Issue 2, 2022
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By Jerry Klingerman
Eddie Schlabach has furniture stain in his blood. OK not literally, but the Dundee, OH-area businessman has been finishing and staining furniture since 1999, so it’s safe to say that with 23 years of experience, he’s one of the leading experts in the ever-growing field. Schlabach is the owner-operator of Schlabach finishing, an 18-employee business located in the heart of Ohio’s furniture-producing region.
In these pages we’ve often reported that, if you want to see what’s new, hot or selling well in the hardwood furniture industry, you only need to visit one of the area’s numerous finish shops. But up until now, we’ve not really spent any time discussing just how it’s done. That is, we’ve never really discussed the steps involved in creating the beautiful finish on the handcrafted, solid wood furniture for which this region is so well-known. Expressions in Woodcraft editor Jerry Klingerman recently toured Schlabach’s shop (something he’s done on several occasions), and asked Eddie Schlabach to explain the finishing process. Why is this important?
There’s an old saying in the marketing world that, “a confused mind always says no.” That is, the more your prospect understands about your product, the more likely he/she is to purchase. Where high-quality hand-crafted furniture is concerned, knowing how it’s made — and, frankly, why it costs more than the imported stuff from the Big Box stores — gives you an important set of tools you can use to educate your customers. We invite you to follow along, and share this information with everyone on your sales floor and marketing team.
EXP: How long have you been involved in furniture finishing?
Schlabach: I started finishing in 1999, so 23 years.
EXP: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen during that time? Schlabach: Probably the biggest industry change is the use of Soft Maple (often referred to as Brown Maple.) This wood species has been good to sales in the industry because it helps achieve a more modern look that is harder to achieve with oak, cherry, walnut and hickory. Also, the demand for domestically crafted goods holds a much larger market share than in the past. As we are more and more competitive in American markets. Imports and Global logistics issues have helped our industry in being more competitive. [A Conversion Varnish, also called a catalyzed finish, uses a fast-acting catalyst that is activated just prior to being applied. The catalyst includes a hardening agent that provides additional durability.]
EXP: Can you tell us a bit about conversion varnishes?
Schlabach: The Conversion Varnish has not changed a lot in recent years. One thing retailers should know is Conversion Varnish takes 30 days at 70 degrees to achieve full cure and maximum protection. Conversion Varnish is the most commonly used coating in the high end furniture market.
EXP: Multi-step finishes are very popular today. When did you start seeing those?
Schlabach: I started seeing high-end, multi-step Finishes probably 20 Years ago, as I used to finish for Homestead Furniture in Mt. Hope Ohio, and they were a leader in using high end multi-step finishes.
EXP: Most people — maybe even store owners — don’t know the exact steps, or the number of steps involved in finishing a piece of hand-crafted furniture. Can you explain the steps for our readers?
Schlabach: First, we sand and inspect the piece for any defects. It’s always possible that a scrape or nick can happen between the builder’s shop and our location, so we definitely give every piece a good “once over” as it’s sanded. Next, we move it to the spray booth, where we spray on a coat of stain, wiping the stain and hand rubbing the stain to achieve the desired color. Then a sanding sealer is applied. Then we dry that sealer, and then sand the sealer, and then remove all the dust before spraying on the topcoat. After that, the piece moves over to a part of the shop where it receives a final inspection and assembly. We’ve actually developed a process in our shop where we try to leave the drawer slide hardware in place as it came in from the builder. This saves us time, and allows us to remove some of the margin for error, because drawer slides stay in their exact original position (see photo on page 8, top). We then wrap each piece to protect it from dust and foreign matter. From there, we ship to the store or warehouse.
EXP: Probably the number one question that gets asked in stores is, “How do I care for this?” That is, consumers want to know how best to care for their high-quality, handcrafted furniture.
Schlabach: We work with FinishWorks products, and they’ve put together a very helpful guide that stores can provide to customers. There are definitely some “Dos and Don’ts.” Probably the biggest “don’t,” and this is surprising to people, is don’t use wax, or off-the-shelf furniture polishes that contain wax. But, other than that, basically all you need to do is use a soft, moist cloth, and then a dry cloth. That’s pretty much it. These finishes are very durable.
EXP: Multi-step finishes have allowed furniture builders to produce some incredible looks. But we also know they take much more to finish than a “normal” piece. Can you explain this a bit?
Schlabach: Multi Step Finishes are all about detail. Glaze is applied after stain or paint to achieve a specific look and highlight high-end moldings and other accents. Dry or wet glazes may be used to achieve desired looks. Rub-through or antiquing is used to simulate wear areas to imitate natural aging. This is generally done after stain or paint has been applied. This step takes skill and an imagination to achieve the correct look and feel. Multi-step finishes are very labor intensive and, yes, they can affect the end price that the customer pays.
EXP: Does the same apply to Rustic and reclaimed styles?
Schlabach: Yes. We do some hand distressing, although we ask our clients to use Yoder Hand planing, as they specialize in distressing and hand planing. Again, hand-distressing is labor intensive. When a piece is distressed it needs to be sanded again prior to any finishing and items coming from multiple vendors all need to complement each other. Thus, Yoder Hand Planing is a great choice as they are a specialty shop and do a great job in this area. EXP: You see everything — all the styles, colors, etc. So, what’s hot right now? Schlabach: We do see a lot of styles and I guess it’s all over the board right now. Reclaimed and Rustic is definitely good. We also see a lot of contemporary/modern looks. With today’s market climate we also have been seeing a lot of Shaker style in the Quick Ship Arena, as lead times for other styles are quite long.
By Bob Berryhill
Are you looking to grow your business and increase sales? Are you making the most out of your website or your social media as you possibly can? Are you employing other digital marketing tools?
Whether you run a large multi-store organization with an internal marketing department or are the owner of a small furniture store and rely on an external marketing agency like Infinite Digital Solutions, or are doing it yourself, you need to know whether your efforts are working. You are spending hard-earned money in your marketing efforts, and you need to hold yourself, your team or your agency accountable. But first you need to know the right questions to ask.
I’ve put together some questions that we’ve learned will give you the most insight into whether you’re on the right track toward meeting your marketing objectives or if you need to switch up your marketing mix to boost your business’ success.
First, before we go to the questions, let’s have a quick discussion directed to the small business owner and not the large corporate organization. If you’re doing your own marketing you need to ask yourself, “Am I able to do an effective job and measure my efforts into actual result versus a hit and miss strategy?”
Let’s face it, most independent store owners are doing everything from handling customers, placing orders, delivering orders that have been received, mopping the floors, dusting the furniture to even cleaning the restrooms. You need to be honest with yourself and ask if you really have the time it takes to develop an effective marketing strategy for your store that will have measurable results; or are you so busy doing the important job of running your small business and keeping your head above water because you do not have the hours in the day to do everything you need?
My recommendation to you is to get help, either in the form of a professional marketing agency like Infinite Digital Solutions, who knows furniture and the Amish furniture industry, or hire someone that has experience (more than just creating a Facebook post) and who has a proven track record of measurable results.
Regardless of the size of your business, let’s look at some effective ways to help your organization.
1. What is the company’s strategy, and how does your marketing efforts further your goals?
Your business should have a clearly defined mission that everyone on the team is working toward, along with a strategy that will help you realize that mission. Keep in mind the words of Benjamin Franklin “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Your marketing efforts should have a documented strategy In fact, businesses that create and document a marketing strategy are 538% more likely to succeed, as opposed to those who don’t make the effort of writing down your goals. Marketing goals should also support and complement the overall strategy of your marketing efforts. If your marketing efforts aren’t aligned with the store’s overall strategy of sales growth, there’s no point in executing them – and the unaligned strategy could actually be detrimental to the growth of your business.
Here’s an example: Let’s say the mission behind your furniture store is to build and maintain a relationship with each of your existing customers. (As it should be! People who’ve already bought from you will always be your best prospects.) Your strategy could be partnering with area designers to keep current on the newest design trends in the furniture industry and send out a monthly letter. Or have an evening with top designers (which may be you as a furniture professional) in your town for an intimate gathering in your store to discuss design trends and colors. Through this type of gathering, not only are you building a loyal customer base, but you are also developing a relationship with area designers or are on the front end of consumer choices in a lot of cases and can direct potential sales to your store.
If your marketing has centered its strategy around sending out a random letter, it’s not aligned with where you’re trying to grow your business. On the flip side, if your marketing strategy is all about acquiring new customers and referral partners, your whole business will be in alignment and moving toward the same goals. This is the kind of answer you’re looking for.
2. Who are we trying to reach?
You need to define who your customer really is. Is it the 50+ crowd that you currently have buying from the store, or is it the 35+ crowd (with whom you can share the benefits of American hardwood furniture) that you also want to attract to the store? Once you know your strategic direction make sure your marketing team and efforts are in tune with who your target audience really is.
It’s nice to think that “everyone” is your target customer, but in reality, you need to build a marketing strategy that has a specific target audience. When you ask your marketing team about this, their answers should be in-depth and should ideally come in the form of customer profiles which are formed by combining demographics, market research and existing customer data. Another important note: The customer profile your marketing team has today should not be considered final. Ideas and trends can rapidly change.
For example, a Social Media influencer may talk about an awesome new Amish-crafted table they just purchased and how wonderful it is compared to the cheap stuff that can be purchased in any Big Box store. You can piggyback off of such posts. Your customer profile should regularly be updated as new information becomes available, and as customer trends and data changes. Case in point: Successful marketers are 242% more likely to report conducting audience research at least once per quarter.
3. What is our message?
Once your marketing team has your audience(s) nailed down, messaging that’s specifically tailored to each group should be created. Whether your furniture business is frequented by older, empty-nesters or retired people, or if you are going to promote to new-mover professionals with young children and income levels of $150,000+, your messaging should be different, based on which segment you want to reach. Your message to young professional families, for example, could actually include several key points including:
•The importance of the durability and sustainability of hardwood furniture that will last through the rigors of family use.
•How your furniture is plastic free and environmentally safe for the environment.
The message for older, empty nesters or retired people, on the other hand, might focus on the quality of Amish-built furniture and that this is in investment of heirloom pieces that can be handed down for generations. There are additional key markers for each group, but the main takeaway here is that your marketing efforts should convey more than one message — assuming you want to reach more than one audience category.
Furthermore, your marketing professionals should have answers about what mediums they’re using to convey these messages (websites, digital media, email, social media, video, SMS, radio/television, print, etc.).
4. What are our goals?
It’s obvious the main goal is to increase business and market share, which increases the profitability of your store. As we have discussed so far, you know your mission, strategy, audience and messages. But again, what are your specific goals? It has been found that marketing professionals who set goals are 429% more likely to report success than those who don’t. As the store owner, you need to decide on your marketing objectives and share them with your marketing team.
Take this a step further and engage all your employees by posting physical reminders of your goals around the back office to keep everyone inspired and on the same page. Examples of marketing goals include: Increasing customer sales by 10%, improving your website to show your potential customer everything you have to offer, and the tremendous amount of furniture and designs that are now just sitting in your catalogs on the shelf. To make your website work for you, consider increasing your search ranking on Google through customized Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or start a Google Adwords campaign. You also can increase customer engagement on your social media channels though “Reels” or eye-catching 30-second video snippets. There are a variety of goals you can choose to zero in on; just make sure the ones you’re using are those that tie into your strategy and mission. A word of caution: Do not try to do everything at once! Incorporate your strategy one step at a time so as not to explode your marketing budget; then add the next layer to increase to the next level of your goals. A good rule of thumb this is this: As sales increase, increase your marketing budget by the same percentage of the increase. For example, if your sales increase by 10%, increase your marketing budget by 10%.
5. How can we track our success?
We have created goals for your marketing strategy and have a direction set, now ask your marketing team how they’ll measure results and whether or not you have reached your goals or are on track to reach them. In other words, ask what key performance indicators (KPIs) the marketing team is going to use and require a monthly meeting to go over what has been attained over the previous period. KPIs should be quantifiable and cover each aspect of the marketing strategy that is currently employed.
For example, if you are using Google Adwords, there should be a report to gauge how many people looked at the ad, then how many interacted with it by going to your website. You will be able to help tell the team how many inquires came through your website, (assuming you have a website that allows inquires to be made) and if there was an increase in store sales. This should give you a clear indication of whether your goals are being met. Once you’ve gone through these questions with your marketing team, you should have a much better understanding of whether your marketing efforts are on track to get where you want it to go. If any of these questions are met with shock, confusion, a guess, or an “I don’t know,” pay attention because this means you’ve discovered an area of weakness.
Any marketing team, whether internal or external, should be able to confidently answer the five questions we’ve covered here and tell you how they arrived at those answers. After all, this is how the basis of any solid marketing strategy is formed. Marketing is one of the most important business operations for modern companies that wish to reach success in today’s digital world. If you seek to stand out in the crowd of many and engage your customers in a way that will foster loyalty and retention, you simply must rely on a solid and consistent marketing strategy. If you are not actively promoting your store, you are losing market share, every day, every month and every year.
You may one day find yourselves having to face closing your store, because another store in the area has taken all of your customers, as stayed in front of them with an effective marketing approach. If you are interested in developing a solid marketing strategy, we at Infinite Digital Solutions are here to help you implement a quality and lasting marketing strategy.
Bob Berryhill is VP of Sales at Infinite Digital Solutions/Infinite Furniture. You can reach him at: 137 W. Jackson Street, Millersburg, Ohio 44654 firstname.lastname@example.org www.infinitedigitalsolutions.com
By Ryan Kralik
In our last issue we discussed the possibilities — and showed some successful examples of — furniture retailers who operate a “business within a business” by selling custom-built cabinets alongside furniture. In this issue we’re going to take a look at another revenue- and profit-boosting opportunity that goes hand-in-hand with selling hardwood furniture: Outdoor structures.
At first glance, this might not seem to be as direct a connection to furniture as cabinetry is. But trust me, it is. To get a better idea of how outdoor structures align with selling furniture, I spoke with Matt Weaver, from Weaver Barns in Sugarcreek. Weaver barns has been in the outdoor structure (barns and sheds) business for 28 years, and is widely recognized as an industry leader in that space. (The Weaver family is no stranger to the furniture business either, as they also own Weaver Furniture near Sugarcreek as well.) With a network of dealers across four Midwest states, the company works with several dealers that also sell Amish-built furniture.
As for whether selling outdoor structures is a good fit for furniture retailers, Weaver said, “We have several dealers who have sold our products at their retail furniture locations for many years.” It’s a good fit because, just as Amish-built furniture is very high quality and customizable, “Our focus has always been quality, design and service. If you look at our products you will quickly see we are a notch above.” That leads to a positive customer experience. And, beyond the sale of an outdoor structure, it’s a good fit because at that point, they become a customer as opposed to a prospect. Whether they buy furniture first and then a barn, or vice-versa, the fact is when your customer’s needs align with your product offerings, you’ll have “top of mind” awareness and a leg up on your competition. To be sure, there is a difference in selling furniture than selling outdoor structures. And, as Weaver says, “We offer an extensive product offering that is fully customizable. This can be challenging to learn.”
But Weaver says most of their furniture-based dealers overcome that challenge, “by assigning one person to become the ‘expert’ on our products.” Learning an additional product line has additional benefits that furniture retailers might not be aware of at first. Weaver says, “We find people who become experts on our product are more successful at selling,” meaning that sharpening those skills offers benefits on the furniture sales floor as well.
Weaver also believes that adding outdoor structures “can reduce the focus on a single product line.” A wider selection of products increases the chances for a sale, and with Weaver’s product line — which includes the classic outdoor shed, larger barns, outdoor entertainment-style structures and even cabins and homes — those chances for a sale could increase considerably. So what does it take to add this product line? Well, for one, it takes space. Weaver says, “Having some display space is needed to become a dealership.”
As mentioned previously, it also takes someone from your team willing to become the onsite expert, in order to be able to work with customers and help them find the right structure. For anyone interested in becoming a dealer, Weaver says , “Our unique styles and quality are unmatched in the industry. The best thing you can do is to check us out. You will see the differences.”
By Steve Biegle, Owner, Circles in the Wind furniture
Over six years ago my wife and I purchased a floundering Amish furniture store that had been in business for more than 20 years, but just hadn’t progressed into modern-day marketing. Before purchasing, we took time to visit local and chain retailers as well as Amish stores in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to understand and assess how they approached their market.
In our research we also considered the influence of large E-Commerce-only websites that had huge online presences. While visiting stores we found that some had large inventories, and in some stores they displayed the same styles, only in different stain colors. And in some cases, you could tell that some pieces had been on the floor for quite some time. For us, that raised the question of, “How do we best go to market while we rebrand and have a clear differentiation from our competitors?”
Based on decisions we made on all these factors, we leased a 3500-square-foot former furniture storefront and put together a hybrid plan that would include bits and pieces of all we observed. Our first goal was to develop an intuitive and easy-to-use website that would be the calling card for our business. The objective was to have all furniture pieces available for viewing, but have no pricing listed, so the customer would call or e-mail us for details.
This was expressly done to funnel customer dialogue to our store and to our employees so that we could develop a relationship and trust in our product and our ability to deliver their dream furniture.
We also set up a Design Center to have a “wall of wood” with just about every wood species and stain color so that customers could make informed decisions on the color palette to best match their home décor. We also added a kiosk with our website for those folks who wanted to peruse our offerings but did not want to leaf through dozens of catalogs.
We added a full-time interior designer to our staff who offers her design services to help customers select furniture styles and colors, along with window treatments, bedding and accent rugs to complete room-to-room décor. Having a small showroom floor makes us nimble and allows us to change out styles and room themes. We also designed our show floor with distinct bedroom, office and living room settings to showcase pieces in realistic settings.
And above all, we installed dedicated customer support throughout the process from sales through delivery. There are times that having a smaller floor space with targeted pieces is a limiting factor to some customers, but the flexibility and “down home” feel of the presentation, coupled with our aggressive Social Media, digital marketing platforms, YouTube and Cable TV commercials, some limited print ads have provided results year after year, even in the face of Covid Pandemic.
Circles in the Wind is located at 206D Calumet Rd. Chesterton, IN 46304.
Ph: 219-464-9572. Website: https://circlesinthewind.us
By Ryan Kralik
During my 20+ years in the home furnishings and furniture marketing industry, I have come across a number of things that surprised me and made me ask myself, “Why isn't everyone doing this?” Occasionally I come across a really great idea. One that turns me into a kind of evangelist. One of those moments came when I heard from a retailer of Amish furniture that in addition to furniture, he also offered custom cabinetry for kitchens and bathrooms to his customers.
It was in 2016 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Larry and Lora Schnurr of The Olde Oak Tree were explaining to me that they had found that customers were coming into the store shopping for furniture and that this was often part of a larger remodel, renovation or update to their home or that they were building a new home. They started thinking outside the box and Larry reached out to some of the dozens of woodworkers he already worked with and established a business within a business when he began offering custom kitchen and bathroom cabinet design, building and installation services. “Customers were asking about it and I had a builder who was willing to do it at a reasonable price”, said Larry Schnurr.
It made sense to me and I started researching with other retailers to find out if this was as popular as I thought it would be. I found several stores who were offering cabinets to varying degrees and most were having success in generating high amounts of sales and revenue since an average kitchen cabinet sale was often $20,000 to $40,000 and up with a margin of 20-50%. Yes, it is usually more work to sell a kitchen versus a piece of furniture but the returns are there in spades. I immediately began telling all of my furniture store clients about this terrific idea for generating revenue, building stronger customer relationships and becoming a one stop shop for all things woodworking.
Over the years many retailers that I’ve worked with have begun to offer this service in their stores. Many have dedicated showroom space to cabinetry but some simply mention it to customers or place signage in the showroom and have had success that way. Whether you have experience with cabinetry or not, if you operate a home furnishing business, this could work for you. A retail store is often limited by showroom space so adding furniture product is not always easy.
At the same time, increasing store traffic remains one of the most challenging things about retail in general. By adding more types of products and services which do not require a lot more showroom space and a lot more effort, sales and profits can increase by selling more to the customers you do business with.
John Kaufman and his business partner Richard own Countryview Furniture in Fremont, Michigan. They purchased the store in 2018 and right away began offering custom cabinetry and other remodeling services as Richard had worked previously in the cabinet industry and they had existing relationships with suppliers in Indiana and Illinois. Within months they were selling and fulfilling 4-6 orders per month for kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets and similar remodeling projects. “We have been very happy with how it has worked out for us. We had an existing customer base when we bought the furniture store. Our goal was to sell about 3 average-sized kitchens per month. We were able to easily do that”, John explains of their satisfaction with the program.
Now, I am not claiming that this is a hands-off sale or that selling cabinets is easy for everyone. Selling anything requires knowledge and either someone at the store or someone the store works closely with will need to know an awful lot about cabinetry. Cabinetry, like furniture, requires accuracy and attention to detail or, like a custom furniture piece gone wrong, you can end up with a very expensive custom order that a customer doesn’t want. John Kaufman explains, “Cabinetry is different from furniture. Especially full custom cabinetry. Even though furniture can be customized, you usually start with a design that the customer really likes. It is important to have a designer working with you who has a good handle on designing functional spaces.” Fortunately there are cabinet designers that work on a freelance basis in most markets in the United States and there are even websites specifically designed to help connect cabinet designers with cabinet dealers. The National Kitchen + Bath Association (NKBA) nkba.org is a non-profit industry organization that connects dealers and designers in this way. They make it easy to find and connect with kitchen and bath professionals near you. You can also look for local and remote help on sites like upwork.com and fiverr.com.
The vast universe of remodeling design professionals in the US make it fairly easy to find someone you can work with if you want to offer cabinetry services in your store. Another exciting thing you might notice once you open this door to outside the box is that there are many other types of products and services that furniture retailers can easily offer customers without much change in their core day-to-day business. From natural health and beauty products to clocks and wall decor, even fine art and sculpture, lighting, outdoor storage buildings and kids playground equipment, countertops and flooring, the possibilities are endless.
I asked John Kaufman of Countryview Furniture in Michigan about his future plans to add products and services, “We have a dream of adding outdoor kitchens. We may offer that as early as mid-2022. It looks like 2022 will be another incredibly busy year for us.” So, like I have with many other home furnishings retailers who have made furniture their focus, I invite you to take a trip outside the box and explore what other possibilities are available to you to increase sales and revenue while staying committed to your core business and helping your customers turn their houses into dream homes.
By Ryan Kralik
To say that consumer behavior has changed in the last 2 years would be a substantial understatement. Covid-19 and related changes to consumer behavior, particularly as it relates to how we conduct ourselves in a public setting, have significantly shifted. More and more people have become more and more comfortable making purchases online and in a stark contrast to what we had been seeing before covid, baby boomers have become much more comfortable spending money on big-ticket items online.
To get us all up to speed I decided to bring in some of the heavy hitters in Amish and America-made furnishings e-commerce, David Gelb of Cabinfield and Jim Miller of JMX Brands/Dutchcrafters. Rather than interview them and then curate and present the data, I decided to simply let get the information from them directly. I presented them with a series of questions into which I thought many of our readers would like some insight. Here are presented the answers to those questions, along with some information about David and Jim and their stores and experience in the industry.
Jim Miller President & CEO, JMX Brands/Dutchcrafters
Headquarters: Sarasota, Florida
Years in Business: 19
Years in E-commerce: 19
How have ecommerce sales changed for you since covid? From the first quarter 2020 through the first quarter of 2021, our annual sales volume increased by 86.5%. We continued strong growth of 32.9% in 2021, which is more in line with our average annual growth of 36.1% since 2013. Ecommerce was the fastest growing segment of our business during that time. However, it is important to note that I attribute only about a third of this growth to the pandemic. In March 2020, at the same time COVID was hitting the US, we experienced a recovery in search rankings that had been about eighteen months in the making. That recovery in search rankings was a bigger contributor.
What are the current challenges to an ecommerce model? The current challenges for us remain much the same as they have been for years – providing our customers with exceptional service, differentiating our brand in a crowded ecosystem, creating great content, generating trust, and constantly adapting to the changing environment. Increasingly, mobile experience and social media presence are essential for success. Since the pandemic began, we have had the additional challenges of managing customer expectations in the face of exceptionally long lead times. We’ve seen vendors who were reliably producing furniture in 8 weeks pre-pandemic, at twice that timeframe today. Customers understandably get frustrated because of it. Long lead times have hit our Amazon platform especially hard, since products that take longer than 30 days are not a great fit for Amazon. Our Amazon revenues fell as a result, and we have made inventory investments to have product in stock for faster shipping.
From a customer service perspective, what are the issues and how does a successful e retailer handle them? “Exceptional customer experience” is the foundation of our vision statement. Unlike many e-retailers, we have made significant investments in staffing for proactive customer care. We have more than a dozen staff devoted to post-sale customer communications and logistics, offer a no-hassle return policy, warranty the vast majority of our products, offer financing options, and over the last two years have purchased our own trucks and hired our own drivers to improve the delivery experience as well. I would argue that customer service is even more critical for e-retailers because the web places a premium on customer reviews.
How do you find competition with brick and mortar stores affects your business and vice versa? Contrary to what I have heard from some brick and mortar stores, I believe it is significantly more challenging to sell a product over a mobile device or on the telephone than to sell the same product to a customer who is right in front of you, looking at the same product in a showroom. We have invested in our Sarasota showroom for this reason and are in the process of expanding to other locations, with our next being Alpharetta, Georgia this summer. Also contrary to popular perception, we strive for high margins and often list our products at premium prices. So my belief is that e-retailers face the same basic challenges as brick and mortar stores – build a great brand through learning to tell your story and delivering excellence for your customers. If you’re trying to compete through price, that’s a poor formula for long term success for most businesses.
How do you handle delivery? What has your journey been in finding a delivery approach that works for you? The delivery experience is the moment of truth. We serve a national market, so delivery has always been an enormous challenge for us – especially when we were very small. For nearly a decade now, we have relied on about a dozen partnerships with owner-operator blanket wrappers. We manage the spider web of logistics internally, which requires several employees. In 2020, we rented a warehouse in LaGrange County, Indiana for the purpose of gaining more control over logistics, quality control, and short-term staging prior to delivery. We also began hiring our own drivers and have purchased four trucks to handle more of our own deliveries. We still rely on our partners for the majority of deliveries, but we’ve been able to improve the delivery experience for some customers as a result. We still have a long way to go for the delivery experience that I want for our customers.
What should brick and mortar retailers know about ecommerce that they may not know now? Building a website is the easy part. To be successful requires serious effort and often big investments in content development, advertising and SEO, social media, telephone staff, support staff and continuous development. I think many brick and mortar stores believe that e-commerce requires little investment, and even that we have “unfair” advantages. That perception is not even close to our reality. The other thing I would say is that of all the visitors to our website, only one half of one percent make a purchase. And that is actually pretty good in our space. Our showroom is exponentially more effective at converting shoppers into customers than is our website.
For retailers considering a hybrid model of online and in-store, what advice would you give them? We were web-only for a dozen years before we opened a showroom. So our commitment to e-commerce was “all in”. While I think every showroom should have a website, I think a truly hybrid model requires “betting the store” if you really want to be successful. It is more than an “add on”. On the other hand, for web retailers interested in adding stores, I would advise them to think carefully about showroom experience and how the web brand might translate into that more tangible expression. But adding stores is a great way to improve the experience for many customers.
David Gelb, President of Cabinfield
How have ecommerce sales changed for you since covid? Our lead times are certainly longer. Online demand is much more robust, as people have become much more accustomed to buying online. This was a trend that was already happening, but Covid accelerated it. The change that may have otherwise taken 5 years, was accelerated into several months.
What are the current challenges to an ecommerce model? In many ways, the same as for every retailer. Trying to predict future needs and trends. The extent of investments to make into our business in times of extreme uncertainty.
From a customer service perspective, what are the issues and how does a successful e retailer handle them? Lead time. Customer dissatisfaction with the stain of the product received.. Customers confused by what they actually ordered. We try to avoid surprises and make everything as clear as possible to the customer, including lead times etc. up front.
How do you find competition with brick and mortar stores affects your business and vice versa? Hard to know. Sometimes we find that we put a lot of effort into a customer, spend a lot of time with them to help formulate their needs and select a piece, only to find out that they got it cheaper in a brick and mortar store.
How do you handle delivery? What has your journey been in finding a delivery approach that works for you? We try, as much as possible, to use private delivery people. But there are challenges, as not all delivery people possess the same customer service skills, and at the end of the day they do represent Cabinfield to the customer. In fact, they are the only face-to-face contact with someone in the entire process.
What should brick and mortar retailers know about ecommerce that they may not know now? It is a lot more difficult, and costly, to run a website than it seems. Customers expect timely replies to their phone calls and emails. Online advertising is expensive. Customer support is expensive. We have 5-7 people working just on customer service (emails and phone calls).
For retailers considering a hybrid model of online and in-store, what advice would you give them? It takes a lot of effort to run a website. You need to make sure that you have the resources and time for it.
By Jerry Klingerman
It’s been said that one must travel many roads to find one’s way home. Photographer Randy Fath, who resides in the Dalton OH area in Ohio’s Amish Country, could be considered the living embodiment of that sentiment.If you’ve perused these pages with any regularity, chances are you’ve noticed the high-quality images of Amish-built furniture. There’s also a good chance that Randy Fath took the photo. Fath is a man of many talents and interests, one of which is still photography.Fath has traveled down many roads — both figuratively and literally — to become the person who he is today, and, after a lifetime of experiences outside Ohio’s Amish Country, finds himself as the “go to” photographer for many local Amish furniture manufacturers (as well as other companies).Anyone who’s ever attempted photography on a professional level knows that probably the two most difficult categories of product/industrial photography are food and furniture. Fath has mastered both, to the point where his name and talents are known throughout the industry.Randy also photographs the beautifully scenic countryside here in the Holmes/Wayne county regions and, like others who capture images of Amish lifestyle, he says, “I try to be respectful of the Amish community and not photograph images of Amish that get their faces.” (Locals know that many myths and misconceptions exist about photographing the Amish, but those who do so regularly know the “ins and outs” of capturing beautiful images while respecting the wishes of the Amish — particularly the more-conservative sects.)These are small, tight-knit communities where information travels quickly, and reputations can be won and lost based on interactions with the Amish. So, it’s no surprise to those who know him that Fath has earned a reputation not just as a top-notch photographer, but as someone who is respectful, and easy to work with.
In preparation for this article, Randy commented that “probably 95 percent of the covers of Expressions In Woodcraft have been my work.” Randy will tell you his motto is, “I always strive for perfection, but if I have to, if I really have to, I will settle for excellence.” Indeed, excellence in furniture photography “is far more difficult than one can imagine.”In the realm of photography, furniture photographers are considered the brain surgeons because of the level of difficulty associated with it. To be skilled in furniture photography Fath says it takes a minimum of nearly 7 years of “passionate learning” to get to the highest level of quality. Randy will tell you that it took him about 10 years of concentrated effort to work at a level he is comfortable with.But that’s not bragging; it’s just a statement. Fath is an engaging, friendly, unassuming person who is easy to talk to, and always up for a good conversation.Photography, though, appears to be but one of Fath’s talents and passions. Based on his life experiences, he probably could be considered a modern-day “Renaissance man.”One of those experiences is something which few people would attempt, let alone complete to the level he did: For three years beginning in 1987, Fath lived a survival/subsistence-style life in an 18-foot Sioux Native American tipi. His intention in doing so was to see if he could live off the land, because he had become an expert on how Native Americans used plants — virtually all plants because, as Fath discovered, Native American had no word for “weed” in their languages.What was originally supposed to be a six-week journey of self-discovery turned into three years of solitude; a solitude that was son intense Fath says that when he left the woods “vowed to never share what the experience was about,” because he knew that “most people would be powerless to understand the depth and meaning of what had transpired."
Following that experience (which is the subject of a new book by Fath), did, in fact, find it impossible to return to “normal” life. So, not long thereafter he found his way to the Banana Docks in Tampa Florida and “stepped on a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) ship going to Jamaica to rebuild rural homes destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert.”After helping build 27 homes in the rural mountains of Jamaica he once again declined to return to Wayne County and spent the next 12 years traveling and working internationally. Over the course of those 12 years he traveled to and worked in 40 countries, doing work that varied from building hospitals to “teaching all levels of education, including (my) last job teaching Film and Video Production in a University in Switzerland. By that time, he had become an award-winning, internationally known photographer and videographer for his work on videos and music videos.In 2001 Fath’s path led him (along with his new Japanese wife) back to Wayne County, where he turned to doing mostly still-image photography. And while he concentrates much of his work on architecture and food, he also does a great deal of work for local furniture manufacturers.
Today, many of the billboards that feature Amish-built furniture feature fath’s work and, as mentioned previously many of the images in these pages (including most of the covers, historically) are Randy’s work.They say that “everyone has a book inside them,” and in 2021 Fath released his own book, titled “One Solitary Tipi,” based on the years he spent living in his own tipi. In the book Fath also details a journey of a different kind: his own personal struggle with dyslexia. As is almost always the case in life, one event often can lead to others that were unplanned — since the book’s release Fath has found himself an in-demand speaker.These days, in addition to speaking and photography, Fath is busy designing a line of high-quality, easy-to-move modular furniture. With dozens — perhaps hundreds — of contacts in Ohio’s Amish-built furniture industry, Fath is working with numerous local businesses to not only design and build the products, but also to ensure that, “what everyone builds will fit everything that everyone else builds.” Long-time furniture retailers and builders might recall that this type of compatibility was developed in the stain industry, so perhaps a comparison to that concept is valid. “The concept with this new furniture is that two girls with SUVs can move without having to employ a moving company. I see this market with young professionals who want high-quality furniture that is easily transportable, starting with the moves they make early in their careers” Fath comments that “It is a new concept with a lot of interest,” and he has orders waiting to fulfill.If his new furniture line is anything like the huge volume of work that precedes it, Fath will add another to a long line of interesting success stories.
By Ryan Kralik
Almost as old as the question “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” is the question “When do I advertise, when I need business or when I don’t need business?”. As an advertising and marketing executive for over 20 years, I’ve heard this question more times than I could ever count. But inherent in this age-old question is a very serious flaw: That flaw is the assumption that advertising is something that you choose to do at one time or the other, when in fact advertising — or more broadly, marketing — is something that a successful business engages in on an ongoing basis. The idea that one can effectively jump into and out of marketing and advertising their business is one that many business owners have learned — the hard way — just isn’t realistic in practice.
Let’s look at a couple examples of this point. As I write this article, most General Motors plants around the world are currently closed and not producing or assembling any automobiles, their core business. This is due to a shortage in chips and microprocessors which are essential to the operations of today’s cars. Using the logic that, “We don’t need to advertise when we don’t need business,” we would expect that GM isn’t doing any advertising since they aren’t making any cars. Not the case. According to Reuters, GM is currently increasing their advertising spend by $1 billion dollars per year, up to $2.7 billion. They even recently hired Lebron James to help them sell cars that they aren’t making. Now why would a company who cannot deliver a product in the near future continue to market the product?
The answer is simple. They recognize that their current situation is temporary. Eventually the chip shortage will right itself. Supply and demand will equalize. And when that happens, their product awareness and the subsequent consumer motivation to buy their product will remain strong because they didn’t let a temporary setback keep them from exercising their dominance as a global brand.
The same logic should be applied to our industry.
Currently, there is a supply and demand disconnect in the home furnishing industry. Due to plants being closed for several months of 2020 for everything from lumber mills to plastic wrap, component shops to trucking, all while consumer demand soared, many furniture orders are taking the better part of a year to reach the customer. As a furniture manufacturer or retailer this might create for you the false feeling that you’re so busy and so far behind that advertising would be foolish. But remember, GM could apply the same philosophy and we all know what would happen if they did: Ford, Chrysler, Hyundai and their myriad other competitors would emerge from the post-pandemic era in a stronger position than GM. Over the long term, those who reduce or eliminate advertising and marketing investments will be weaker than those who do not.
Let’s take a look at this chart recently published by Deloitte, a large international economics, tax and accounting consultancy (fig 1.)
According to projections, durable goods (ie. furniture, home appliances, etc.) rose substantially in 2021. Far more than a normal year-over-year increase. But as a result of that — more people buying more things than they normally do — in 2022 spending on those same types of items is expected to drop sharply. Which means that retailers and manufacturers will be fighting for market share from a much smaller pie. What goes up, must come down. Therefore, the companies that invested in fostering continued high demand for their products will have an easier time gaining and retaining customers than those who did not continue to make those critical investments.
In closing, the simple truth is that if you’re asking yourself when you should be advertising, you’re already way behind the curve. The most successful businesses do not ask when they should advertise but rather they commit to an advertising and marketing strategy and then make strategic adjustments as market conditions ebb and flow. Successful leaders plan and execute while less than successful leaders simply react. Which are you? Which should you strive to be?
Ryan Kralik is the CEO & Publisher of Expressions In Woodcraft Magazine. You can connect with Ryan at: Ryan@expressionsinwoodcraft.com
Modern tools; alternative energy: The Amish, technology and electricity
First-time visitors to Ohio’s Amish Country — whether they are tourists or looking to do business — normally have questions, and more often have misconceptions, about the Amish and their use of technology or modern tools.
Thanks in large part to Hollywood and the media’s superficial treatment of the Amish, visitors tend to believe that they’ll see the Amish churning butter or milking cows by hand around every corner in the road. And when events in Amish communities get reported nationally, much of what you read or hear either is inaccurate, incomplete or downright wrong. Why? We’ll leave the reader to make those conclusion, but we’ll state as fact that there is precious little accurate reporting about the Amish in national media, and even less in movies or on television.
For example, nearly every nationally reported news story makes the generalization that the Amish “don’t use electricity or telephones.” This is not accurate, but rather a common misperception rooted in the fact that the Amish do not use “central station” electricity, or hook up to the power grid.
But for those who are not familiar with Amish culture, the question may arise: How do they make furniture without electricity and modern tools? The simple answer is, Amish furniture makers do use modern equipment. What sets them apart from their “English” counterparts is how those tools are powered.
First, it’s important to note that not all Amish churches abide by the same practices with respect to tools and technology. In fact there is a wide variance of practices.
Instead of using electricity from the power grid, the Amish use large motors to either produce their own electricity, compressed air or to drive line shafts. Then, depending upon what their church district requires or allows, they use tools powered by one or more of those methods. Line shafts, for example, are used to power belt-driven tools.
But large woodworking tools are not the only tools in use. In addition to production, there also is bookkeeping, inventory and marketing — business is business, after all, and less and less of that work is being done by hand, and instead, being performed on word processors, or one of a special line of Amish computers.
In addition to questions regarding power and tools, prospective furniture buyers almost always have questions about their ability to communicate with Amish-owned furniture makers. This varies as well, again, depending upon the particular church sect/district to which the shop owner belongs.
Some shop owners have a phone, voice mail and a fax machine in their office or in a small, separate building adjacent to the shop/office. Others might use voice mail and/or a dedicated fax line only. Another variation is the “fax service,” a fax delivery service which uses a single number, in a centralized location. Faxes then are delivered by a driver, who has an established fax delivery route. The driver will then take the shop’s response and fax it back to the sender.
There are some shops that still communicate only by mail, or when the owner can get to a phone to call out. But the majority of furniture builders in Ohio’s Amish Country are now permitted to use some type of electronic communication. It may also surprise you to learn that some Amish businesses are permitted to use e-mail. While some have traditional e-mail accounts, others might be able to use an e-mail-to-fax service that transforms incoming e-mails to faxes, and outgoing faxes to e-mails.
What fuels change and acceptance of new technology? It’s difficult for outsiders to know, completely, what makes the Amish culture tick. Economic and jobs probably are the primary factors. Less than 10 percent of the Amish now make their full-time income from farming or agriculture, and the furniture industry provides thousands of jobs. A large majority of the furniture produced locally goes outside of the Holmes/Wayne county area. Therefore, it’s necessary to be able to communicate with buyers outside the area. But change always has been weighed and considered very carefully, and is today as well. Many factors are doubtless considered, and the affects on faith, family and community generally take precedence.
At first glance, all of this may seem difficult to understand or accept — but again, that is an outsider’s perspective. It’s extremely important to keep in mind, above all, that the Amish way of life works. These small, tight-knit communities are truly unlike any other culture in America. The actions they take with respect to allowing or forbidding technology are designed to keep those communities intact and thriving.
So you’ve decided to carry some high-quality hardwood furniture in your showroom. Great! Once you start promoting this, your customers are likely to ask a number of questions. We’re tried to anticipate some of the more commonly asked questions here, and provide answers.
Can I get this in a different size?
Yes. Virtually every piece of furniture from Ohio’s Amish Country can be built to custom dimensions. It’s not at all cost prohibitive, and depends upon the complexity of the change in dimensions, and/or the time and materials involved. A large percentage of Amish-built furniture is customized.
I drew this sketch of a piece I want. Can you get this made for me?
In most cases, the answer is a resounding yes! It may take some back-and-forth over the phone, fax, mail or even e-mail, but truly custom work is done all the time. Costs will mostly depend upon the complexity of the piece as compared to similar standard items.
How durable are the finishes?
Very. The two-part catalyzed finishes that are the standard with Amish-built furniture are extremely durable, and stand up well over time. These finishes are markedly different than the old “varnishes” and sealers used in the past. Water rings on tables, for example while not a thing of the past, are rare, and easy to avoid.
How long does it take to order?
Typically, the lead time is six to 12 weeks. That varies by manufacturer and by season. There are vendors who have quick-ship programs for their most popular pieces, but not all offer this.
Is this solid wood?
Yes! No particle board or laminates are used in Amish-built furniture. Solid-wood paneling typically is used on the backs of case goods, and some pieces may use plywood sides — which is considered solid wood. Dimensional lumber content depends upon the piece. Most craftsmen will gladly allow you to tour their shop to see exactly how the furniture is constructed. This, in turn, will allow you to answer customers’ questions with ease.
Is this really made by Amish craftsmen?
Yes. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous marketers have attempted to “cash in” on the Amish reputation for producing high-quality products by labeling imports as Amish-built. You may stumble upon a true skeptic now and then, but seeing is believing. Showing them the quality, and the various catalogues from your manufacturers should address this issue.
What about warranties? What if I have a problem?
The vast majority of Amish craftsmen stand firmly behind their work, and will address workmanship, finish and materials issues with no questions asked. Retailers should discuss specific policies with the shops with which they choose to work. It’s best, though, to remind consumers that when you are dealing with pieces that show wood grain (such as most Red Oak, Hickory, QSWO and Elm pieces), no two pieces of furniture will ever look exactly alike.
How expensive is it to have a piece of furniture customized, or custom made?
Amish furniture makers produce a great deal of custom jobs, whether it is a small change in dimensions, or designing a piece from the ground up. Normally, it costs very little extra to make minor changes to an existing design. Key factors are the amount of time and materials involved. Keep in mind that choosing wood and stain options are part of the normal ordering process, so those prices are standardized.
Can I have them make it out of my wood?
Believe it or not, this question comes up with fair regularity. The answer is, no, for the most part. Most furniture makers in Ohio’s hardwood furniture district have well-established sources for wood, and are very reluctant to use materials that do not come from trusted suppliers. It’s not impossible, but you may have to check with a number of different shops to find one that will agree to use customer-supplied wood.
I want to finish it myself. Is that possible?
Yes, but don’t expect to save a lot of money! Finish costs represent a small portion of the overall price of made-to-order furniture, but serious DIYers may insist on doing their own finishing. While this is possible, and does not present major problems, it certainly would void any finish-related warranty issues.
In our last issue we took a closer look at Quarter-Sawn White Oak, a hardwood furniture choice that has stood the test of time and definitely survived. For those customers who are willing to pay a premium, Quarter-Sawn White Oak (QSWO) is always an option.
But what about customers who can’t or won’t spend the additional 30 to 40 percent for a premium choice such as QSWO or Cherry? Allow us to introduce Brown Maple.
Also referred to a “soft maple,” which is a bit of a misnomer because it definitely is a hardwood, Brown Maple represents a very viable wood choice for many customers. The attraction for Brown Maple is this: It looks and feels like Cherry, but costs the same (or roughly the same) as Oak. This means customers can get a very similar look to Cherry, but pay 30 to 40 percent less.
Both Cherry and Brown Maple have very smooth, closed grains. Cherry, of course, is well noted for use in more formal-looking pieces, particularly formal dining suites. These days, you’ll find Brown Maple filling in for Cherry in a lot of new designs and pieces.
Do the two woods look exactly alike? No. Will most customers be able to tell the difference? No.When finished with the same stain, the major difference between Cherry and Brown Maple is, Cherry will have a slightly more reddish hue, while Brown Maple has more chocolate undertones. That’s about it!
When you consider that the average consumer actually knows very little about the various hardwoods, it’s easy to say that the differences between Cherry and Brown Maple are pretty much a nonissue. It’s much more likely that you’ll find yourself answering questions about veneers, particle board, etc. than you will about wood species — meaning that you probably will spend more of your time educating customers to the fact that Amish-built furniture is all solid wood construction than you will discussing the differences between the woods themselves.
Shoppers who are willing to pay for the quality of Amish-built furniture aren’t necessarily shopping on price — which is a good thing. But being able to explain that a wood that looks almost exactly like Cherry costs a lot less than Cherry also is a good thing!
Of course, wood prices vary similar to other commodity prices, and wood prices are very volatile right now. But historically, Brown Maple is priced the same as “regular’ Red Oak, with premium choices such as QSWO and Cherry costing 30 to 40 percent more.
Brown Maple also is an excellent choice for furniture collections that are finished with a solid color stain (which makes them look painted). For example, a youth bedroom set finished in solid white would be a natural choice for Brown Maple. It’s also popular for pieces that have multi-step or rub-through finishes. The attraction here is, those finish choices involve more steps, which means more labor – and a higher price tag. If you’re starting with a lower base price, then those “premium” options don’t make the bottom line as high as it would be starting with a Cherry price.
The warmth, style and durability never goes out of style. Fads and trends may influence color and design, but solid wood itself endures. Two stalwarts on the list of “woods that never go out of style” are Oak and Cherry.
Colors most definitely have changed in recent years, with the “honey oak” or golden oak choices losing ground to darker, richer choices such as the extremely popular, “Michaels Cherry,” and color choices for Cherry wood itself have – somewhat curiously when you consider what’s happening in Oak – veered sharply away from the darker choices that formerly were associated with formal-style dining pieces. Natural, lighter finishes seem to be popular on Cherry wood today.
The most recent trends we see have offered a new wrinkle to the choice spectrum, filling two key criteria: affordability and the trend toward natural choices.
Enter, the world of “Character” woods.
In the strictest industry parlance, “character” woods are a “B” grade lumber that, until the last few years would never have been used for furniture. But, as Expressions in Woodcraft Publisher Jerry Klingerman says, “times change. It’s kind of a perfect storm where character grades are concerned. He explained that as much as the “green” movement has affected other industries, “it really kind of came and went” in the furniture industry. “Ten years ago, we thought this wave would really take hold in furniture, but it came and went very quickly.”
Instead, consumers find delight in seeing the natural wood characteristics in these B-grade woods. Allowing a knot or other “imperfection” to be incorporated into a piece of furniture was absolutely unheard of 10 years ago, but perhaps this is one area where green/sustainable concerns have subtly entered the hardwood furniture world.
It may be a function of income and demographics – after all, hardwood furniture is at the top end of the price (and quality!) spectrum, and today’s consumers are “researchers.” So it may be that today’s consumers realize that wood is a highly renewable resource, and character grades of lumber mean more of the tree is used, rather than discarded.
Or…it could simply be that “it looks great,” Klingerman said. “Character wood is unique; every piece is a one-off. And when you put the right finish on it, it’s truly a thing of beauty.”
The other major factor boils down to price. A character grade of Quarter-Sawn White Oak furniture can be had for roughly the same price as regular oak – a savings of somewhere between 30 and 40 percent at the wholesale level. Likewise, character grades of Cherry furniture also fall in the “regular” oak price. For consumers who like seeing those imperfections – the natural characteristics of wood – this is an extremely attractive choice – both visually and in terms of price.
Thanks in large part to the portrayals of the Amish by the entertainment industry and the media; many people tend to view the Amish as a singular group with “one size fits all” customs and practices. Here in Ohio, the Amish population is comprised of several major groups, and dozens of individual “church districts.” Depending upon how “conservative” or “progressive” a group is, practices can vary widely. But in general, the customs, rules, etc. within each of the larger groups are mostly the same. However, certain things can vary from one district to the next.
For example, different groups and districts allow their members to use varying levels of technology and “modern” communication, particularly (often exclusively) for business use. When people from outside the area first encounter some of these restrictions and their accompanying solutions, they often don’t understand the limitations. If we could offer a bit of advice, it would be this: It’s not necessary for the “English” to understand this, only to respect it. The Amish are keenly aware of the challenges that communicating with the English world presents, and they work within the rules and guidelines of their churches to meet those challenges. They also are well aware that the success of their respective businesses often depends upon their ability to serve their clients in a timely, convenient manner.
The advent of the Internet and e-mail has made instant communication not only possible, but also the standard for most of our nation. So buyers from outside the area should be prepared in certain cases to add a step or two to the communication process.
Fax machines are still in wide use in Amish Country. Depending upon with whom you are working, they may have a fax machine in their office, in a phone shanty adjacent to their shop, or they may subscribe to a local fax delivery service. With just these three variations, you can see where “instant” communication might happen right away, or over the course of a few hours, or perhaps the course of a day or two.
Another variation is an e-mail-to-fax service that enables the end user to receive an e-mail that has been translated into a fax, and then enables the user to respond from fax to e-mail.
The use of phones themselves also runs the gamut: Some Amish furniture manufacturers have either land line or cell phones readily available, while others subscribe to a voice mail service that they can check from either their own phone shanty or one that is shared by several families and businesses. One major phone service provider has created a custom solution called a “black box” that allows Amish businesses to have a phone in a fixed location, but that is not a land line phone. This solution, which is based on cell phone technology, addresses the Amish tendency to avoid a direct connectivity to the outside world or “grid.”
There are still a fair number of Amish furniture manufacturers who do not use any type of phone or voice mail. Do they recognize that this has the potential to affect their business? Yes. But they also accept it without question as part of their faith.
Among the most conservative groups, no phone, voice mail or faxing is permitted. A large percentage of Amish furniture manufacturers are permitted to use some type of communications technology, but there are still those who do business primarily through the US Mail.
It should be noted that, however communication is achieved, the first step in establishing a buyer/seller relationship most often is getting in touch with the manufacturer to request a catalogue of their furniture selections. By and large, these catalogues are displayed in three-ring binders that showcase the company’s work. Catalogues, price lists and images for use on the Internet are very often available for the asking as well, but keep in mind that this varies as well.
E-mail and websites are in use in some cases. Some of the businesses that use those tools may be partially owned by an “English” partner, or those services may be owned and maintained by an outside marketing consultant. The furniture manufacturers with whom you choose to do business will gladly explain how to get in touch with them, place orders, etc. It’s OK to ask!
For those of us who experience “phone panic” when we leave the house without our iPhone or Droid, these limitations may seem puzzling. But as you gain familiarity with doing business in Ohio’s Amish Country, it’s likely that you also will become accustomed to taking the few extra steps required to communicate with your vendors. Perhaps the best way to summarize is this: As a whole, the Amish weigh technological changes very carefully, with an eye first and foremost toward preserving and protecting their faith, communities and way of life.
For better or worse, it’s a “big box” world in which we live. Today’s consumers are used to shopping in ever-larger venues, and selecting durable goods from a predetermined set of choices.
Even automobile shopping has changed to this model. In times past, you would go to a car dealer’s lot, compare models, and then sit down with the salesperson to order the exact car you wanted directly from the factory. But with the rise of the “automall,” and clever option packaging from manufacturers, that process too, is almost a thing of the past. (Remember: air conditioning used to be an expensive add-on option. At present, 99 percent of new cars sold feature factory-installed air.) Today, you make your selections, and chances are that the vehicle with the option packages, color, etc. that you prefer is actually sitting on the lot.
With that in mind, and with most big-ticket purchasing choices being geared to instant gratification, today’s consumers can be forgiven if they don’t know how to shop for custom-built furniture. So when you place high-quality hardwood furniture from Ohio’s Amish Country on your floor, you may need to prepare yourself to do a little educating.
Unless your particular store’s business model is different, the standard process for a consumer to select Amish-built furniture is to browse the items on the floor, and then make ordering choices either from the manufacturer’s catalogue, or perhaps from a kiosk of wood, stain and hardware samples on display – again, think about the aforementioned car-buying model. Well, this is how it still works when purchasing – rather ordering – Amish-built furniture. Very few retailers follow a cash-and-carry model with Amish-built furniture. Certain smaller items (TV stands and other occasionals) may be available for immediate purchase, but the vast majority of Amish-built furniture is sold on a “made to order” basis.
It’s not uncommon for consumers to be confused about and unfamiliar with this system, particularly when so many furniture choices come in “standard” colors and configurations. However, when it comes to Amish-built furniture, custom orders are the norm, rather than the exception. So again, consumers may be confused, and likely will have questions such as:
“Can I get it in a different color (stain)?”
“Can this be ordered in a different type of wood?”
“I like this, but is there any way to get it (bigger, longer, narrower, etc.)?”
The answer to all of those questions is a simple yes.
Perhaps the best part of this is, unless the customer’s choices are anything but a truly one-off design, custom choices do not increase the lead time for ordering. That in itself has the potential to close a lot of sales. Once they understand the process, there are very few consumers who are unwilling to wait eight to 10 weeks, on average, to have a truly custom piece of furniture built.
In fact, many consumers will find this attractive because it translates into “bragging rights.” People being who they are, there is a natural inclination to want to tell the “story” behind their brand-new furniture. The late Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden once paraphrased this concept as follows: Very few people invite their guests into their kitchen to see what a wonderful job the Presbyterians did on their kitchen cabinets.
The same sentiment applies here. Pride of ownership almost compels consumers to tell their friends and relatives about their shopping experience, and how their new dining room suite was made exclusively for them by Amish craftsmen. (It’s worth noting, too, that most retailers in Ohio’s Amish Country agree that a custom dining suite often is the first piece of truly nice furniture that younger couples purchase. Why? Bragging rights.)
There is little doubt that retailers who can get their customers to see the light regarding the custom ordering process can take full advantage of the bragging rights concept. It’s a win-win, really: the consumer gets the exact piece of furniture they want, gets to tell their “story,” and the retailer builds a relationship with the client, who is very likely to return to the same store when it comes time to add a new piece to their home.
To bring the comparison full circle, automobile manufacturers can project what the lifetime value of a repeat customer is. A fair number of folks in Ohio’s Amish Country who have been selling furniture for a long time can point to multi-buy clients and even second-generation buyers. By introducing your clients to the “made to order” process and building similar relationships, you have the same opportunity as well.
Imagine you could turn back the hands of time 25 years and travel down the back roads of Ohio’s Amish Country. What you would discover is this: A number of “cottage” furniture-making shops springing up throughout the countryside.
These one- and two-person shops would be unassuming enterprises with a limited number of furniture styles and colors from which to choose. The most popular wood choice would be oak, finished in a light or medium stain, allowing the wood grain to be very visible. The quality would be remarkable, and you very likely would work directly with the craftsman to either select a piece from his standard offerings, or custom-design something for your home.
That was then. This is now. Times change, and consumer preferences and tastes most definitely change along with them.
The first generation of consumers to discover Amish-built furniture in Ohio were so impressed with the quality that they gave little thought to design styles, colors and finishes. To be more accurate, those choices — compared to today — actually were quite limited.
But those first consumers who frequented the back roads and visited the smaller shops are, for the most part, not today’s buying public. Consider this: A Baby Boomer couple who were in their early- to mid- 40s in 1990 (the threshold of the Amish furniture boom) is now in their early- to mid- 60s. For the most part, they are done furnishing their larger homes and a great many of them probably are looking toward downsizing and moving to condos or even retirement communities. If those first consumers were age 45, 50 or older, it’s a pretty good bet they are no longer big-ticket furniture purchasers.
A local manufacturer who also has retail experience (and asked to remain anonymous) agrees. He said that by the time people reach their mid-60s, “They’re pretty much done,” buying furniture. It’s true that some might be outfitting a condo, or maybe treating themselves a bit now that the kids are gone, but for the most part “they are just filling in a few blanks spaces” in their homes, and not “whole-house” shoppers. There are exceptions of course, but this is generally the case.
The point is, just as consumers “age in” to buying high-quality furniture, these early adopters of Amish-built furniture are “aging out.” Yes; they might buy a small dinette set for their condo, and maybe a new TV stand to go with the flat screen, but that may be it.
Those early buyers have been replaced by newer, younger consumers who are familiar with the Amish “brand,” so they expect quality. But that’s not where it ends. Today’s buyers also demand that any furniture they purchase fit in with the décor of their homes.
Based on what’s happening in retail venues, Amish furniture manufacturers have responded with an almost endless stream of new furniture designs, a wide variety of stain options and custom multistep finishes.
“The lineup has changed almost completely,” said our local manufacturer. “The trend now is darker woods, darker colors and clean lines. Very contemporary.”
And instead of a limited number of “traditional” wood and stain choices, you’ll find multi-page catalogues showcasing an almost limitless variety of designs and color choices, from the very classic, to the very contemporary.
In the mid-1970s the United States began to see an influx of Japanese-made automobiles. US manufacturers began to struggle badly just a few years later. Factories closed. Layoffs were commonplace. And in the wake of it all, a “buy American” sentiment began to take hold across the country. The problem was, it took years (some would argue decades) for American automakers to respond to consumers’ demands for high-quality automobiles that were both reliable and achieved better fuel economy than their domestic counterparts.
Fast-forward nearly 40 years. Once again, the USA is being flooded with imports. Once again, a “Buy American” sentiment is being to take a strong footing across the country. Only this time, the US marketplace is ready, willing and able to fill the bill and achieve high customer satisfaction.
Are we still talking about cars? Perhaps DVD players or flat-screen TVs? No. We’re talking about furniture.
Blame it on the economy, a general backlash against imports (particularly from China) or bad press related to product contaminations, but whatever the reason, consumers are walking into furniture stores across the USA telling retailers one thing, over and over again: “Show me something made in America.”
The cars-to-furniture comparison continues in two key respects: Age and demographics. Both of these factors definitely influence buying decisions, and just as consumers “age in” to being able to afford more-expensive cars, they also reach a certain age and income level where they tire of disposable furniture.
“Most retailers will tell you it’s somewhere between 30 and 35 years old,” when consumers start to realize that they can (and should) buy higher-quality furniture, said Gerald Klingerman, who provides marketing services to Ohio’s wholesale and retail Amish furniture industry.
“They’re actually pretty easy to spot, because this is about the same age when 30-somethings are settled down pretty good, getting better-paying jobs and buying houses. Once they stop renting and start furnishing their own homes is when they make the trip to the showrooms here (in the Homes County area).”
Klingerman has written extensively about Amish-built furniture, and produced Amish furniture exhibits at home shows in several major markets. He notes that, “Right now, it’s all about ‘buy American.’ I’ve heard the same speech countless times in the last two years. People say, ‘I’m tired of the cheap (imports.)’ I don’t care if it costs more, I want something that’s going to last, and that’s made in America.’”
With that type of consumer mindset, Klingerman says, “Small- to mid-sized furniture retailers have a huge opportunity,” to introduce their customers to Amish-built furniture. He also said, “I’m even hearing now from some of the larger (furniture) builders in our area that some of the big players — regional and national retailers —are showing interest in Amish-built furniture. That’s huge. Ten years ago that would have been unheard of.” However, Klingerman said, “Those (national) companies are not nearly as nimble, and I still think the other players can really benefit” by putting Amish-built furniture on their floors now.
We’ve written before about the affect Hollywood and other media has on the outside world’s perception of the Amish. So you can’t blame people if they have a certain picture in their mind’s eye when they actually visit Ohio’s Amish Country, even if they’re shopping for furniture.
Klingerman explained that it is not electricity itself to which the Amish object. In fact, he said, generators both large and small are in wide use in Ohio’s Amish Country (as are solar panels and battery arrays). What the Amish avoid is the aforementioned connection to the grid. Making their own power definitely is more expensive but, “It is something they accept in stride,” and something they’ve adapted to as the furniture industry has grown and matured.
But misperceptions can be difficult to overcome.
“One of the things we’re working hard to do is to help the outside world understand how furniture is really built here in Ohio’s Amish Country,” he said. The best way to envision today’s Amish-built furniture is as a blend of Old World craftsmanship and modern tools, Klingerman said. “If you go into the average furniture shop in our area you are going to see power tools – but what you won’t see is a power line from the local electric company.”
What you also are very unlikely to see in Amish furniture shops is antique-style hand tools and kerosene lanterns — which is precisely what most people imagine when they think of Amish-built furniture. “Regardless of the size of the shop, it’s a production environment,” Klingerman said. While some people might question if the tools are doing the work, furniture builders would be quick to point out that any tool is only as good as the person operating it. Translation: Craftsmanship still counts, in a very big way.
Consider the following example: The advent of computers with powerful word processing software did not turn every person with Microsoft Word into a Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist. The same is true with furniture — the availability of precision tools does not in itself guarantee a high-quality product. “Artistry and craftsmanship are at the core of the success of this industry,” Klingerman said. “Modern tools are just that — tools.”
That’s not to say, though, that there is no hand labor involved in furniture construction. Indeed, there is. A great deal of sanding is done one piece at a time, with hand sanders (normally air-powered) and a lot of stains are hand-rubbed, too.
Myth: The Amish don’t use power tools or telephones
Busted: Power tools are in wide use in furniture production in Ohio’s Amish Country. The distinction lies in how the tools are powered. Air power, belt-driven line shafts and electricity are the chief methods used. Power for each of these sources is created by large commercial motors than use diesel fuel, or, most recently, the trend is to natural gas-powered engines.
Myth: The Amish aren’t allowed to use or own telephones
Busted: While this is historically accurate, many Amish churches now allow their members to own and/or use phones and fax machines for business purposes. You won’t find land line phones in homes, but phones are now widely used for business.
Myth:Customization is difficult or impossible when choosing furniture
Busted: Custom furniture is the standard, rather than the exception in Ohio’s Amish Country. The vast majority of furniture is built on a made-to-order basis, and custom choices range from wood, stain and hardware choices to simple changes in dimensions to “ground up” custom furniture. Lead times for customization are generally no longer than when a customer chooses a standard made-to-order item.
Myth: OK, but custom-built furniture must be really expensive
Busted: In most cases, custom choices affect the wholesale (and retail) price very little. Simple changes in dimensions are not cost-prohibitive. The three basic choices that affect the consumer’s end cost are: Wood species choice, stain (multi-step finishes cost more than standard stain choices) and hardware.
Myth: The whole “Amish” thing is just a marketing ploy.
Busted: Ohio’s hardwood furniture district is comprised of nearly 500 individual businesses, with virtually all of them being owned and/or operated by Amish people. We’ve heard cases of unscrupulous retailers in large cities who brand cheap imports as being Amish-made, but these cases are far and few between. A two-hour drive through Ohio’s Amish Country with a good map will reveal more
Myth: My clientele is very urban, trendy and upscale. I’m sure the Amish don’t have anything they would be interested in.
Busted: On the contrary! Many Amish furniture makers are gifted designers and draftsmen, and some have hired outside designers to create entire new lines. Some very upscale, contemporary designs have been introduced
Myth: This can’t be real wood, can it?
Busted: Virtually all of the furniture manufactured by Ohio’s Amish craftsmen is solid wood. That means, dimensional lumber harvested from native woods in the USA. We are not aware of any veneers being used. Items referred to as “case goods” will often have paneling used in the back, but this, too, is a solid wood.
Myth: I’ve seen pictures of Amish-built furniture and it all looks the same – outdated “country oak.”
Busted: Twenty-five to 30 years ago, when the industry really began to take off, consumers were far less concerned with the look of Amish-built furniture than they were with the quality. Today’s consumers, though, expect anything made by the Amish to be of a superior quality and they insist that it be in style that they desire. Amish craftsmen have responded with dramatically different designs, colors and finish choices.
Myth: Since the Amish don’t own or drive cars, I’ll have to make my own transportation arrangements if I start buying Amish-built furniture.
Busted: The hardwood furniture industry based in northeast Ohio has spawned many support businesses, including transportation. Amish-built furniture is quite easily shipped nationwide or, in the case of vendors like PackShip USA, worldwide.
Price vs. Quality: Quality wins every time
You can spot them in the parking lot: They’re roughly 30 years old, married – maybe have a child or two, or maybe the first one is on the way — and they’re on their way into your showroom.
Why are they here?
What made them drive past the trendy, lower-priced (read: big box) competitors in your region and search out your store? Two words: Quality and Value.
There comes a time in every young person’s life when they come to realize that the cheapest option for products and services is not necessarily the best option. Furniture is perhaps one of the best examples of that theory in action.
Sure, that pretty stuff from the trendy import store looks nice, but when it starts to fall apart after two years…and yes; the Scandinavian store has interesting selections, but what if you don’t feel like spending your weekend on the living room floor with a socket set and set of less-than-helpful directions?
In our last issue we discussed some fascinating data that we discovered
they are your new customers.
SO beyond quality and value, what can you offer the “instant gratification 30-somethings? Choice.
Keep in mind that these are folks who have grown up in a world where you no longer order cars; instead you visit a dealer’s lot (after having shopped online of course) and find a car that most accurately meets your needs., In some cases, a car dealer will locate your exact choice of automobile from another dealer’s stock, but the point is this: When today’s youiner consumers head out to shop for a car, they are not going to go through the decades-past process of sitting down with asales man to choose every single option. Car makers now offer packages that group popular options together. The reality is, virtually every car sold today comes in what is essentially three choices: good, better and best.
SO when younger consumers learn that they can truly customize their furniture selections by choosing products made here in Ohio’s AMish COuntry, that speaks volumes.
“I’ve seen this idea in action many times,” Expressions in Woodcraft publisher Jerry Klingerman says. “It’s almost like people are afraid to ask if the items they’re looking at can be ordered any differently than as it’s shown on the floor. They usually are pleasantly surprised when they learn that pretty much any piece can be totally customized.”
Klingerman said that a keey to this notion also is explaining the “made to order” concept of how furniture is buiolt in Ohio;s AMish COuntry. “Once they understand that you don’t have three dozen of those table stacked in a warehouse, and that their items will be built specifically for them — based on their wood, color and hardware choices —it becomes a much easier sale.” He added, It’s definitely an instant-gratification world in wheicjh we live. But when people start thinking about an Amish craftsman making their furniture just the way they ordered, well, the barriers star falling away.”
We’ve also discussed before that when it comes to Amish-built furniture, there is a phenomenon called, “bragging rights.” And when you consider that a large percentage of first-time AMish-built furniture buyers choose a dining room suite, it’s beginning to retire and downsize. There are, of course, exceptions to every generalization, but generally speaking the Baby Boomers are past their peak buying years, while the Millennials are “aging in” to theirs.
Marketing to the “Me Generation” should you be concerned?
They’ve been disparaged like no other generation in the past.
Employers call them lazy, self-centered and numerous other derogatory terms, and Human Resources professionals across the country could regale you for hours with tales of “Millennials” who show up to job interviews (or don’t show up) dressed inappropriately, beeping smart phones in hand and with completely unrealistic expectations.
But here’s the reality: Love them or not, the Millennials, loosely identified as those people born between 1982 and 2002, represent a huge wave of consumers, and they are starting to turn 30. In fact, Millennials now comprise virtually all of the highly targeted/coveted 18-to-34 demographic.
So if you haven’t already responded to how these folks do business, you better wake up and smell the Wi-Fi.
The Center for Consumer and Customer just released a comprehensive study of Millennials that could be considered a marketing handbook for those who want to survive and succeed in the Digital Age. It’s a fascinating insight into the Millennials and what makes their purchasing decisions tick.
Insight Interestingly enough, the center reports that Millennials have a much stronger sense of brand loyalty than older generations. Translation: get ’em young and keep them for life.
One nugget gleaned from the study is something that every retailer with a website can address: Feedback. Millennials will leave it on your website (good or bad) and their fellow travelers will not only read it, but also base their own buying decisions on it.
If you look at the earliest wave of millennials, who are now beginning to turn 30 years old, it makes one realize that the opportunities for furniture retailers could be huge: Most retailers of high-quality Amish-built furniture agree that by the time a young couple gets married, starts to settle into their careers/family and buys a house, they are right at this age — and beginning to appreciate high-quality goods and services.
Lest you scoff at these folks; who also have aptly been dubbed the “Me Generation” for their self-centered outlook on life, consider that they are the next huge wave of consumers who are maturing into adulthood, and also consider that the baby Boomers are
Even though I now make my living mostly as a writer/editor, I have spent many hours wearing a salesman’s hat. In fact, at the tender age of seven, I boldly left the confines of our family’s home armed with a satchel full of samples, and proceeded to peddle “Olympic Greeting Cards” to a neighborhood full of unsuspecting prospects.
That cardinal rule most definitely comes into play when selling Amish-built furniture. Just as poker players look for their opponents’ “tells,” we each exhibit our own signals when working with potential buyers. People can tell when they are being “sold,” and when the person actually believes what they are telling them about their product.
It sounds simple, but when the buyer perceives that they are talking with a “true believer,” they become believers, too.
Selling on price = bad idea
When it comes to selling high-quality Amish-built furniture, there certainly are some concerns. Chief among those is probably price. There are very few instances where we are going to win that battle straight up. When it comes to justifying the price, that’s a completely different battle — one which can be easily won. In a word, your strongest weapon is “quality.”
In today’s climate of consumer backlash against imports, the “one-two punch” that retailers can deliver is the “Made in USA” message. In fact, some retailers might argue that this message is equal to, or even trumps the “quality” message — but that’s a good healthy debate to have among ourselves, and no matter which point is in the starring or supporting role. Clearly both messages carry a great deal of weight with consumers right now.
Backing up the quality message is the attention to detail. When you can point out numerous individual details (many of which are either unseen or could easily go unnoticed) that, when taken as a whole, add up to a high-quality piece, then it’s easy to say, “Yes, this costs more than that. But here’s why…”
It may sound simplistic, but here’s the thing: There are enough buyers out there who don’t necessarily mind paying a little more — or a lot more — if they know why they are paying more. Research backs this up, and with furniture being one of the top big-ticket items, it stands to reason that there is a large pool of consumers who simply want more bang for their buck. Perception of price vs. quality and value is the key to this notion, and when that perception exists, it’s actually a rather easy sale.
When you can share nugget after nugget about quality, attention to detail, etc., you not only make the product you’re selling look better, but also — without having to say it — you make your competitor’s product (read: imports) pale by comparison, to the point where there really is no comparison.
Think about your own experiences. No matter what you’re purchasing, once you look at the additional features of the “deluxe” model, it’s very difficult to settle for the base model, right? The same holds true when it comes to Amish-built furniture. When you (or your staff) can easily illustrate all those great features, bit-by-bit you take away the consumer’s desire to purchase anything else.
So…what exactly are some of those features? To be quite honest, that’s a question for the individual manufacturer with whom you’re dealing. Overall, the level of quality is extremely high in Ohio’s Amish Country. There are many reasons why (and they all add up to the reason the Amish “brand” is so strong), but here is another truth, harsh as it may be: The 9/11 attacks and the 2008-09 recession were like a strong one-two punch to this industry. Manufacturers who either weren’t building top-flight products and/or who didn’t have a good plan for weathering the storms didn’t survive.
In general, though, here are some things you can look for, and share with your clients:
· Fit and finish
o This is not “bolt-together” furniture, so all the lines will match up, drawers and doors will not be off center and there will be no little things to ignore. Amish furniture manufacturers use modern tools, which enables them to create precision cuts, etc. (How those tools are powered is another story.)
· Drawers and doors
o Drawers will glide easily, line up extremely well and close without great effort. Many doors and drawers now have “soft close” features that not only offer a positive close, but also virtually eliminate slamming. This is a greatdemonstration feature, particularly if you are working with younger buyers who are shopping for their first “real” furniture.
· Catalyzed finishes
o Gone are the days when a water glass left overnight spelled disaster for that heirloom-quality table (or side table next to the sofa). The catalyzed finishes in use throughout Ohio’s Amish furniture manufacturing community are extremely durable and, even if a glass is left overnight, and leaves a ring, most often it will simply disappear if left alone.
o In addition,...OCS stains
o It’s surprising how much hardware selections can influence the look of a piece or collection of furniture. Whereas hardware used to be almost an afterthought, today there is a myriad of choices that can complement other décor items in a room, or give a fresh look to time-tested designs (such as the Mission or Craftsman designs).
o This is, if you will, the hanging curve ball of Amish-built furniture — it’s easy to knock this one out of the park! Nothing compares to real, solid wood and once buyers understand this, they will be very reluctant to purchase anything that can’t stand the test of time like solid wood does.
All the custom choices described in these pages may seem like an ordering nightmare for you or your customers. Fear not. Once your clients have chosen the piece they want, it’s as simple as guiding your them to choose the wood species, stain color and hardware (if applicable). It’s true that variations of just those three items can create remarkably different looks, but from an ordering standpoint, it’s not a herculean task.
How do I get it here?
If you are not familiar with Ohio’s Amish Country furniture district, or don’t yet have any established business relationships, one concern might be shipping.
As we recently told an Expressions reader who called our office, the furniture industry here is very mature and well evolved. Shipping is simply not an issue – not locally, nationwide or, if need be, worldwide.
A number of shipping options are available, whether it’s for your retail; floor or shipping directly to your customer.
For example, if a customer places an order that doesn’t necessarily need to be shipped to your location prior to being delivered to the customer, you might consider PackShipUSA. With locations in three states (Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania), PackShipUSA (see ad on page xx) has a number of services available, including “white glove” delivery that includes full setup in the customer’s home: Translation: No need for the retailer to touch it at all!
A number of logistics and transportation companies in Ohio’s Amish Country have well-established relationships with the furniture manufacturing community, and have resolved the challenges of getting items from Point A to Point B. Among those are Ann Drew Enterprises and Sterling Transfer.
Ohio’s Amish Country is now the largest hardwood furniture-producing district in the USA. Over the last 25 to 30 years the industry has grown tremendously, and along the way, well-established systems have been put in place to ensure that the products made here can be bought, sold and transported anywhere in the USA.
One of the “issues” we hear about is contacting our Amish friends for more information. Sometimes, it can be more difficult to reach potential vendors here in Ohio’s Amish Country. And sometimes it isn’t. What makes the difference?
Most often it has to do with the particular church district to which the business owner belongs, and what type of technology the owner is permitted by his church to use.
Twenty or 25 years ago, options would have been extremely limited – in most cases you would have had to write a letter to a furniture builder, and perhaps arrange a specific time and place to speak on the phone. (And the phone would not have been owned by the Amish person). Times have changed, though, and as the Amish have begun to do more and more business with the outside, “English” world, Amish church leaders have responded ‘ carefully and cautiously — and allowed selected bits of technology to be used in business situations.
It’s possible, then, that a particular manufacturer may have a telephone ni their office, and may even be able to exchange an e-mail with clients. Or, they might have engaged the services of someone who does this type of communication work on their behalf.
Another variation might look like this: A furniture manufacturer keeps a telephone in a small private booth either on his property, a neighbor’s property or at the end of his driveway. The phone in question also might be shared by several families or businesses. Most often in situations like this, you can leave a voice message. The folks who depend on this method to communicate with their clients are very diligent about checking messages, and usually do so several times a day.
Some of those little phone sheds (actually most) also have a fax machine inside. While faxes have mostly gone by the wayside – having been supplanted by e-mail – fax machines are still in wide use here in Ohio’s Amish Country, and can provide a fairly easy, efficient bridge to the outside world for many Amish-owned businesses.
But there definitely still are some Amish furniture manufacturers whose main method to connect with the outside world is by regular US Mail.
While this might be difficult for people who are used to “instant” communication to accept, the Amish accept this in stride, and are careful to respect the boundaries their church puts in place.
So while leaving a voice message, sending a fax or even writing a letter to request more information might put a couple extra steps into the process of establishing a business relationship with a particular furniture builder, we believe that most retailers will agree that it’s worth it.
A FEW COMPANIES OFFERING FURNITURE SHIPPING AND DELIVERY
Address: 3470-B SR 39, Millersburg, OH 44654
Phone: 330.893.4280 Fax: 330.893.4281
AnnDrew Enterprises, Inc. is a family owned and operated full service Amish Furniture Wholesale, Warehousing & Logistics Company. We have several different services that we can provide for your store. We offer warehousing and shipping of your orders to your stores, as well as wholesale distribution for the many local builders to your store.
Rustic and reclaimed woods have surprising cross-demographic appeal.
Years ago, I was working at a home and garden show in a large city with a retail client. An elderly person came into our display and told us an amazing story about a dining room suite that had been in her family a long time. It seems that her grandfather had been married once before, very briefly. The bride’s parents had given the newlyweds a beautiful new dining room table and chairs as a wedding gift. Tragically, the bride became ill only weeks after the marriage and passed away. The heartbroken groom did what he felt was the honorable thing, and returned the gift to the bride’s parent.
Several years later, the man remarried. When he did, his first wife’s parents once again gave the newlyweds the dining suite. It stayed in the new family for generations, and remains so today.
When I heard that remarkable tale I suggested that my client try to find more, “furniture with a story” and somehow weave it into their advertising. Today in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District “furniture with a story” is taking a new form: reclaimed wood from historic barns and other structures.
I saw the first of these pieces seven or eight years ago, when (to my knowledge) only one local manufacturer was making reclaimed barnwood furniture. What began with a lone craftsman’s efforts has slowly, steadily grown to the point where today a growing number of manufacturers offer reclaimed furniture, either exclusively or as part of their overall product offerings.
Reclaimed wood also is finding its way into kitchen cabinetry and hardwood flooring as well. The locally-sourced wood comes mostly from pioneer-era barns and, in some cases older manufacturing facilities (primarily in the eastern US). While most siding isn’t thick enough to be repurposed, flooring, beams, rafters and other building components can be transformed into beautiful “new” furniture for any room in the house.
The resulting pieces are sturdy, beautiful and give a hint to their previous lives.
But reclaimed wood isn’t the only “rustic” option for consumers who are looking for a less-than-traditional approach to home furnishings. Additional grades of new lumber are finding their way into retail showrooms, too. “Sap Cherry” and “Rustic” or “Character” Quarter-Sawn White Oak, Red oak, Walnut and Brown Maple all are finding their way into manufacturer’s product lines. And, as we have previously reported, “live edge” choices, which show the true curves of a piece of lumber, also are very popular right now. These wood choices show all the “character” of the wood that once would have disqualified them from use in fine furniture. Today? Consumers are eating it up.
A recent chat with one local manufacturer who just introduced a line of entertainment centers crafted from reclaimed wood revealed that (somewhat surprisingly) the reclaimed/rustic lines have a strong cross-demographic appeal.
This might be surprising to some retailers and marketing experts who might otherwise be inclined to think that the appeal of this look is limited to the urban-dwelling “hipster” crowd who inhabit converted lofts and other trendy living spaces.
In fact, our source revealed that would be hard-pressed to say that the reclaimed/rustic line had stronger appeal to any particular group. He said they are seeing it go out to customers of all ages.
The entire trend — it’s safe now to call it a trend, and not a fad — likely is the result of a number of changes in consumer tastes: As we’ve stated before, consumers now are well aware of the quality associated with Amish-built furniture. And where that might have been satisfaction enough for some of the earliest customers (think: 90s-era Baby Boomers) today’s consumers not only want the same quality, but also styles and color choices that complement their home’s décor. Consumers are thinking well outside the decorating box these days, and reclaimed/rustics fall nicely out of the box.
Of course, there is the conservation factor as well. With reclaimed woods it’s obvious that the wood hits a target squarely in the middle of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra. And while no one likes the idea of the grand structures of our nation’s past falling to the wrecking ball, reusing those pioneer-era hardwoods is something that pleases everyone. And with respect to rustics that aren’t from reclaimed lumber, but rather from “new” wood, consumers can quite easily identify with the idea that only five or 10 years ago, this wood would have been considered scrap, or at best, #2 grade lumber — definitely not furniture grade.
When making selections from reclaimed or rustics, perhaps the only caveat for retailers and their customers is this: As with other true hardwood furniture selections, no two pieces of any of these wood choices are exactly alike. When it comes to making final selections, consumer must be made well aware that no retailer or manufacturer can guarantee a piece that looks exactly like the one in the showroom or catalogue.
Pricing for reclaimed/rustics covers a broad range. If consumers want “the story,” and choose reclaimed wood, that will come with a premium price. Reclaimed woods require a lot of attention before they are incorporated into furniture. The wood must be very carefully examined for nails, screws or other metals before they are re-milled, because expensive equipment can be damaged by those metal pieces.
For example: This author had a local company re-mill some reclaimed barn siding a couple years ago. Each piece was carefully examined, and even gone over with a metal detector. But upon picking up the newly milled lumber, the owner of the business handed me a bundle of cutoffs and other small pieces of wood, all of which contained metal, as well as a handful of small nails. He said with a wry smile that they “always like to give those pieces back to customers.”
Reclaimed woods also must be kiln dried, lest customers “rehome” wood-dwelling insects that once had called their new furniture home!
At the other end of the price spectrum, rustic choices from new wood offer a nice surprise: They cost less than their “grade A” counterparts. The added bonus is, consumers almost universally seem to enjoy seeing the knots, mineral deposits and other imperfections that now give the wood “character.” Why the newfound love of “imperfect” wood? It’s hard to say, really, but it might be fair to speculate that in a world full of veneers, sawdust and plastic, seeing “real” wood is very aesthetically pleasing.
Prices for all of these choices vary, but in terms of new wood from rustic/character grades, they can easily put a quarter-sawn or Cherry piece into contention, whereas a Grade A selection might have been too much of a “high ticket” choice.
In terms of competing with Big Box offerings, or mass-produced furniture lines, reclaimed and rustic/character choices have no equal. This is fine-crafted furniture, that falls squarely in the “something different” category. You can see, feel and touch the difference and understand instantly that it really has no equal. Add to that, the fact that it is produced by USA-based small businesses, and you can begin to understand the popularity of and “Rise of Rustics.”
Traditionally, only top-grade lumbers were used, and any piece of wood that had flaws, knots, etc. would not have been used. The pendulum has most definitely swung in a different direction. Right now, one of the hottest trends in Amish-built furniture is to use grades of lumber that show the imperfections — knots, streaks, “sap pockets” and other abnormalities. These wood choices often are combined with distressing for truly unique, rustic and one-of-a-kind looks.Consumer reaction to character/rustic woods has been extremely positive. One of the benefits for consumers is, these “character” grades of lumber cost less than their #1 grade counterparts, so the hottest looks often come with the coolest prices!At the far, cutting edge of this trend are pieces with a “live” edge . Live edge furniture shows the uncut edge of the board as it was milled. Admittedly, these pieces carry a heftier price tag than other character-style choices, but the look is stunning – and very much in demand. There are other “boutique” choices out there as well, with wormy maple probably sitting at the top of the list. “Curly” variations of several hardwoods also can be found, but are for the most part very rare and available purely on a custom basis.
If you (and your customers) are new to American-made hardwood furniture, you might have questions about the various species available, what their characteristics are and, more importantly, how their respective prices stack up.
In this article we’ve listed the most popular wood choices and what sets them apart from each other. You may also be interested to know that in recent years, woodworkers and finish shops in Ohio’s Amish Country adopted a group of standardized stains, known as “Ohio Certified Stains. (OCS)” While custom stains still are in wide use, the OCS choices allow peace of mind shopping and ordering, because the stain formulas are consistent, no matter who makes them.
Woodwright Finishing, one of several stain and finish manufacturers in Ohio, offers a sample “stain chain” representing the most popular species of wood, in their various stain choices. To order a sample set contact Woodwright at: www.woodwrightfinish.com/800-322-8172).
Characterized by a wide, “open” grain that you actually can feel, Red Oak has been the “go to” wood for furniture construction for generations. In fact, Red Oak accounts for half of all hardwood furniture purposes. It’s durable, plentiful and is among the most cost-effective choices to build with. It’s no wonder then, that oak is still the most popular choice for furniture. In recent years, furniture makers have broken away from the traditional light-colored stains that once were the almost exclusive choice of consumers. Even solid-color blacks are now featured on some of the latest designs, providing an interesting combination of solid color on an open grain.
The look of quality
Price range: Normally 35 to 40 percent more than oak
In generations past, it probably was the dream or goal of most aspiring homemakers to one day own a home with a formal dining room, showcasing a beautiful cherry table. In your mind’s eye you probably can picture it: A deep reddish-brown finish, Queen Anne legs and a matching hutch with brass hinges. Cherry always has been a “regal” choice most often associated with a more formal look than oak, and used in more-formal areas. Cherry features a very tight, closed grain that finishes smooth and glasslike. Along with Oak, Cherry remains the most popular choice for hardwood furniture. At present, more and more Cherry pieces are shipping with natural or light-colored finishes, particularly those in “rustic” or “sap” grades (see below). Cherry is making its way out of the formal dining room into other areas of the home.
Like a rock
Price range: Similar to Cherry and other premium choices
Although it is not the hardest wood available (see Hickory) Hard Maple is indeed very durable and approximately 50 percent harder than Red Oak, for example. It’s a great choice for areas that might receive a lot of daily use (kitchen or dining tables) and is quite often finished in natural stains that allow its light tones to be the focus of the piece. With its higher price tag and relative plain looks, Hard Maple is likely not going to be consumers’ most-popular choice, but it definitely has its fans, and its place among the lineup of hardwood choices.
Poor man’s cherry
Price range: Similar to Red Oak; can vary based on supply and demand
One of the relative newcomers in the Amish-built furniture world is a species referred to locally as “Brown Maple” also known as soft maple (a bit of a misnomer since it still is an extremely hard wood), brown maple is very similar in its grain and texture to Cherry, but without the 35 to 40 percent increase in price that Cherry brings with it. Only the most discerning eyes will pick up the subtle differences in color between Brown Maple and Cherry, with the former featuring more “chocolate” tones when finished in the same stains as Cherry. Brown Maple also is a very popular choice for solid color finishes, because of its smooth grain. Again, Brown Maple affords a much more expensive look than its price commands.
What’s old is new
Price: similar to Cherry and other premium woods
It’s said that everything that is old will once again be new, and that certainly is true with respect to Walnut furniture. Once considered a standard of elegance, Walnut fell out of favor approx. 10 years ago. Who knows why. But now, Walnut is back! (Again; who knows why). Walnut features a range of brown tones, chocolates and, like Hickory, also can throw the occasional purple hue. It’s very heavy, and quite durable. Like Cherry, Walnut has traditionally been associated with more-formal looks, but that has changed recently. Walnut features a smooth grain and easily accepts stain.
Grandma’s tiger stripe
Price: Normally 35 to 40 percent higher than standard oak
Say the words, “Quarter-Sawn White Oak” to anyone not involved in the furniture trade and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. But call it “tiger stripe” and you’ll often bring back people’s memories of that special piece of furniture that has been handed down in their family for generations. Most likely, the “tiger stripe” piece they remember is Quarter-Sawn White Oak. That name refers both to a species of wood (White Oak), and a method of cutting. The wood is cut at angles to produce a cross-grain cut characterized by wild stripes. The reason it shows up in antique furniture is, White Oak once was very plentiful. Quarter-sawing produces more waste than other cutting methods so at one point it fell out of favor. Now that the nation’s hardwood woodlots are replenished, quarter-sawing is back. QSWO pieces are very dense, heavier than most other woods and extremely durable. Coupled with a stain called “Michael’s Cherry,” it is a rich, beautiful look that likely will never go out of style.
Quartersawn on steroids
Price: similar to Cherry and QSWO
If you like the look of QSWO, you’re likely to be blown away when you see your first piece of furniture constructed of Grey Elm. The grain is almost indescribable and absolutely stops people in their tracks. If you’re looking for the “wow” factor on your showroom floor, a pub-height table and chairs with elm on the top and solid black-stained Brown Maple on the base and chair bottoms might be just the ticket. (See Barkman Furniture ad on page 3.) Even people who know wood are very often left wonder, “What is that?” Just in the last couple years, Amish furniture builders have tempered the wild, grainy look of Elm by combining it with Brown Maple featuring solid-color stains. It’s a wonderful look and almost certain to be the piece that stops customers in their tracks.
A rainbow of colors
Price: similar to or slightly less that Cherry and QSWO
It’s almost a crime to finish Hickory in anything other than a natural stain. One of the hardest of the hardwoods, Hickory is characterized by a color range that can go from extremely light — like a light maple — to nearly black within just a few inches in the same board. Along the way you’ll see browns, reds and even in some cases an almost purple hue to the wood. There is no rhyme or reason to the color pattern in Hickory and certainly no two trees are alike, so every piece made of it is truly one-of-a-kind. Hickory has always been a popular choice for cabinetry and flooring, but also has a strong following in the furniture world. Hickory bent rockers ands similar items always have had a strong following, but dining, occasional and bedroom furniture can feature hickory as well. It’s almost a love-it-or-hate-it choice, but for those who love it, there really is nothing else like Hickory. It’s incredibly hard (actually hickory is the hardest of the hardwoods), certainly one of the most durable woods available and nothing else even comes close to its look.
As we write this...so much has changed...
For seven years now, it has been our pleasure to bring you Expressions In Woodcraft. As the unofficial marketing voice for Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District we’ve both enjoyed and taken seriously our role in trying to promote this region’s products. We believe there is no other region that builds better furniture, and our mission always has been to protect and grow the jobs here by promoting the industry directly to you, retail store owners across the USA*.
(*You might not be aware of this, but we mail Expressions to 15,000+ retail stores across the country.)
No one could have predicted not only the human impact of the COVID-19 “Corona Virus,” but also the economic impact. Perhaps in our local communities here in Holmes, Wayne, Tuscarawas and Coshocton counties, the most immediate impact was felt when the Spring 2020 Ohio Hardwood Furniture Market was cancelled/rescheduled. Many of our friends in the furniture manufacturing cite the shows as their #1marketing effort for the year. You can imagine the effect that postponing the show has had.
In an effort to show solidarity within the community, and to our readers, we worked very hard bring you this, our biggest-ever issue of the magazine.
With the support of the local hardwood furniture manufacturing community and the Hardwood Furniture Guild, we are proud to present this issue for a number of reasons:
First, it is a great example of how our “Plain” communities work together in times of adversity.
Next, because we want to remind the furniture retail community across the country that the furniture made here is of the highest quality, and is built by small businesses that support numerous other small businesses. The fact is, consumers — especially younger consumers — are willing to pay more for higher-quality products, especiallyif they know it supports small businesses. No doubt by the time you read this there will be a strong push across the country to stimulate the economy and support small businesses. On the retail side, marketing high-quality, USA-made, small-business-produced products is a huge win.
It’s both fitting and appropriate that our other feature in this edition is about the annual “Rainbow of Hope” benefit auction, which is probably the largest annual benefit auction held in Ohio, and certainly one of the largest in the nation. We have been planning this feature for many months, long before any had ever heard the term, “COVID” or “Coronavirus,” to try and get more of our readers to plan a trip into Ohio’s Amish Country, and to experience and support one of its signature events. The Rainbow of Hope auction is an excellent example of how Plain communities approach challenges in a very different way that many other parts of the country.
If you are able to travel to our area either for the rescheduled OHFM or the rainbow of Hope auction, we strongly encourage you to do so, and to let your customers know that by purchasing furniture made here your business is supporting many other small businesses.
We’re hopeful that this message finds each and every one of you safe and well, and we wish you much success in these challenging times.
In our last issue we discussed the fact that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to working with one of the furniture producing shops here in Ohio’s Amish Country.
Our point with that article was that in many respects buyers coming into Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District can “customize” their experience to meet their particular needs and tastes – in much the same way that the furniture itself can be customized.
In this article we’re going to share with you a little bit more about the “typical” craftsman’s shop – if “typical” is the right word.
Expressions recently compiled data on virtually every furniture builder in our region, and from that data, we were able to gather some interesting points.
Here are a few of the “takeaways” we discovered:
· There are approximately 400 shops in the region that are directly involved in furniture production. This ranges from smaller items and specialty services (such as custom carving), to bedroom, dining, occasional and other standard furniture items.
· Hundreds more local businesses serve those shops as suppliers, providing everything from wood turnings, “glued-up” panels and other furniture components to tools, saw blade sharpening and other services such as accounting and graphic design.
· The vast majority of furniture producers are located in Holmes and Wayne counties, with the balance of the others being located chiefly in Tuscarawas, Stark and Coshocton counties. Smaller enclaves exist in the Geauga County and Fredericktown/Knox County areas.
· Nearly 75 percent of shops have five or fewer employees, including the owner.
· Approx. 15.5 percent have six to 10 employees; 6.5 percent fall into the 10 to 25 employees category and just over three percent have more than 25 employees.
· Longevity is commonplace. Fewer than 9 percent of the shops have been in business less than five years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, nearly 19 percent of shops predate 1990. (It is generally accepted that the 1990s were the period of the largest growth in the industry.)
· A staggering 43.2 percent of shops began from 1990 to 1999
· The economic uncertainty that marked much of the first decade of the 21st century – which included 9/11, the housing crash and The Great Recession, still saw significant growth in the number of new furniture producing businesses. Approx. 28.8 percent of all furniture producers began in the period from 2001 to 2010.
In considering the statistics of when shops began, it would be more than fair to point out that many (certainly a statistical majority) of those who have struck out on their own, gained experience in another shop before taking the leap into their own business. Often, a former employer was instrumental in supporting the employees’ new business whether it was as simple as encouragement and moral support, or funneling business to the new shop. There certainly is competition among wood shops, but many shop owners received some kind of leg up from a previous employer.
There’s a line in the classic movie “Hunt for red October,” where James Earle Jones’ character says to the president’s National Security adviser, “Sir the data support no conclusions at this time.”
That’s how it is in the retail furniture industry right now.
(Side note: We don’t like having to continue writing about the pandemic, but we also can’t deny the reality of it, especially when it has affected virtually every aspect of our lives — including and especially our shopping experiences.)
In the early weeks when we all hoped (and probably thought) that this would pass through the population quickly, no one could have predicted just how completely things would change due to the Pandemic.
But here we are in late 2020 and, depending upon where you live in the USA, there’s a good chance you’re either still working form home, locked down, or rather desperately trying to keep your business open and afloat. Unfortunately, at press time, any number of states appear poised to issue modified or complete lockdown orders again.
We’ve gone beyond simply wondering when things will get back to normal, to wondering if they will ever be the same.
So rather than continue to simply try and get by, retailers must now make plans and implement new strategies to serve their customers; strategies that might once have seemed unnecessary (read: contact-free/touch-free delivery) are now considered “must have.”
As for the current state of the furniture industry, the news seems to be all over the map. Hence, the above-referenced movie quote.
As we’ve discussed at length in the past, the furniture industry is directly tied to the housing industry. (If you lived through the Great Recession, you probably don’t need to be reminded of that.)
Nationally, there’s every indication that the housing industry remained strong. From region to region, it remained very strong in some cities, with rampant stories of bidding wars, offer-over-asking-price and homes sold in 24 hours.
That’s good news, but again, there could be a second, widespread lockdown and no one can say with any degree of certainty how that will affect the housing market.
Locally, the furniture industry itself is strong. Very strong, in fact. Manufacturers throughout Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District went from shutdown to, in many/most cases, running full tilt.
Ohio’s governor Mike DeWine was extremely aggressive, and closed virtually the entire state before other states followed suit. “And most furniture manufacturers followed suit, shutting down for a period of weeks,” said Expressions In Woodcraft publisher Jerry Klingerman. “When we were able to go out and start visiting manufacturers again, most had just reopened as we were getting back on the road.” At that time, “Orders were starting to come in.” Now, most builders we talk with have been running at full capacity for months.
Manufacturers and retailers of outdoor furniture also experienced a huge increase in sales. Again, it stands to reason: With travel and vacations universally cancelled or greatly curtailed, consumers looked to make their own homes more enjoyable as the Pandemic lingered. This is not unlike when recessions hit. When that happens, consumers avoid buying or building new homes, and concentrate on existing home improvements and comforts.
So, as consumers looked inward and stayed home, housing and furniture manufacturers seem to have benefitted. But what about retail furniture stores? Unfortunately, data about small retail furniture store sales seems impossible to find. So, we’re left to discuss the effects on some of the large players, and hope that some of the same results apply.
Online competition from big players already was taking a bite out of traditional bricks and mortar retailers’ sales, but with people either locked down or simply not willing to go out, their numbers increased significantly.
A September report by RetailDive.com reports that “big box online” furniture retailers experienced significant growth, with At Home, Wayfair and Overstock all posting huge sales gains. Wayfair — which had not ever reported a quarterly profit prior to the pandemic — even posted its first profits, sending its stock prices through the roof: Wayfair skyrocketed from a 52-week low of $23.31 per share to an almost unbelievable $349.08 per share on August 26. It’s since come back to earth at or around $230 per share.Wayfair’s sales soared 83.7% year over year in the second quarter.
That’s no indication of permanent sales increases, but the temporary results speak for themselves. Other online retailers reported spikes in sales as well, driving home a fact that we already knew: virtually every search for furniture begins online. The pandemic only accelerated that. But we also know that a majority of consumers still prefer to visit retail locations so they can see items firsthand, and get an idea of how they will look in their home.
Moving forward, numerous analysts predict that the retail winners — large or small — will be those who can successfully combine online and in-store experiences.
For example, Biljana Vidojevic writes at cylindo.com, “Retail is not dead. However, the store of the future will be a blend of the digital and physical world, combining the convenient benefits of e-commerce with the haptic product exploring benefits of brick-and-mortar. The key to successful furniture business in the future will be providing a frictionless and engaging experience across channels and devices.”
So, on one hand we’re fortunate that a significant percentage of people do, in fact, still want to see and touch furniture before buying it. On the other hand, though, Forbes estimates that between now and 2025, 11,000 retail furniture stores will close. As mentioned earlier, the news and predictions are, in some respects, all over the map.
But one thing is certain: There is no magic bullet, and whatever recovery from the pandemic we do experience will take time. Neil Saunders, managing director with GlobalData Retail says,
“The idea that 2021 is suddenly this year when everything clicks back into place — and we all breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Well, everything's gone back to normal,’ — it’s just very fanciful,” He continued, “It’s not going to happen like that at all, especially during the start of the year. There’s a lot of potential disruption that we have yet to come, which I think makes retail planning very, very difficult.”
Conclusion: The future for retail furniture stores, both immediately and in the long term, seems to depend upon a strong blend of capturing interest online, and then attracting customers to the store. No doubt the pandemic will only increase online shopping, but opportunities still exist if you can find a good balance between your online presence and how you handle the in-person experience.
With that in mind: What can you do to let customers know you’re responding to the COVID-19 situation in the best ways possible? As you review the following consider that pandemic response is extremely customer-driven, and customers need to feel like you have their safety and well-being in mind.
1. Let your customers know your most current hours. Many retail hours have fluctuated as a result of the pandemic, and few things will kill a sale quicker than if customers show up and you’re not open. (They won’t come back).
2. Keep your hours updated so that when customers do a Google search, your most current hours are shown in the results.
3. Stay active on Social Media. Again, keeping customers posted on your store hours is critical. But you also can let them know about specific steps you’re taking to ensure their safety. Such as announcing days that you’ll be closed for deep cleaning.
4. See above! Let your customers know that you are deep cleaning on a regular basis.
5. Be up front about mask policies. Each day that passes brings new announcements, etc. And while people are getting used to carrying and wearing masks, it’s best that they know your policies up front. If you require masks in your store, consider keeping a supply of new masks on hand to offer to customers who enter without one.
6. Talk about shopping options, appointments, special hours for seniors or at-risk populations. Some people don’t feel particularly at risk. For others, especially those with any type of chronic health conditions, Covid-19 is very serious. Letting them know that you are looking out for their interests is HUGE to those people.
7. Financing: Make sure potential customers know how they can pay, and what financing options are offered.
8. Delivery, delivery, delivery. It’s always been a huge issue in the retail furniture world, and these days it’s even more important. Make sure everyone on your staff knows what options and accommodations you’re making to ensure safe or even contactless delivery.
9. Communicate closely with your builders in Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District to make sure you can provide accurate, up-to-date lead times to customers. People are used to waiting for custom furniture, but it’s best to have as accurate a timeline as possible.
10. Try to create “hybrid” buying experiences wherever possible. Example: If a customer sees a piece online and wants to see it in person, make arrangements to meet them at a time of their choosing, even if it’s not during your regularly schedule hours. Remember, different people have different levels of concern. Customizing a buying experience now could earn you a lifetime customer.
this magazine reaches more than 15,000 retail furniture stores across the USA. Naturally, not all of those stores currently purchase furniture here in Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District, but our goal is to turn as many of you as possible from readers into buyers.
Although it’s possible to begin buying Amish-built furniture without traveling here, most first-time buyers choose to take a few days, visit some local shops and establish business relationships personally. (A great way to do that, of course, is to attend one or both of the semi-annual hardwood furniture shows held here in the spring and fall. More on that in a minute.)
But if you choose to begin long-distance, that’s OK, too. After carefully reviewing ads from possible vendors, we suggest that you contact the manufacturers of your choice for a catalogue.
Some manufacturers do have their own websites, often operated by a third party, or a marketing agency. Most recently a new service that has gained widespread acceptance and popularity is a “web portal” service that allows the end user to provide basic registration information that allows them access to a number of manufacturers’ marketing materials, which they can then download instantly. Expressions In Woodcraft now operates such a portal. See page 42 for details. This is not an individual website for each manufacturer, rather it is like an electronic catalogue where a number of furniture manufacturers have their materials stored for easy access by retailers.
Web-based marketing of Amish-built furniture definitely has overcome a few bumps in the road. Some of the earliest entrepreneurs who attempted to sell Amish-built furniture via the Internet did not have a physical presence. To say that caused problems in the community would be an understatement, and it caused uncomfortable growing pains in the industry, sometimes putting manufacturers in an awkward position between the “newbie” retailers and their longtime established buyers. (It’s worth pointing out that very, very few of those first Internet pioneers are still around. Most lacked basic business experience and were simply looking to make quick money)
Because of this, some furniture manufacturers were careful about providing images of their products. But times have changed were that is concerned, too. Whereas in the past many bricks-and-mortar stores did not have a web presence, today virtually all of them do. Add in Social Media marketing, and it’s easy to see that access to high-quality images for web-based marketing efforts is now the rule, rather than the exception.
In addition to the delivery methods, the catalogues themselves vary too. For many years the standard has been loose-leaf pages placed in a 3-ring binder, and that’s probably still true, for the most part. Binder-style catalogues are easy for the manufacturers to update, and easy for the retailers to keep on hand in their store. Today, some manufacturers now publish sophisticated stand-alone bound catalogues that feature stylish layouts, full-room scenes and dozens, or even hundreds, of pages.
Changing times; changing methods
As marketing needs for Amish furniture manufacturers have grown and changed over the years, and the need for more-complex marketing materials has increased, local designers and photographers have had to up their game as well. Where once only a few individuals provided such services, now there are a number of individuals and full-service marketing agencies and commercial printers that work almost exclusively in the local hardwood furniture industry.
Local photographers have become quite enterprising in adapting to the needs of their Amish clientele. Most are capable of providing a “studio to go” experience for their clients, where they set up a temporary photo studio right in the client’s shop. Backdrops, lighting, etc. are used to create the best images possible.
There also are full-blown professional-level studios where manufacturers can take their items to be photographed, but this involves transportation, a fair amount of manpower, time away from the shop for the owner/manager, etc. So, many small- to medium-sized shops often choose photographers who can set up on-site at their workshop.
Price lists have gone digital as well. Most manufacturers now work with computer-based service providers to produce electronic spreadsheets that allow retailers to instantly configure markups across an entire product line by changing the percentage in just one cell. Specialized computers built exclusively for Amish clientele also have spreadsheet capabilities, allowing them to design and maintain their own spreadsheets.
While electronic tools now are in widespread use, not all manufacturers can use them. Again, based on what their local church district permits, plenty of manufacturers still use no electronic or web-based technology. And some manufacturers are permitted only to use drawings (as opposed to photographs) to depict their products. The more you become familiar with manufacturers here in Ohio’s Amish Country, the more you’ll understand the wide variance of practices. It’s important to understand that the Amish take these things all in stride, and while they accept that the outside world might not understand some aspects of their culture, they appreciate it if the English respect their ways.
You definitely can begin doing business here without visiting in person. But if you’ve decided to pack a bag and head to Ohio, we can offer some guidance there, as well.
As mentioned earlier, the best suggestion we can make is to plan your visit around one of the two annual wholesale furniture shows held here in Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District. Here, you’ll get the chance to see and experience a wide variety of products from local manufacturers in a trade-show-style setting. It’s a great way to meet the craftsmen, and begin building business ties.
The shows feature dozens of craftsmen, many of whom view this not only as an opportunity to meet prospective new clients, but also as an opportunity to meet and talk with clients whom they either never have met, or only see once a year.
If you can’t make it to a show, or even if you do, you should know that virtually every local furniture manufacturer welcomes clients to visit their shop. Whether you call, fax, e-mail or write to make an appointment — or just stop by — the shop owners and managers are eager to meet, talk with and get to know new buyers.
What will you discover once you’re here? Perhaps one thing you’ll notice is that different manufacturers take different approaches to producing furniture. Perhaps the best analogy we can offer is to compare furniture production to making a jigsaw puzzle. That is, there are many ways to approach putting together a puzzle, and when producing furniture, there’s more than one way to get from raw materials to finished product.
Here’s a quick, basic rundown of the production process: One of the most important components in hardwood furniture is glued-up panels that are made by taking wood strips of varying width, gluing them at the seams and then clamping them together to create panels. The resulting panels are far stronger than tree-width boards, and are one of the key building blocks in hardwood furniture production. Some manufacturers follow a complete, turn-key method, sourcing their own timber, having it milled, then dried, then brought to their shop where they make their own panels and then build the furniture.
Other manufacturers might purchase their panels, and other components, from any of a number of local suppliers, and then craft the furniture out of those parts. Chairs, panels, drawer fronts, drawer boxes, doors and table legs/turnings are examples of products or components that a manufacturer may source locally, rather than make from scratch. Chairs are a specialty item, and you’ll actually find that even if a manufacturer makes all of the table in house, it’s highly unlikely they make the chairs, too.
The finished product
Finishing, the final step in production, is done either in house or at a nearby finish shop. More and more, manufacturers are outsourcing their finishing to nearby shops that only do finishing. We’ve seen this trend for at least the last five years. This allows the manufacturers to repurpose the finish area in their shops to add production space, and increase productivity of their core product by having another supplier do the finishing, rather than training their own employees to perform this task.
Another advantage to having a third-party vendor perform the finishing work is, it keeps storage and warehousing needs to a minimum. Once an item is sent to a finish shop, it rarely (if ever) returns to the manufacturer’s shop. Rather, it is picked up by the buyer where it’s finished. Here’s a fun tip: If you want to see what the current popular styles, designs, etc. in the furniture industry are, go to a finish shop! It’s fun and instructional and you might get your own ideas about what you want to feature on your showroom floor.
Small, medium or large
On page 36 of this issue we feature an article that talks about shopping as an “experience.” Well, you can tailor your buying experience in Ohio’s Amish Country Furniture District, too. The manufacturers here range from small, one- or two-person shops to medium-sized shops, to large enterprises with dozens of employees and thousands of square feet of manufacturing space.
Just as the furniture production methods vary, so does the size of the manufacturers themselves. The majority are staffed only by the owner and perhaps three or four employees (or sons). In fact, 75 percent of local furniture manufacturers have five or fewer employees, including the owner. Other might have a handful of employees, and still others may have 10 or more, while the very largest have dozens.
It’s different here
By far, though, we believe what you’ll notice the most is the friendly, welcoming attitude you’ll experience in our furniture community. The manufacturers are eager to get to know their clients, and it’s not uncommon to spend a fair amount of time visiting before talk turns to business. We’re not trying to paint an idyllic picture, but in many ways business really is done differently here.
One additional aspect you’re sure to enjoy is the ability to work directly with the craftsmen to suggest design tweaks, customizations or perhaps even to come up with an entirely new piece. We know of no other industry where you can walk into the production facility and work directly with the leadership to suggest or make changes in a product.
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