High Point furniture market opens Monday

April 6, 2008 5:53:54 PM PDT
When the World Market Center opened in Las Vegas three years ago, the furniture industry gasped: How could little ol' High Point compete with the bright lights of the Strip?

But on Monday, when the High Point Market opens for its first show of the year, roughly 85,000 industry insiders will once again descend on the heart of North Carolina's furniture industry for the twice-annual home decor trade show that sets the table for what consumers will see in stores next season.

"Is Vegas good to have? Sure it is," said Jerry Epperson, a furniture industry analyst with Richmond, Va.-based investment firm Mann, Armistead and Epperson. "But I, like most people, don't go to a market to see Blue Man Group or Cirque Du Soleil, or heaven help us, a has-been singer."

Yet the owners of the market space in Las Vegas remain undeterred. They held their sixth furniture market in January and will have roughly 5 million square feet of showroom space by July. The group recently unveiled additional expansion plans ? with the stated goal of replacing High Point as the home of the world's biggest furniture trade show by 2013.

"I am blown away by the vision, commitment and resources the owners have dedicated to ensure World Market Center exceeds the needs of the industry," said Bob Maricich, the market's president and chief executive, who joined the company after spending the past 11 years with Hickory-based Century Furniture Industries.

The competition hasn't thrilled everyone in the industry, some of whom feel forced to show their wares to buyers at both markets ? an expensive proposition as they endure the ongoing downturn in the nation's housing market.

"We've got to go where the business is," said Alex Boyer, a spokesman for Furniture Classics Limited in Norfolk, Va. "High Point still is, and for the very near future, will be the primary venue for us. But we had to look to Vegas. ... Some of our competitors are there."

Lexington Home Brands opened a temporary showroom in Las Vegas in January, and the Thomasville-based furniture maker plans to open 25,000 square feet of permanent space there in July.

"This is not an either/or decision for Lexington," said Phil Haney, the company's president and chief executive. "The smart money is to be wherever the buyers are and to make it as easy as possible for them to see our new products."

The High Point Market remains the dominant trade show, with 188 buildings and some 12 million square feet of showroom space. And staying No. 1 requires more than just keeping ahead of Las Vegas, said Brian D. Casey, president and chief executive of the High Point Market Authority.

"I have to look at all the markets, that's Dallas, that's Atlanta, that's anything internationally," Casey said. "All of them have pieces of what High Point has, including Las Vegas."

The two cities couldn't be more different. Las Vegas is a convention haven: packed with tens of thousands of hotel rooms, restaurants, high-end shopping, casino gaming, golf courses and sunny weather. Life is a little slower in High Point, a city of roughly 85,000 where hotel and restaurant reservations are scarce during market season.

While the Las Vegas market touts the city's amenities over High Point's more modest setting, vendors said it will ultimately succeed ? and threaten High Point's place as the leading home decor trade show ? only on the merits of the business.

"Vegas for us is still an unknown," said Glenn Prillaman, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Virginia-based Stanley Furniture Co., which has 60,000 square feet of showroom space in High Point. "What's unknown is if our retail distribution base is out there in the kinds of numbers that would drive us to be there."

Maricich believes the World Market Center represents the future, but admits that "for some people right now, it may not make sense to be here." But he argues that eventually, the ability to showcase products on two coasts, four times a year, will make too much sense for furniture makers to pass up.

"The two shows set up a beautiful dynamic for dealers and buyers," said Doug Bassett, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co., one of the nation's largest manufacturers of wood furnishings. "Just like we are in competition with other furniture companies, the markets to degree are competing, too."