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The Auto Industry Has The Right Idea

Furniture World Magazine


The story of an industry (the furniture industry) sleeping through its future.

When we see an opportunity, we can either grab onto it, or allow someone else to walk off with the glory. Ours is the story of an industry that is trying desperately to imitate an ostrich. When confronted with the out-of-the-ordinary; the non-traditional or the threatening; an ostrich buries its head in the sand, hoping that its presence will not be noticed. The ostrich is a beautiful bird... but hopelessly ignorant of the changes that go on around it. It is now on the endangered species list.

The home furnishings industry is about to pull it's second ostrich imitation in the last forty years. For those who do not remember, the automobile industry grabbed onto television when it first came out , recognizing that it could entice volumes of consumers into their showrooms. It allowed them to show their product in action and tell a complete feature and benefit story. They grabbed and took our customer away at both the manufacturing and retail levels.

Both sides of the selling team attacked the potential buyer... leaving the buyer in the middle. The buyer had no chance. They were hit with hype from car manufacturers and dealers. In the meantime, the conventional wisdom in the home furnishings industry was that no funds need be invested in the establishment of a home furnishings presence in the new medium. "Everybody" knew that television was a flash in the pan and that our customers read newspapers and magazines. Secondly, home furnishings manufacturers believed that the burden of selling product lay at the feet of the retailer.

On the other hand, the retailer was asleep as well. They didn't think that "their" audience watched television. It was always looked upon as something that reached "a different breed of people". Yah! Like it reached people from Mars and Pluto. Like it reached strange people who lived on the other side of the tracks. Besides, the real money was with the manufacturers and they were the ones who had to put up the money to match the Fords and Chevy's of this world. They had more to gain... the development of their brand name. Certainly, the dealer thought, the manufacturer would have to invest in television sometime soon.

The fifties passed. No furniture manufacturer went into television and became dominant. The automobile companies did that. The chewing gum people did that. The beverage industry did that. The electronics industry did that. The appliance industry did that. The sixties passed. No furniture manufacturer went into television and became dominant. The automobile companies did that. The chewing gum people did that. The beverage industry did that. The electronics industry did that. The appliance industry did that. The seventies passed. No furniture manufacturer went into television and became dominant. The automobile companies did that. The chewing gum people did that. The beverage industry did that. The electronics industry did that. The appliance industry did that. The eighties passed. In 1983, Drexel Heritage appeared on national network television. By 1985, Drexel Heritage was no longer on the air because they "did not see an immediate return on their investment". Other than that mild attempt, no furniture manufacturer went into television and became dominant. The automobile people did. The chewing gum people did. The electronics industry did. The appliance industry did. The beverage industry did. The home furnishings industry did not.

Now we are nearing completion of the nineties. No furniture manufacturer has gone into television and become dominant. Ethan Allen and La-Z-Boy have begun their journey. But will their staying power last? Yet virtually no other manufacturer has lit up the scene. The chewing gum people have. The beverage people have. The electronics people have. The appliance people have. And the automobile people certainly have.

A couple of years ago, the home furnishings industry began to create an awareness on television through the determination of a group of manufacturers and retailers who felt that a half hour television program could possibly pull the industry into the twentieth century before it ended. The Home Furnishings Council created a television show called "Haven". They could not get it on network television because they couldn't get the majority of manufacturers, especially the large manufacturers to drop their protectionism and invest in promoting the entire industry... not just their parochial viewpoint.

And because they could not get enough key players in manufacturing to contribute 1-20th of 1% of their gross sales to this effort (with an annual cap), the program has fought to produce sixty television shows which air through syndication on 193 stations in the country each week. To be in syndication is tough. There are no security blankets to fall back upon. But the Council has kept the show alive. And in some areas it is doing extremely well. In San Antonio it is producing great numbers. It is well placed and it is a fixture in that market. However, because it is in syndication, it cannot be assured of that great position in all markets without the support of home furnishings retailers.

Only three major home furnishings manufacturers, La-Z-Boy, Flexsteel and Norwalk plus Tell City have come to the plate and run off with this vehicle to reach the millions of potential customers each week. Why no others? It is astonishing , sad and shortsighted.

Now, guess who is considering advertising on Haven in a big way. A major automobile manufacturer.

That's right! According to inside sources, one of the 'big three' has taken a look at the program and is about to make a commitment which will make it the major sponsor of "Haven". They realize that "Haven" targets a loyal audience of mostly female viewers; delivering them at attractive rates. They see value in the content the program which provides home furnishings specific information to our industry's target audience (and theirs). They want a greater share of our customer's disposable income.... a greater share of the minds of those viewers who are interested in home furnishings. If they do become a major sponsor, the program's content will not change, but where will our platform for selling more home furnishings go? It will go where it has gone for the past half century... behind the automobile expenditure. Second fiddle. Second class. To the back of the line.

'Haven' is uniquely poised to help the home furnishings industry advance into the future. But with an automobile company as the major sponsor?

This now brings us back to the Ostrich metaphor. Are we about to bury our head into the sand as the big automobile companies once again run us over? Or are we going to mature and tackle the problem of brand name identification ourselves!

There is an alternative. You could become an automobile dealer. Or a laundromat. Or a pet food store. But will you really be able to remain in the home furnishings business without brand development pushing the marketplace and making it grow? Will you be in an industry which forces consumers to make decisions about buying product without financing them each week?

This is a call to arms. This is a call to make sure each and every retailer in the nation gets behind this program and advertises in it and/or around it regardless of who is in the program at the present time. It is not about "your type" of audience. It is all about your industry. Retailers should insist that their manufacturers get behind the program on the national level. They are losing money because they do not have the industry's support. The program that was intended as a beacon for our industry may be sponsored and saved by our competition.

Without television, no one would get our message. It is time to remove our heads from the sand.

Lance G. Hanish is the President of Lance Benefield & Co., Inc. Worldwide, a leading marketing communications firm serving home furnishings retailers. Questions on any aspect of television media management or production can be direct to Mr. Hanish care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at lhanish@furninfo.com.


Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.