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What’s In Our Future?
COVER  STORY
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Futon Frames Today - raising the bar begins by picking it up

Futon frames have been and always will be at the center of the industry that has grown up around them. The futon mattress may be the soul of the category, but the frame is at its heart. Futon frames started out as a simple way to get the foldable futon mattress off the floor and give it a platform to do its dual purpose thing. The early futon frame designers and manufacturers saw the utility and value of the futon mattress and were convinced that getting the mattress off the floor would prove to be their vehicle to business and personal success. Most were true entrepreneurs that got their start in business from doing their own thing. Corporate they were not, but pioneers and innovators rarely get their start in a cubicle.

Like the early futon mattress pioneers, futon frame makers started by building hand crafted product created for a discerning shopper who was interested in a simple design and the aesthetic value of solid wood and hand made quality. Some worked in pine and maple while others worked in cherry and oak. It was 1983 and all was good, maybe too good. Business began to boom for the futon category and a series of events took place that both propelled the category into the futon furniture industry limelight and, in my humble opinion, started a pattern that continues to dog us to this very day. Futon frames began to be sold in huge numbers, but companies often sacrificed quality and value at the altar of price.

There have not been many categories in the home furnishings industry that have gotten the kind of microscopic coverage and attention the futon furniture category has. Perhaps it was the convergence of the futon explosion, my personal interest in the category, and the desktop publishing revolution. In any case this publication has attempted to chronicle, in some detail, the history of the category. With this mission in mind we asked the top futon frame manufacturers the following questions (two cover today, two tomorrow, and one covers the numbers from the futon manufacturers perspective): 1. What is your company doing to directly compete with motion furniture and the traditional sofa bed? 2. What new innovations, designs, or ideas is your company bringing to market this year? 3. What is your company’s best selling futon frame by price point and style? 4. What can the futon industry do to help itself to a greater market share and/or higher margins? and 5. What do you see happening in the next two years with the whole category? Here are their responses.

What are you doing to directly compete with the traditional sofa bed?

“It’s simple,” said Mark Schlichter of August Lotz. “Building a quality product with an innovative style and look is the only way to go.” Schlichter also said that if we are going to compete with real furniture we must build real furniture. He obviously believes in backing up his words with action. Other futon manufacturers agree. “We have always designed our futon frames with a traditional setting in mind,” said Janet Moran of The Bedworks in Bangor, ME. “We find that these classic elements, combined with quality workmanship, and a wide variety of finishes allow our futon furniture to compete with traditional upholstered furniture at retail,” she said. “We’re positioning our (futon) frames to compete head to head with today’s sofa beds,” said Sean Pathiratne of Lifestyle Solutions by Elite. “Our products simply out perform today’s sofa sleepers. Also, we are always looking to make products that are more functional and create new avenues of distribution to an even wider market,” he said.

One theme for those who gave a positive answer focused on a philosophy of quality first and cost second. “We’ve tried to make our futon furniture look like a conventional couch or sofa,” said Brian Donohoo of Strata Furniture, “Hoping consumers will see our furniture first as a couch and then notice the added convenience of the sleeper function.” (Donohoo did not respond to the price question.)

Some use innovation to attack the traditional market. “We will be introducing our new remote control futon sofa bed at the October Highpoint show, ” said Bob Pecoraro of LA producer Big Tree. Marcus Grimm of United Sleep Products, the Simmons Futon licensee, spoke directly to the motion market. “During the April market at High Point, we actually showed a prototype motion-glider futon. When the futon retailers are ready for a motion futon, Simmons will be ready.”

Others focus on structural details. “I can’t believe that many (specialty) retailers don’t understand what mortise and tenon joinery is,” said Bob Thomas of Bluestone Mills. “We can clearly differentiate our products by demonstrating how this joinery adds to the integrity and value of the futon frame.” Thomas also uses the joinery story to add value and help his futon store owners justify any price objections when his product is compared to other futon frames in a local market.
One newcomer to the futon category, St. Charles Furniture, has taken a very traditional single unit approach. “Our futon units come packaged in a single box as a single SKU- like that of a sleeper,” said Erika Alix, VP of Marketing. “This single SKU has been a phenomenal tool in selling the futon category into the traditional furniture stores,” she said.

Other futon frame makers see little or no comparison between futon furniture and the traditional sofabed. “We learned a long time ago that it’s really a waste of time trying to sell component futon furniture to traditional furniture retailers… the stores that carry motion and sofa beds,” said Mitch Wapen of Lofa Sales in Montreal. “Worrying about motion and traditional sofa beds is counterproductive. In other words, we can achieve our goals simply by targeting futon and bedding stores,” he said.

Eddie Alala of Hickory At Home, a division of components supplier Hickory Springs, pointed to the fact that his company is not focused on competing directly at all. “We want to allow the consumers an opportunity to experience the styling, functionality, and price points offered by futon frames and determine for themselves if this product fulfills their specific needs.”

“It is really up to the futon retailer to advertise, merchandise and sell futons at a level comparable to motion furniture and traditional sofa beds,” said David Lee of Adonis Furniture in Oakland, CA.

 

Hot Price Points
&
Hot Styles

High Wholesale
Price Point: $500±
Low Wholesale
Price Point: $29
Average Retail
Price Point: $499-$599
Web Survey Average*:
27% @ $299
26% @ $399
23% @ $499
24% @ $599+

Hot Futon Arm Styles:
Mission / Craftsman: #1
Sleigh: #2

* These averages are compiled from the web survey at futonlife.com.

 

“They (retailers) need to put the futon frame, mattress, and cover together in packages that appeal to their customers. In my opinion the war for the hearts and minds of the consumer is fought at the retail level,” he said. Lee also added that he sees futon retailers selling at price points from $299 to $699 “all day long.”

This first question revealed some serious polarity of thought and philosophy among the manufacturing sector and led me to the conclusion that this issue is more complex than I had first anticipated. Sig Gordon of At Home Furniture in DC summed it up best. “While we (in the futon business) recognize that we are competing against motion and sofabeds, we don’t sell or sales train that way. We need to train retail sales people to sell the advantages (inherent in the component nature) of futon furniture. The more they know about the product, and the better they can communicate that information to the consumer, the better chance they have at getting a customer to buy from them and not Jennifer Convertibles.”

What’s New The focus of the “what’s new” question centered on new styles and some interesting new features. Here’s a quick review: August Lotz’ “Select A Grid” system allows the futon retailer to offer the consumer an array of options with a changeable snap-in arm section. The system allows for both lower on hand inventory for the futon retailer, and more options for the consumer. Lotz is also introducing a new home office suite; The Bedworks introduced a new line of painted futon frames all with a sleek lacquered finish; Lofa Sales is producing some awesome new room setting photography for marketing their products; Simmons will refine the motion glider futon, and is currently producing futons under the BackCare name. The BackCare futons are much livelier, and are aimed at the customer seeking a more springy feel.

 

The most innovative product I have seen lately is Mike Gallawa’s Night & Day “Snapper” mechanism. “We have two patent pending innovations,” said Gallawa. “One is our patent pending ‘Sea Horse’ quick assembly track system, and second is our patent pending front operating ‘Snapper’ mechanism.” The futon frame components allow the consumer to literally snap the seat and backrest into the futon frame base for a quick assembly, and an incredibly smooth and simple conversion operation.

How Can We Gain Market Share & What’s In Our Future

The answers to the last two questions are combined here in the conclusion. Perseverance was one theme that rang true for many of the respondents. “Keep advertising, keep innovating, and keep the quality up,” said Alan Bowden of Knockdown Frameworks. Bowden added that no matter where the economy goes futons outperform their counterparts at every level. “Exploit the natural features futon sofabeds offer,” said Sean Pathiratne. “We need to continue to promote features and benefits instead of price, price, price,” said Bob Thomas, of Bluestone Mills. “And let’s not forget, this is a living room product, not a bedroom product.”
“We know how well the product works, and if furniture stores give it some respect it will work for them,” said Mark Schlichter of August Lotz, a premium futon frame manufacturer. “We see futon furniture taking more and more market share from the sofa sleeper. If we all do our jobs we will penetrate the traditional furniture store.” Others referenced a recent article in Furniture Today that showed a higher propensity to buy for futon shoppers over sleeper shoppers.

Another major theme was concern about (and a desire to change) the current overall positioning of the futon furniture category. “We need to change the perception of the word futon. As long as the public thinks that futon furniture is cheap, the baby boomers that are our target market will stay away in droves,” said Mitch Wapen of Lofa Sales.

“I think the futon industry needs to focus its market effort on changing consumer’s perception of futon furniture. From our experience people view futons as something you had in college. The reality is there are numerous futon frames out there that look as good as any couch, and the futon industry needs to upgrade its image to this reality,” said Brian Donohoo of Strata.

Janet Moran of The Bedworks agrees. “We need to do more to identify futon furniture as living room furniture, showing complete suites, matching couches, loveseats, chairs and tables… concepts that help the futon buyers envision this furniture in their living room or family room.”

“In many ways, we think the futon industry has become too complex. We all like to think that more options are what the customer wants, but this isn’t always the case with futons. At Simmons Futons, we’re working to create product simplicities,” said Marcus Grimm. Erica Alix of St. Charles agrees. “Our success with futon furniture is proof positive that the more you can simplify the product itself and thus reduce the number of SKUs it takes in the warehouse, the more palatable it is to the conventional furniture dealer.”

“It’s all about raising the bar and getting the public to understand that this product its not for just college kids anymore,” said Bob Thomas.

As a reporter my next logical question was, “What will be the platform for these changes?”
“We are still a very fragmented group,” said Bob Pecoraro of Big Tree - Big Sleep. “We need greater participation by everyone, myself included.”

In the end everyone seems to understand the problems we face and even some of the solutions which would help change our image in the marketplace. But without a clear and well defined plan, and the unity of leadership in the futon industry to make it all happen we may find ourselves unable to reach the potential our hearts and minds tell us this product should and could attain.

Erica Alix, a ten year futon furniture industry veteran added, “I hope the category continues to raise the bar where quality, innovation and price are concerned, and not kowtow to the belief that cheaper is better. That line of thinking would be the ultimate demise of the category itself.”
Stay tuned.

FL

 
 
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