It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and a trolley full of people with name badges as big as baby bibs are impatient to start shopping. A man in a blue High Point Market Authority golf shirt climbs aboard, panting, announcing that a pregnant woman’s water broke on her way across the park-and-ride lot. A prayer meeting is held on the spot. “I’m not Pentecostal,” the man says, “but I’m having a Pentecostal moment.” We all bow our heads.
This is not the oddest thing to happen in the first 24 hours of last spring’s High Point Furniture Market.
For more than 100 years, furniture buyers and sellers have gathered in North Carolina. Much has been made of a century’s worth of change. A peak: $26.3 billion in wholesale U.S. furniture orders a decade ago. A low: A flood of Chinese imports due to that country’s vast working-age population, low wages, government support, cheap currency and productivity gains. And a big question: How will an industry slow to adapt to the internet age cope with the rapid rise of e-commerce retailers such as Wayfair, Amazon and others?
Even so, when visitors return to High Point later this month, they are still attending the world’s largest home furnishings show, an event that Duke University estimates has an annual economic impact of about $5.4 billion. More than 75,000 people will trek through 11.5 million square feet of showrooms elaborately decorated by as many as 2,000 vendors. A last-minute room in a two-star motel next to a go-kart track 11 miles from downtown High Point goes for three times as much as its off-peak rate, and you’ll be glad to get it. Let’s start at the beginning.
9 a.m. Saturday
In the spring, High Point Market kicked off for the first time with an opening event, a tough sell at a weeklong trade show with legendary after-hours parties. At the half-full High Point Theatre, people unusually well-dressed for a Saturday morning clutch cups of coffee and freebie straw bags. They enthusiastically applaud keynote speaker and author Polly LaBarre, but the closing act seems akin to inviting the fox into the henhouse: Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah is hawking the online home goods seller’s virtual reality app. Though the show attracts and depends on large retailers with a significant web presence such as Williams-Sonoma’s Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, it also caters to small-business owners who make their living by selling furniture in stores and charging families for design advice. Wayfair, with its deep range of goods — 7 million items across 12,000 brands — is betting shoppers will trade touch and feel for convenience and selection.
Shah and Steve Conine, Wayfair’s co-founder, are mobbed afterward by a crowd that includes a woman who pairs a yellow ball gown with camouflage tights and floral, lace-up boots. Despite losing money since it went public in 2014, Boston-based Wayfair’s sales have skyrocketed, increasing at a 60% annual clip in the last two years and are likely to top $3 billion this year. Industrywide, online sales are expected to reach $22.7 billion in 2020, according to research firm IBIS World Inc., and the world’s largest retailers are paying attention. In August, Wal-Mart Stores scooped up Jet.com, which recently paid $90 million for Hayneedles, a 2-year-old online home goods site with annual sales of more than $350 million.
Mark Weinstein is sitting on his merchandise outside in the warm spring sunshine as his employees grill hamburgers nearby. The leather sofa doesn’t look out of place, however; Weinstein’s inventory overflows his Golden Oldies store at Broad Avenue and Elm Street to include a collection of old bicycles, a candy-striped Vespa with sidecar and carriages from long-ago carnival rides. His is one of the few High Point galleries with year-round hours, and Weinstein depends on the 10 days in April and October to pay the year’s rent. It’s an arrangement he feared was in jeopardy in April, less than a month after Gov. Pat McCrory signed the controversial law known as House Bill 2. Williams-Sonoma and other buyers boycotted the market in protest of HB2, which requires people to use restrooms and locker rooms at schools and government buildings corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates. Why get up, Weinstein grouses, when the customers were staying home?
But traffic soon picks up — market President and CEO Tom Conley would later say attendance dropped 1%, though it’s unknown what, if any, impact the boycott had on sales. At Weinstein’s Golden Oldies, customers comb through treasures ranging from soup ladles to pendant lamps. High Point Furniture Market is often called the Fashion Week of furniture as manufacturers roll out new collections not only to impress buyers but celebrity designers, magazine editors and a new generation of bloggers and “influencers” on websites like Houzz, a home-design community with 40 million users. Like the runways of New York, there are styles for every taste. It’s unclear who’s in the market for light fixtures shaped like babies with bare bulbs instead of heads or a coffee table with holes for wine bottles, but the latter “Now That’s a Table” can be purchased for $1,110.
3 p.m. Saturday
Bob Timberlake is holding court at the Century Furniture showroom in Market Square. The state’s most well-known living artist turns 80 in January, which means he can get away with saying things like: “My furniture is the most successful line of furniture in the world.”
And it’s true — or it was. His Another World line is the best-selling collection of furniture ever. That was when Timberlake worked with another iconic North Carolina furniture company, Lexington, but the two parted ways in 2010 when the company began making his line in overseas factories. Timberlake attempted to manufacture furniture himself before partnering with Century, a company Harley Ferguson Shuford Sr. started in Hickory in 1947.
Today, Shuford’s grandson, Alex Shuford, is president of the company, and his granddaughter, Comer Wear, is director of marketing. They have weathered a sea change as Chinese imports flooded the market. In 1955, almost half of all wood bedroom furniture made in the United States was produced within 125 miles of High Point. Last year, U.S. imports of furniture and fixtures from China hit $20.4 billion, up from $4.4 billion in 2000.
Century and other furniture makers brought a “dumping” case against Chinese competitors andwon, receiving $309 million since 2005, but the damage was already done. Factories closed, and thousands of North Carolinians lost their jobs. An industry that once employed 90,000 in the state is down to about 35,000. Century has about 850 employees, down from a peak of about 1,650.
“The trade policy happened overnight,” Wear says. “It eroded the business more quickly than any other trade policy has impacted any other industry, in a 10-year span. That’s how quickly the domestic furniture manufacturing eroded. It was debilitating and demoralizing at the time to watch what happened, not only to us, but to our friends. We know all of the furniture families in this area. You stare into the face of the new economy and hope that you can grow from there.”
The new economy cuts both ways. Century’s biggest customers at the High Point Market are international. The leading buyer of its made-in-America, customized furniture? China.
4 p.m. Saturday
It’s finally happy hour, but the drinks have been flowing since morning. Every showroom has a “handcrafted” drink: Bloody marys “to die for” at Bobo Intriguing Objects. A signature mule at Michael Beaver’s Modern History showroom. The party spills out into the streets of downtown High Point where a band is playing to buyers lounging on patio furniture that’s for sale, natch.
Tour buses, shuttles and trolleys continue to drop off more visitors as others board, headed for the park-and-ride, done for the day. The glass-covered lanes at the Transportation Center and nearby International Market Center, sometimes called the “wave” building, are all modern but hardly the most unusual sights in High Point, a town that sports a building shaped like a giant chest of drawers. Giving it a run for its money is the Chinese-temple-inspired Lifestyle showroom once known asthe Forbidden City Museum.
It all stands in stark contrast to downtown’s early 20th-century brick buildings that rose after 10 High Point industrialists each pledged $1,000 toward the creation of a Southern Furniture Exposition in 1902. The market has evolved over the decades, ebbing during war and recession, booming in the recoveries. A kickstart came when Las Vegas made an effort in the mid-2000s to lure High Point’s business west, but the city fought back, ratcheting up the Southern hospitality. The state kicked in millions of dollars, today’s High Point Market Authority was established, and a patchwork network of church vans and buses became a more streamlined network of free shuttles and trolleys traveling as far as the Charlotte and Raleigh airports. Of bigger concern today, Conley says, is the market in Atlanta as vendors and attendees opt for fewer trade shows. A new agency, Forward High Point Inc., has been formed to revitalize the city’s downtown, which is mostly quiet when the market isn’t in town.
It’s anything but quiet as night falls on Day One of the market. A few short hours of sleep stretch between now and 6:30 a.m. when the park-and-rides open, and the market starts all over again.