Despite feeling like I was in a really boring lecture on US History of Furniture Manufacturing by a true “good ‘ole boy”, in The Furniture Wars, Michael K. Dugan does manage to chronicle years of brand devaluation of some of the industry’s biggest names like Henredon, Drexel Heritage, Pennsylvania House and others.  Through the extensive history of buyouts and bad management trying to fix the antiquated practices in the furniture industry, he identifies what distracted the entire industry from noticing that an Asian invasion was taking place.

Dotted with furniture industry name dropping and thorough research on the historical happenings in the industry, with some of it coming from Jerry Epperson, (whose astute market analysis we read quarterly) this tome both resonated and scared me at the same time. The key lessons and take-aways are as follows:

1)    When being recruited by the furniture industry, negotiate a hefty severance agreement, you will need it.

2)    Furniture companies desperately need to hire some qualified women on their boards and to their executive positions, but please someone qualified and not just some exec’s wife (and I say that as the wife part of a husband and wife team).

3)    When selling your company, just bail, move or change your name – it will be less destructive and painful to your reputation.

While I previously considered myself to have been in the industry long enough to be an insider who lives and breathes furniture, Dugan would immediately categorize me as an outsider because I am: 1) a woman; 2) not old enough because my entry into the market was at the beginning of the rise imports; and 3) my view also begins from design/marketing and into manufacturing, sales and then operations, instead of from operations to sales and manufacturing with design coming from “styling” and history. So, as I delved into the book, I found myself shocked by the wasted energy and talent fighting battles over things like lean manufacturing introduction, consolidated warehousing, and power marketing, instead of fighting for brand value, customer loyalty and value-added design. Through reading this book, I am more convinced that our industry is not going to rebound anytime soon because the furniture industry management is completely out of touch with what women want, with the next generation of consumers, and the Asian manufacturing machine.

After reading this book, I am glad that we, at Hazz Design, are insiders in the Asian invasion because, as insiders, we are uniquely suited to address one of Dugan’s final questions, “Can America hold onto the merchandising, design, marketing and selling functions?” Professor Dugan, please find my answer as to how Hazz Design is helping our clients compete and win in this invasion:

  • MARKETING – We spend a day a week studying retail assortments on the floor, looking at their positioning, pricing, sell-through, etc. This is not something our Asian partners/competitors can do. You cannot tell the success of an item or what to design into a piece of furniture from an on-line catalog. This is the path to copying what is old and done not what is new and trending. From the resulting dynamic assortment database, we advise our clients what to make to tap quickly into buying patterns, on solutions for merchandising challenges and on competitive advantages as they are forming, not after.
  • DESIGN – If our US manufacturing/import clients and the US retail buyers are struggling to figure out what women want, then how in the world are Chinese or other Asian companies going to figure it out? Hazz Design’s Genderblend™ process reflects an intimate understanding of US women and their buying power, needs and desires, resulting in products that are outselling the competition, Asia and US-based.
  • SALES – Although there is much in furniture sales that needs help to continue to compete, US buyers still appreciate dealing with US sales. As designers and product experts, we have been successfully embedding ourselves with our clients’ sales force and meeting with buyers, following up on customer service calls and handling all the training on our products. This way, we can spread the passion and knowledge about the competitiveness of our products without it getting lost in translation. The flip side is that through all the direct contact, we are also hearing first hand what buyers and consumers want and are in a unique position to make those new designs reality.

So, even with all the criticism, Furniture Wars is still an interesting history lesson for those in the furniture industry – you are sure to come across people you know or companies you once revered and bought from – however if we are going to prevent this history from repeating, then this book is a necessary read as a warning.

About Hazz Design: Graduates of Rhode Island School of Design, Tracy and Tom have been working and designing together for most of their two- decade marriage. Their shared vision that good design should never cost more, that there is always a solution, and that one- plus-one can have an exponential result has earned them career expanding projects, multiple design awards, more than two dozen patents, two children and a finely tuned relationship.
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