NC Furniture Industry Booming Amid Pandemic

Oct 5, 2020

Olga Lopez, department superior, blowing and stuffing department, turns the material right sided before it is stuffed at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C. Piedmont Furniture Industries is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Business is booming for the furniture industry — especially home furnishings.

It's a stark contrast to the number of businesses that have had to permanently close and lay off staff as the world is in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with the upcoming High Point Furniture Market this month, some furniture manufacturers are feeling the pressure as they have to prepare their showroom for the biannual event and still continue to make furniture that’s in high demand.

"Honestly right now coming into furniture market, it's more of a pain, it's not pressure, it's more of an annoyance that we even have to open," President of Piedmont Furniture Industries, Inc. Angela McWherter said. "We don't have any production. I've talked to a few customers and they're not coming, because their attitude is, 'Why would I come shop for stuff I'm not going to get for a year? Why waste the money?"

Usually, the High Point Market is an extremely important, hands-on event that brings buyers and sellers together. It draws people from across the globe and happens twice a year, in April and October. This year the spring market was canceled due to the pandemic.

Alex Sosa and Marcelina Cruz, left to right, cut and stack fabric patterns used in the manufacturing of furniture. Piedmont Furniture Industries is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Piedmont Furniture is located in Ramseur about 30 minutes south of Greensboro and has been in business since 1992. The wholesale manufacturer makes couches, chairs and everything in between, to sell to chain furniture stores, mom and pop shops and e-commerce.

McWherter said she’s grateful for the extra business, but these past few months have been hectic.

"It is very stressful, but it's come to the point where we've just started telling customers, 'We're doing the best we can. We're going to try to get this out in 12, 14, 16 weeks,'" she said. "It may happen. It may not. I really can't answer that question, because also, not only can we not get any more new labor, but our vendors are the same way. They can't get employees."

The rise in demand can be attributed to a number of factors. Gerald Fox, an economics professor at High Point University, said two of the reasons there's been such an increase is due to low mortgage rates and more people working from home.

"They're thinking about their homes to a greater degree, they're working from home, they want to make their home a more pleasant place," he said. "They might need office furniture at home."

Ana Mejia sews together the pieces of upholstery to form a seat at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C The bins behind her are filled with back orders waiting to be sewn as Piedmont Furniture Industries is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

At Piedmont Furniture, McWherter said they shut the factory down mid-March and when they re-opened a month later, 95% of their staff returned.

Then in May, the orders poured in.

"It was like, 'What do you have in stock?' We sold everything we had. Everything," she said. "I mean like odds and ends pieces that we had for a couple years, people were fighting over them. There was nothing left in our warehouse at all. So everything we make goes out the door as soon as we make it."

The pandemic has depressed some sectors of the industry – like commercial office furniture but home furnishing sales are booming.

In High Point, the Phillips Collection is also in high demand.

Phillips Collection makes high-end organic furnishings. Some of their inventory includes amethysts from Brazil and coffee tables carved from the remnants of a petrified 10 million-year-old tree from the jungles of Indonesia.

Business has been so good for Phillips Collection that CEO Mark Phillips said he's been able to give his employees bonuses.

"We are very fortunate right now," he said. "When we exceed last year's shipping, we have to give a bonus and our goal is to be 8% up, and I've had to give bonuses in June and July and now again in September. So our business is super strong."

Edgar Tores, left, and Gerson Portillo, right, lay out fabric to be cut, this is the first step in manufacturing furniture at Piedmont Furniture Industries on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 in Rammer, N.C. Piedmont Furniture Industries is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

This growth comes despite traffic to Phillips' brick-and-mortar showrooms being down almost 70%. He said the boom has come in online sales.

Phillips will also be in attendance at the High Point Market. He said his company is ready, but they’re also a bit worried.

"We have accepted the fact that attendance will be down, that the show protocol will be different," he said. "But this is our home court. So Phillips Collection is going to be staffed and comfortable."

Showrooms open at the High Point Furniture Market on October 13. The nine-day event is three times longer than normal, to help control the flow of the up to 50,000 attendees per day.

While the furniture industry is in an economic boom, Fox said he doesn't expect it to last forever.

"Whatever goes up, must come down," he said. "So there are booms and then there are declines, but it seems like, at least for the next few months, anyway, the furniture market should be strong."

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS:

Anthony Moore moves sofas off the conveyor belt in the shipping department at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Cecilia Montoyi works in the sewing room at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C. The bins behind the workers are filled with back orders as the company is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Maribel Benitez sews together parts of a furniture pattern at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C. The company is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry with more orders than they can fill this year. (Lynn Hey / For WUNC)
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Jaime Chacon and Angie Clark, president Piedmont Furniture Industries, talk on the factory floor Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Piedmont Furniture Industries is struggling to keep up with demand in what has become an economic boom in the furniture industry. On Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C., 13 upholsters each build a sofa from beginning to completion unlike many factories that run production lines.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

A completed sofa moves down the conveyor belt as another sofa is being build at Piedmont Furniture Industries Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Ramseur, N.C. Thirteen upholsters each build a sofa from beginning to completion unlike many factories that run production lines.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC