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'We're still down': For the High Point Market, it's been a slow comeback from the pandemic
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'We're still down': For the High Point Market, it's been a slow comeback from the pandemic

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HIGH POINT — Supply-chain disruptions. Inflation. And, of course, COVID-19.

The High Point Market is struggling with all three, making it a microcosm of the greater world economy.

And like that economy, it may be months or a year before real recovery can take root.

But as the semi-annual trade show drew to a close Wednesday, experts said enthusiasm for the Triad’s biggest event and a return to in-person buying is bringing a new sense of optimism to an industry that has been upended by the pandemic.

“Back in June, when we had to plan for this market, we were planning on rolling out a big market because we assumed we’d be finished with COVID. But you know what they say about assumptions,” said Tom Conley, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority, which manages the event that takes place in independent showrooms. “Of the four opportunities that we had during these two years of COVID, we were able to present market three times. And each one was a little bit bigger and a little bit better than the other.”

The final figures won’t be in for a couple of weeks, but from observing traffic, Conley believes the number of retail buyers and designers coming to inspect the wares of furniture makers has hit 75% to 80% of what it has been in normal years.

“The supply chain probably is the biggest challenge because buyers are coming here looking for product, quite frankly, any product that anybody can ship right away because the supply chain is so disrupted,” Conley said.

Manufacturers in countries such as Vietnam have been shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks and shipping costs have risen dramatically as labor shortages and clogged ports have stalled the arrival of imports to the United States.

“We’re still down in the number of exhibitors,” Conley said. “COVID has impacted some of the smaller- and medium-sized companies just in terms of their profitability and also in their willingness to come out and do business. We’re probably closer to 1,600 companies and usually we’re 1,900 to 1,950.

“Once again, that’s up from where we were in spring.

“Signs are pointing in the right direction. I think if we’re able to get rid of COVID and if we’re able to get our supply chain fixed, we’ll be fine. Those are two big ifs, though. Nobody really knows exactly how long this supply chain is going to suffer, so we just have to ride the wave and see what happens.”

Tom Russell, a home furnishings journalist who is editor-in-chief of Home News Now, an industry trade publication, said “it’s sort of one thing after another.”

He explained that retailers are beginning to get interested in new products that manufacturers are offering, but some buyers are still waiting for products they ordered at the last market in June.

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And the materials that go into furniture — wood, plywood, metal — are rising in price, fueling an inflation pressure that’s worrying the industry.

Fortunately, Russell said, shoppers don’t purchase furniture like they buy milk. If they’re only in stores every few years, they’re not as likely to be sensitive to price increases.

“Retailers are still trying to give the best prices to consumers,” he said. “As these disruptions work themselves out, people are going to want to see what’s new versus what’s in stock.”

The difficulties are pressing some U.S. manufacturers to expand their operations at home. And importers are looking to Mexico to source what might have come from Asia.

The High Point Market is, of course, big business for restaurants, hotels and transportation companies throughout the Piedmont Triad.

The president of Visit High Point, the city’s tourism agency, said she believes October’s market is slightly bigger than the last market in June.

“The traffic that I saw within the bigger buildings like (the International Home Furnishings Center) appear to be a normal market,” Melody Burnett said.

Burnett’s organization works closely with hotel operators and she said while those companies saw some cancellations before this fall’s market, many of them picked up occupancy during the weeks leading up to market.

She added that a lot of first-time buyers are coming and that includes a new contingent of interior designers.

In fact, Conley said where the majority of marketgoers were once retailers, that has “flipped” to designers.

Burnett said that change is creating more chances to show off High Point between markets when designers can come to the city and work with furniture showrooms that are open more than twice a year.

“I think there’s an opportunity to expand that branding to being a year-round resource for designers coming in,” she said.

Essentially a closed event, the High Point Market has never been accessible to the public, even when buyers and exhibitors were enjoying performances by such artists as Hall & Oates a decade ago.

That changed this year. Conley said the market needed to open up its image to the public, so organizers threw a concert at Truist Point, where the High Point Rockers minor-league baseball team plays. Marketgoers and the public were invited to see a performance by indie pop band Fitz and the Tantrums.

“I think it’s the first post-COVID concert that they gave and they gave a heck of a performance,” Conley said. “Everybody that was there just loved it. It was fantastic.”

Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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