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Furniture Industry Executive Says Industry Will Survive

112103furniture_dl.jpgBOONE–The furniture industry has taken a lot of one-two punches in recent years. Competition from low-priced goods manufactured overseas has cost thousands of jobs in North Carolina.

Polaroiding, a term that describes the practice of creating copies of high-end furniture, means knockoffs sometime reach the showroom floor before the original product does.

And a petition for anti-dumping legislation before Congress has split industry representatives.

But furniture industry patriarch Patrick H. Norton believes the industry is evolving and will survive as it moves from a focus on selling furniture to selling home furnishings.

Norton is chairman of the board of La-Z-Boy Inc. He has spent more than 50 years in the furniture industry, including almost 20 years at Ethan Allen.

Norton spoke to students in the furniture studies program in Appalachian State University’s Department of Technology.

“There is a greater interest being shown by the general public in home furnishings than ever in the history of our country,” Norton said. “People are looking for a comfortable, safe haven.”

The popularity of cable television programming, such as HGTV, has helped generate that interest, Norton said.

Because of that, Norton believes the industry must look beyond manufacturing, marketing and operations to the end result. “Furniture is the product we use to create a warm, friendly, nourishing environment for the families of this country,” he said. “Our industry over the years has suffered because we have allowed our product to become too much of a commodity, too much of a price item. In reality that has taken away from the real value and real purpose of what we do.”

With the increased interest in home furnishings comes competition. “Knockoffs are a terrible thing,” Norton said. “We spend money to have a product designed, something unique, something different. And if it sells – sometimes even if it doesn’t sell – it’s knocked off. We call it Polaroid designing,” he said of the practice of copying a design from a photograph. “It’s a huge, huge problem.”

But perhaps the greatest challenge ahead deals with resolving what many consider China’s illegal dumping of wood furniture in the United States for prices below manufacturing costs.

“All we are asking is that the field be leveled,” Norton said of the proposed anti-dumping legislation. “We don’t want any special advantage, but neither do we want a disadvantage. Our industry believes in free trade and will fight for free trade. But it must be fair free trade. We don’t think that’s happening.”

Norton said that gaining a competitive edge in the marketplace through marketing, design or innovation was fair. “But to get (an advantage) because there is a 30 percent spread in the value of the economy or you’re paying people 45 cents an hour with no benefits to work, that’s not what we stand for either.”

Not all agree with the approach, as increased tariffs on imported furniture would also affect U.S. retailers who import the product.

“There are three or four different camps. We are trying very, very hard to limit the rancor in our industry as a result of this,” Norton said. “But there also is a process we can go through. We are following that process and we will abide with whatever decision that is.”

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