HIGH POINT, N.C. -- The U.S. furniture industry's biggest trade show opened Thursday with a subdued air as manufacturers and retailers worried about the threat of war with Iraq, increasing Chinese imports and reluctant consumers.
"It's been a most difficult year for the furniture industry," analyst Jerry Epperson said at the International Home Furnishings Market. "That's why I was dreading coming down here."
Some 82,000 buyers from the 50 states and more than 100 foreign countries began gathering here Thursday for the market's fall run, which ends Oct. 23.
The furniture market pumps about $335 million into the region's economy. Sofas, desks, tables and other furniture that are ordered by buyers in High Point will show up in retail furniture stores in three to six months.
"I'm going to buy a few things to replenish our showroom but not go overboard," said Tim Dowell, one of the owners of Boone Home Furnishings in Boone.
He planned to check out some of the imported furniture, which he said is easier for small stores to buy now that overseas makers don't require them to order in large quantities.
"Now the little guy can buy one or two items instead of having to buy a container full of furniture," he said. "It makes it worthwhile for me to consider it at least."
The American Furniture Manufacturers Association released updated figures Monday calling for wholesale shipments of residential furniture to increase 6 percent this year to $24.3 billion.
Pressured by lower-priced foreign imports and a drop in consumer demand, furniture companies have dealt with layoffs, plant closings and decreased profits.
Hoping for the best
Now they hope the worst is over and an economic recovery is on the horizon. But Epperson, who follows the industry for Mann, Armistead & Epperson, Ltd., in Richmond, Va., said more job cuts and plant shutdowns are likely.
August and September were horrible for retailers, he said. "If you own a furniture store and you bought anticipating business to get better, you wound up with a lot of inventory," he said. "This is my biggest concern here."
That's because retailers with showrooms stocked full of last year's unsold furniture aren't coming to this market ready to order new furniture, he said.
The AFMA predicts furniture sales will continue to rise next year, increasing 4.9 percent to $25.5 billion. The new forecast was slightly better than the AFMA's July forecast.