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Finding the 83 channels of furniture distribution PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joe Carroll   

ImageI'm going to reveal marketing secret. This is a secret most of us know about unconsciously but just don't take the time to think about. If you are seriously considering selling your furnishings to the U.S. market read this very carefully. Just a little knowledge will place you ahead of many of your competitors

In 1990, I was working in my office late one afternoon when some of my colleagues at Furniture/Today asked me to name the places people could go to buy furniture when I was a child. I told them that when I was a child I never dreamed I would end up in the furniture industry so I would just have to make a guess.

I recalled that we could buy furniture in the 1950's at (1) furniture stores; (2) department stores; and, (3) mass merchants like Sears, Penny or Montgomery Ward. In today's marketing jargon there were three "channels of distribution" for furniture.

We were aware, of course, that in 1990 there were many more channels to which a manufacturer could sell. We made a list of all we could think of and came up with a total of 18. Armed with this information, I took this list on the road with me, intending to use it to convince manufacturers who did not feel they needed to advertise because "we've sold the major furniture store in most cities so who would we be advertising to?"

On my first sales call I showed the list to a manufacturer. He read it carefully and said, "Here's a channel you don't have on the list: I sell government PX's (post exchanges) at most of the military bases."

That, of course, became the 19th channel on my list and the beginning of a lifelong hobby to identify all the different places a manufacturer can sell to. In 20 years the list has grown to 83 channels.

The point is that most manufacturers selling to the U.S. for the first time try to compete in the biggest channel: the independent furniture store. Even though that channel can generate tremendous volume, the profit margins are low and the competition fierce.

Here's the secret I was telling you about: don't try and compete with the big boys, find yourself a niche, a lesser-known channel that may have fewer customers to sell to but produce better profit margins and customers that are more loyal.

Here are just a few examples:

Cruise ships. Cruise ships need furnishings - everything from bedroom, dining room and occasional tables to lamps and accessories. They send buyers to the High Point Market to shop for merchandise just like a store would. Many are headquartered in Miami. It would be worth your time to investigate this category.

Houseboats and yachts. Both are often delivered to the customer either fully or partially furnished. Builders are looking for suppliers who can meet their specifications. Consistent quality and on-time delivery are essential.

College bookstores. There are colleges and universities in every state of the U.S and in every province in Canada. Many sell furnishings to students for their dorm rooms and to married couples living off-campus. This is a channel many manufacturers overlook.

Grocery stores. Many major chains like Kroger, Safeway, Publix, Ahold USA south of the border and Loblaw's and its sister companies across Canada are carrying various types of furniture - ranging from simple bookshelves to casual dining to leather upholstery.

Electronic retailing. This category includes television shopping on QVC, the Home Shopping Network and the Shopping Channel in Canada. Online furniture retailers include in the United States include CSN Stores, Overstock and Hayneedle, although there aren't, yet, any strong ones serving the Canadian market. Online auctions like E-Bay and Yahoo.com are also becoming increasingly popular.

My suggestion is to hire a consultant (not me, but I can recommend a few), or do your own research by coming to the U.S. and visiting the buyer at some of these channels or by setting up appointments to meet with them in High Point or at a show near you that they might attend.

If you would like a list of the 83 channels (or have a potential new one to add to the list), please send an e-mail to me at the address below.

Joe Carroll, former publisher of Furniture/Today, is now president of McNeill Communications, a High Point-based agency specializing in marketing, advertising and public relations. He can be reached at

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