For most of the past decade, furniture producers and retailers were able to forecast their overhead, materials and transportation costs fairly accurately. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leading to wild shifts in demand and a series of supply chain challenges that have rocked the industry and left many consumers frustrated and waiting for their new sofas and beds.
A typical wait for a piece of upholstered furniture at large, national retail stores has jumped from four to 28 weeks or more since the pandemic began, and that’s not just for big-ticket items like beds and sectionals. Even smaller, independent furniture shops are beginning to face shipping issues, as freight companies impose holding fees on merchandise that sits unmoved in containers for too long. As a result, some producers and importers are delaying signing new customers because they know they can’t support them with existing inventories.
The problem has accelerated over the past few months because consumers have started to turn away from durable goods, a switch that’s made it hard for furniture manufacturers and retailers to keep pace with consumer demand. That shift, combined with a shortage of raw materials and labor, has left warehouses empty and prices on the rise.
BELLEFONTE/CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. — At a small furniture plant in Bellefonte, workers are still trying to find enough foam to build pieces. They’re working four days a week and sometimes take off work, but it isn’t enough. That’s because a worldwide shortage of the material used to make upholstered chairs and sofas has put a huge burden on furniture makers, who are now having to pay more for steel and other raw materials.
In addition, labor shortages linger from the early days of the pandemic, and manufacturers are facing challenges attracting new workers with salaries that aren’t competitive in the broader economy. The result is a backlog of inventory that’s not moving, especially as some customers have shifted away from larger items like sofas and sectionals and into smaller furniture like accent chairs and tables.
Some retailers that have been able to ship products quickly via air cargo—as seen in the conference calls and 10-K filings of furniture mainstays like Williams-Sonoma, Wayfair and La-Z-Boy—have been able to avoid the backlog by ordering more than they need so they can sell it later. But that’s not a strategy that can scale to meet the needs of a larger furniture market.
But even if the furniture crisis ends soon and a normal, steady supply can resume, the delay in delivery will likely leave most shoppers feeling frustrated as they wait for their new stuff. “It’s frustrating for people, and they don’t understand why it’s taking so long,” says Idler’s Home owner Scott Csicsila. He adds that people who are flexible and willing to change their design plans for now can have a better chance of getting the pieces they want. It’s all about patience these days. Unless you’re lucky enough to be living in one of the few remaining cities where COVID-19 has not wiped out the furniture industry.