FEATURE STORY  2
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by Becky Miller

Haute consommateur

For most futon stores, the ideal customer is one who values quality over price. While not forsaking mid-range futons, manufacturers are also catering to the customers who want luxury bedding and are willing to pay for it. Many of the manufacturers I spoke with mentioned the emphasis on high-end product in the mattress selections they offer.

“The initial excitement of a rapidly growing industry segment has cooled down,” Byer said. “The exciting push has turned into a mature, steady market. The mature industry has produced a lot of higher-end product.”

“The biggest changes have been in the increased comfort levels–new materials, the build of mattresses–and we’ve seen an increase in retail pricing because of these new comfort levels,” Gutierrez said.

“Elite is focusing on leaner, more brandable futon mattresses, emphasizing the higher-end product,” Widly said.

“United Sleep introduced at High Point a mattress, by itself, at a cost of $225 wholesale, $550 retail,” Gelbard said. “It has a six-inch pocketed coil, configurations of eggcrate foam combined with either visco or latex, all wrapped in a cotton-poly batt that is TB 603 compliant. The shell is available in regular cotton twill as well as 18 higher-end fabric choices: microdenier, suede, etc. It can be finished with piping. The futon is actually upholstered with that fabric, so it looks a lot neater. The average selling price for a complete futon sofa with all components is about $400 in the industry. Manufacturers may be afraid of higher prices, but consumers aren't necessarily. I think [offering a higher-end option] gives the consumer a choice. $1,000 is high for futon sofas but not outrageous for sofa beds and is in keeping with the way furniture and pricing is going.”

Big Sleep has taken a similar track with its futons. “Our biggest difference is being able to tie the package together–making the futon look like an upholstered sofa, since futons are used more for sitting surfaces than as a bed,” Gutierrez said. “This way, it fits in more rooms in the house. We’re utilizing accessories and use designer fabrics actually attached to the mattress so it looks like an upholstered piece.”

How will upholstered futons affect the industry? Naboicheck is concerned that “upholstered futon mattresses will hurt the cover business and reduce the ticket price of the average futon sofa sleeper sale.”

Gutierrez does not think that fully upholstered futons will hurt cover sales. “As fashion trends change in the home, the consumer can add a zippered cover on top of the upholstered cover,” he said.

If a trend toward upholstered mattresses develops, we could see partnerships develop between cover and mattress manufacturers, such as the relationship between SIS Futon Covers and Carriage House Furniture. Carriage House partners with SIS on upholstered beds, and the companies are working toward teaming up on studio sofas as well.

Believing Las Vegas

“Forget the futon industry–the whole furniture industry is curious to see how Las Vegas will affect it,” Gelbard said. “I was in High Point to set up the last week in March. The conversation topic of everyone–hotel people, a cab driver–was, how will the World Market Center affect High Point? High Point is scared.”

Fear of the unknown drives some manufacturers to be a bit apprehensive about the WMC as well. Wolf thinks that the new market will dilute the effectiveness of the futon industry show. “Everyone will go to see what’s going on. It will be a big industry party. I hope business will go on as well. A lot of product announcements will be made there–there will be a lot of competition for press.”

“The big maybe is that more regular furniture stores will come in and shop us [the futon vendors],” Gelbard said. “Or, will people in Vegas be so busy shopping regular furniture vendors that they won’t come in and see us? Will Las Vegas itself be a distraction? Will staying out late at shows and restaurants affect people’s time and desire to do business?”
Others are ambivalent. “I don’t think it will affect the industry,” Naboicheck said. “Rather, it will just give retailers more places to shop. Vegas is more inviting than High Point, which is hard to fly in to, find a hotel room, etc.”

Some manufacturers are extremely excited about the upcoming market. “The World Market Center will only enhance the futon mattress industry,” Day said. “The Who’s Who of the industry will be there to view all the wares in the industry. Otis will have the opportunity to appeal to an international group of buyers that embrace new technology and innovative concepts in the art of sleep, comfort and durability. This is just the kind of market we have been waiting for!”

“Elite is in a great position to benefit as well as, if not better than, anybody from the World Market Center,” Widly said. “We have a great location in the main building–we got in early. We believed in the World Market from day one. We believed it would not only close down San Francisco, but would also compete with or even replace High Point.”

“It’s another opportunity for retailers to see what’s happening,” Gutierrez said. “It gives retailers the opportunity to go to one place to see everything. With the slowing of the San Francisco market, it’s key to have another market in the western part of the United States.”

Some manufacturers are more concerned about permanently locating the futon show in Vegas than they are about the overall effect of the WMC. “Most of our business is on the East Coast,” Byer said. “When we’ve gone to Vegas in the past it has not had a big impact on our business. I don’t think the WMC will have a big impact on the futon industry. Our East Coast customers come to our showroom all the time. We cover the East Coast very well, so it’s not practical for us to ship to the west. I prefer it when the futon show is on the East Coast as well as on the west, like when it was in Providence [R.I.].”

White Lotus sees the same problem with relocating the futon show to Vegas. “Moving the FAI show around the country still allowed some local vendors to choose to present when the show was close to them,” Casparian said. “I predict that the WMC will simply be giant companies with mostly foreign-made goods, selling to mass marketers. White Lotus will miss out on the yearly meetings with other small retailers.”

Postulations

What does the future hold for the futonosphere? Overall, mattress makers feel
positively about the future, though some uncertainty furrows manufacturers’ brows.

Growth in high-end market: “The futon business will go along with the traditional mattress business,” Gelbard said. “It will become more high tech with more sophisticated filling materials and fabrics. I’ve been in the futon business since it was a packing crate with a bag of cotton on it, to a product that’s really sophisticated. We had dealers in High Point who couldn’t believe how nice futons are.”

“High-end product will continue to grow, and business will be stable,” Byer said. “Interest in high-end materials will continue to grow.”

Effect of petrochemicals: “As we go forward, look no further than the price of gas at the corner store: some fundamental changes will happen,” Wolf said. “While polyurethane won’t disappear, it will decline. We can look back to the roots of the futon industry–a natural, renewable resource. Thinking consumers like that concept of renewable resources as the core of the product.”

“Material costs are increasing with the state of petrochemical products,” Gutierrez said. “This has affected pricing across the board. Consumers will see prices rise, but they will see this in all categories.”

Importing: “While most of the futon frame production for this industry has moved overseas, the mattresses are still being made in this country,” Casparian said. “Within five years, I expect most mattresses will be made in China, since most of the raw materials and machinery will already be there, and the labor will be cheaper.”

“China will be a factor,” Naboicheck said. “We will see futon mattresses coming in from China, not just frames. The mattress is the next thing that is coming in from overseas. This will decrease prices.”

Potential of the futon furniture

Looking toward the future, Karen Day said, “Safety and compliance will be on the forefront of manufacturers’ minds, especially with the advent of TB 603 and national standards for open flame and TB 604 around the corner. Platform bed sales will continue to be on the rise. We have known for years the potential of the futon, but the image is finally starting to catch up to where it needs to go.”

What is the real potential of the futon? How far could it go, given optimal
circumstances?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.” In a small way, could the futon business work the same?
Believe that mattresses will be safe; that we can choose materials that are good for consumers and for our planet; that when properly educated, customers will choose quality over low prices; that new markets will provide growth opportunities.

Believe most of all that futons continue to offer a value that consumers want.
If we really perceive futons that way, it will rub off on others. Believing in its potential is the best way to help the category reach that potential.

Please email me with your thoughts , comments and questions.

FL

 
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