Coming to life
When OFS Brands recently announced that it will expand its High Point furniture plant, the news was noteworthy on many levels.
The company plans to add 188 jobs and invest $9.25 million in its Jackson Lake Road location, in part to ramp up production of its commercial office furnishings and the specialty furniture it makes for the health care industry.
After years of furniture job losses due to cheap labor overseas and floods of imports, experts report that they are seeing indications of improvement in the industry.
“I think it’s clearly a positive sign. Any new jobs are good, but I don’t know that it’s the start of a major trend,” said Ken Smith, furniture analyst with Smith Leonard PLLC in High Point. “We’re seeing some little niches here and there. In the case of OFS, they’re more into health care, which obviously is growing.”
By any measure, furniture manufacturing in the High Point area is nowhere near what it was during its heyday, in terms of employment and production.
In the Greensboro/High Point Metropolitan Statistical Area, the number of jobs in furniture and related product manufacturing dropped from 12,622 in 1997 to 8,862 in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.
In the Triad as a whole, the numbers are even more stark over the same period — a loss of more than 13,000 furniture and similar manufacturing jobs.
But the news is showing signs of getting better.
At Pre-Market earlier this month, a consensus emerged of anticipated sales growth this year among the furniture manufacturers and importers participating in the semi-annual preview of the newest product introductions slated to be unveiled at High Point Market, according to Jaclyn C. Hirschhaut, vice president of public relations and marketing for the American Home Furnishings Alliance.
In addition, indications of improvement in the homebuilding sector are expected to have a positive impact on the furniture industry, Hirschhaut said.
OFS Brands is very involved in the “contract,” or office, furnishings arena, which is different than the mainstay furniture business that High Point is best known for, she pointed out.
High Point touts the diversity of its economy, but furniture is still prominent.
For example, Stanley Furniture Co.’s pending relocation of its corporate headquarters to downtown has raised optimism, as has the Ashley Furniture Co. manufacturing expansion under way in Davie County.
“Our office has seen an increase in furniture company clients of all kinds — which includes furniture manufacturing operations too,” said High Point Economic Development Corp. President Loren Hill.
Some manufacturers have returned production to the U.S. because of rising shipping, raw material and labor costs in China, according to experts. That has fed marketing opportunities to emphasize the “Buy American” ethic, but analysts say there’s little evidence that the public at large has become willing to pay more for higher quality domestic products over less expensive imports.
“I wouldn’t say there’s dramatic movement there,” Smith said. “I think some retailers really push the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ and some people buy based on that. Others buy with their billfold. I think, all things being equal, a lot of folks would like to buy American, but again, it depends on the value that you can get.”