slow to invest in, says Bill Peterson, founder of Furniture/Today, the industry's major trade publication.

While the number of traditional retail furniture stores has shrunk from 50,000 to under 20,000 nationwide in the last 20 years, he says, sales haven't faltered because consumer-responsive operations like the monster Swedish home store Ikea, catalogue operations like Eddie Bauer and Spiegel, and the ubiquitous Bombay Company have moved in.

Meanwhile, major US furniture manufacturers have taken a quantum leap forward in sophistication in just the past two or three years, Peterson says. Computerized factories, alone, are revolutionizing delivery time.

But as the recession fades, Peterson says, the industry's deeper structural changes will be tested. In particular, manufacturers are trying to eliminate the tradition in which "the manufacturer's responsibility ends when the truck is unloaded."

For perhaps the most startling example of change, Peterson and others point to the Masco Corporation's Lineage division, a new furniture line, reportedly started up at a cost of $100 million. Perhaps the most expensive furniture manufacturing company ever launched from scratch, Lineage uses the latest developments in furniture: 30-day delivery, intensive consumer testing, and a close manufacturer's hand in the high-style marketing of the product.

Change in the furniture industry has come none too soon for Michael Koontz's family retail furniture store in Ocala, Florida. Mr. Koontz says 1990 was "devastating," the first year the 75-year-old store lost money. But by the end of 1991, profits were back. Customer loyalty, something the old-fashioned store once depended on, is gone, he says.

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