This story is published in partnership with ConsumerAffairs.
In 2021, Kitty King and her husband purchased a Broyhill-branded mattress, box spring, sectional, and recliner from Big Lots for $1,700.
“It was a deal wasn’t it?” she said. “But that’s because you get what you pay for.”
Founded in the 1920s in Lenoir, North Carolina, Broyhill was one of the manufacturers that turned the North Carolina and Virginia piedmont into the beating heart of the global furniture industry. The 20th century giant’s bedroom suites were often featured prizes on The Price Is Right.
But the company has been slowly gutted over the last 40 years. It was sold to a shoe company-turned-conglomerate, and then an investment firm. Multiple bankruptcies eventually brought it into the hands of Big Lots, which purchased the Broyhill name and trademarks in 2019.
The furniture consumers once loved was long gone, though.
Within a few months of her purchase, King says the recliner stopped reclining, half of the sectional sagged, and both the mattress and the box spring collapsed entirely. Big Lots replaced the latter two, but the replacement box spring also collapsed.
King brought the box spring back to the store and got into such a heated shouting match when her third refund request was denied that the store called the police. She insists the officers were on her side.
“If I was a criminal, I would go rob them,” King said during a phone call in December. “I know you’re taping me, but I really would. I would go get my money back.”
She abandoned the box spring at the store, but her fury hasn’t dissipated. It was just redirected to leukemia.
“They’re lucky my husband started dying,” she said, “because what happened was I had to revert my energy somewhere else.”
For decades, companies like Broyhill provided the economic backbone for entire regions, especially the area around High Point, North Carolina. As they furnished homes around the nation, their factories, showrooms, and distribution centers spread across the landscape—it can still be hard to spot a building in downtown High Point that isn’t connected to the industry. But now the companies are often more hated than known.
Data collected by ConsumerAffairs shows that customer satisfaction, especially among the largest retailers, has been steadily declining since 2011. Too often, the buying experience is simply miserable, and it’s only got worse during the pandemic.
The furniture industry’s fall from grace, in the typical consumer’s mind, can be traced back to a number of long-term, international shifts in how furniture is made and sold. Ironically, the same factors made the industry bullish—but now the biggest winners are large multinational companies, not homegrown manufacturers.
This looks like bad news for consumers. The most likely outcome is an industry that continues its current direction, offering more and more services for the wealthy and cheap, too often terrible goods for everyone else.
And yet, in North Carolina and Virginia, where it all started, some in the industry are working against the tide. Despite all of the economic forces turning furniture into a disposable good, they think they can transition manufacturing to a post-industrial craftsmanship for the benefit of workers, the region, and the kind of consumers who can pay more for higher quality.
The question is, can the rest of us?
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The Downward Trend
The data collected by ConsumerAffairs included 76,119 posts on social media and product review websites published between January 2011 and August 2022.
Falling consumer sentiment was particularly pronounced for six of the largest furniture brands—Ashley Furniture (the top retailer in the country, according to Furniture Today’s annual report on the top 100 furniture stores), West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Ikea, plus the online juggernauts Wayfair and Overstock. Combined, the retailers represent nearly $37 billion of the $140.5 billion in furniture sales estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2021.
Collectively, their reviews on Trustpilot, a global business review website, fell from 79 percent positive—a 4 or 5 on a 5-star scale—in 2011 to a dismal 25 percent in 2017. By 2022, it was just 9 percent.
ConsumerAffairs also found satisfaction dropping in samples of 1,901 sites for reviews of 330 other furniture retailers. In those 24,657 ratings, 4–5 star ratings dropped from 86 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2021.
The complaints are much like those King had with Big Lots and Broyhill: poor quality products, bad customer service, and subpar refund and replacement policies. Shipping delays and damaged goods—a problem particularly pronounced since the pandemic began—were also widespread.
By now, consumer complaints abound everywhere from social media to neighborhood block parties. The ConsumerAffairs site is filled with disaster stories: In the past 12 months, it has published 1,536 consumer reviews of 23 furniture companies. Only 5 percent were positive. A full 89 percent were one star, including the one from Kitty King.
Examples range from an Asheville man who is now on a first name basis with a La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries vice president after repeated calls about a recliner with loose threads, raw, unfinished wood on the legs, and a leaking component that left a grease stain on his rug to a Greensboro woman who ordered a glass-top table from Wayfair, only to receive two tops and no base.
Two issues converged during the pandemic: people were spending more time working at home, reducing other spending, and buying more furniture. Ethan Allen and Flexsteel were up nearly 50 percent in orders, RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) up by a quarter in revenues, and Wayfair was up 50 percent in customers.
At the same time, the industry’s import side had been dealing with backlogs since 2016, when Donald Trump imposed tariffs on China, where most furniture sold in the United States is made, spurring manufacturers to move their operations to infrastructure-starved Vietnam. The pandemic, followed by the wartime ban on Russian lumber and the Texas blackouts that took major foam suppliers offline, left the supply chain and consumers’ already-frayed patience in tatters.
“There were massive, massive delays and order cancellations as a result of Covid and the ensuing supply chain chaos, so it doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Furniture Today editor-in-chief Bill McLoughlin.
But the fact that dissatisfaction was growing before the pandemic points to the role of more entrenched factors. The most obvious one is the growth of imported goods. The data shows that companies advertising U.S.-made goods generally have more positive consumer sentiment, despite a dip during Covid. It was still 88 percent positive in September.
Rise and Fall and Rise Again
Faze Lipscomb watched those long-term shifts from his family’s working-class home in the heart of furniture country. Sitting in the corner of the back room of Hickory’s Tasteful Beans, he starts his story by apologizing for how busy the coffee shop is.
There’s no wait for a table, just a steady lunch rush on a Friday a couple weeks before Christmas. But Lipscomb wasn’t expecting any kind of crowd, because for most of his 45-years of life, almost all spent in Hickory, about an hour west of High Point, there wasn’t much economic vitality in the town to speak of—not since the furniture manufacturing jobs families like his depended on started leaving in the 1990s.
“It was rough,” he says.
It was also a far cry from the 1940s, when Hickory’s furniture makers barely had to try to sell their goods.
Those, says Alex Shuford III, were the “boom times.” Another lifelong Hickory resident, Shuford’s family owned the factories: His grandfather, Henry Ferguson Shuford, Sr., had launched Century Furniture in the golden years after World War II. He and his competitors churned out the furnishings returning GIs needed to fill their new suburban homes.
“The entire production of the factory’s output for many months would be presold,” said the younger Shuford, who now serves as CEO of Rock House Farm, the parent company of Century and seven other domestic furniture manufacturers, and the board chair of the High Point Market Authority, which oversees the largest furniture trade show in the world.
If the Lipscomb family history traces the 2000s decline of furniture, the Shuford family history tells the story of both its initial launch and its recent transformation. To understand how the Shufords’ mid-century accumulation of wealth turned into the Lipscomb’s end-of-century economic precarity, you have to start with two enduring facts about furniture: It’s a pain in the ass to move, and it’s very hard to make standardized things out of wood.
The North Carolina and Virginia piedmont became a furniture manufacturing center around the turn of the 20th century. The area had lots of high-quality hardwoods and, more importantly, a large supply of unemployed workers thanks to an agricultural depression.
North Carolina wages were half of New York’s, fueling the region’s market takeover. They could simply sell cheaper stuff than their competitors. Instead of hardwoods, they pioneered furniture made with cheaper woods covered in hardwood veneers.
High Point became the furniture capital of the world. The biannual trade show now known as the High Point Market launched in the early 1900s, and by the mid-20th century it was the primary furniture trade show in the world. Today, over 75,000 people attend each market. Towns like Hickory built their entire economy around the industry, and their economic fates are still tied to it.
Families like Lipscomb’s made their livings working for families like the Shufords. “It’s an over $100 billion industry, so it rivals really big economic segments,” Shuford said. “But those other industries have three or four major players that soak up almost all the market share. We’re made up of thousands of small businesses.”
Throughout the boom times, workers sent hundreds and thousands of identical items down production lines and out by truck and train car to department stores and mom-and-pop furniture outlets around the country. They did it for decades, even as globalization started shifting other industries in the 1970s and ‘80s. After all, who the hell would want to ship a dresser around the globe? It’s hard enough to move across town.
They didn’t think workers in China and other low-wage countries attracting U.S. manufacturing had the skills to make quality furniture, either. The arrogance ran so deep, U.S. companies even trained their new Asian competitors.
There were early signs they might be mistaken, but the real reckoning came almost as soon as the ink dried on the 1999 trade agreement the United States signed with China. Wages were so cheap there that (aided by the occasional World Trade Organization violation) Chinese companies could import U.S. lumber and ship the final product back by the container load and still sell their goods for less than U.S. companies paid in material costs.
Workers felt the pain immediately as manufacturers shut down their plants and turned into little more than import offices. During one four-year stretch in the early 2000s, according to former furniture executive and Lenoir Rhyne University professor Michael K. Dugan’s 2009 book The Furniture Wars, over 230 U.S. furniture factories closed putting 55,800 people out of work. Within seven years, Chinese companies accounted for over 60 percent of the U.S. furniture market.
Consumers benefited from the change, at least at first, as the price of furniture plummeted. But the trade off was an equal decrease in quality. Veneered goods were no longer cheap enough, so wood was replaced with lower-end, less durable engineered products like MDF and particle board. IKEA’s “ready-to-assemble” model became commonplace. Both reduced shipping costs by making goods lighter or smaller.
The real sign of the times in today’s Hickory, Lipscomb says over his coffee, is that he doesn’t really know that many people who work in furniture.
The musician even demurs about his connections to the industry, despite working as an upholsterer for a library furniture company. But after Lipscomb recounts his mother’s furniture career, which lasted until disability forced her to retire, and his step-father’s, bouncing between factories that closed as business went overseas, and then his own past jobs in other parts of the supply chain, including a sewing supplier and a foam company, he pauses. “I guess I was involved,” he admits.
For all the consumer anger and lost jobs, the furniture industry is far from dead. High Point Market still claims to bring $6.73 billion into North Carolina each year.
“We are the largest event in terms of economic impact in the state,” said Tammy Covington Nagem, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority. “That’s the equivalent of four Super Bowls.”
Rather, the industry has changed form.
A Tale of Two Markets
Furniture has always been better understood as a collection of related industries rather than a singular thing. Beds, upholstery, case goods (the standard term for wooden furniture like dressers and tables), so-called motion furniture like recliners: they all have different supply chains and buying habits, and within each one are a number of different niche audiences defined by price point and style.
Now, the differences between the parts are growing, creating vastly different experiences for different classes of consumers. Those with the requisite buying power can take part in a curated buying experience that meets their needs, maybe better than ever. Those without it have to navigate an impersonal corporate maze of frustrating, disposable crap.
Domestic manufacturers in places like North Carolina have two options open to them, broadly speaking.
The first is vertically integrating manufacturing, logistics, and retail into a single company. That approach allowed Ashley Furniture to grow into a giant of the industry and the largest domestic furniture manufacturer in the United States.
“They have more manufacturing plants in the U.S. than any other furniture maker, maybe more than every other furniture manufacturer,” said McLoughlin.
However, Ashley also launched major manufacturing facilities across China and southeast Asia as early as the 1980s, helping it maintain a mass-market strategy at a relatively affordable price point. The strategy requires massive amounts of capital that few can afford, which is why Ashley is sui generis in the industry.
The option most remaining U.S. manufacturers chose was to become specialists. Unable to compete on price against dirt-cheap chairs and bookshelves consumers wrench together themselves, companies like Rock House Farm have shifted toward upholstered furniture like sofas because it is a customized, special order business.
Employing 1,300 people while making 85 percent of its products in the United States, Rock House Farm, Shuford said, has found success by focusing on items that consumers order one at a time, adding their own flair to each. Because imports only make financial sense when bought and shipped in bulk, domestic manufacturers still have an advantage there.
But it also changed the way the company operates. “[Imports] forced us to shift to be much more of a marketing and consumer goods company,” Shuford said. “If you’re not selling hundreds of the exact same thing, but you’re selling one of something to a specific consumer, times thousands of different transactions, you’ve got to start putting together option sets and really good cataloging. Our website became critical. The way we interact with customers at the point of purchase became important.”
All of that marketing and customization also pushes up the price, and Century makes no secret that it courts higher-end consumers. Its chairs sell for thousands of dollars a piece. Beds are over $10,000.
“Those are places where the economics are better aligned,” says McLoughlin. “High-volume furniture, the kind that’s sold by the container load? There are not a lot of companies that can do that.”
The problem is that, despite the gulf in scale and approach between importers, mass-manufacturers like Ashley, and specialized craft-made furniture, laypeople can barely tell the difference. Consumers trying to navigate today’s furniture market often face the baffling experience of choosing between two identical looking chairs, one of which is $99 and one of which is $1,500 or more.
“What other industry do you know where the consumer doesn’t have any idea what they ought to pay?” noted Ken Smith, managing partner of accounting firm Smith-Leonard, which consults for furniture companies.
The Era of the Designer
To find the affluent consumers who can afford the $1,500 chair, then convince them it really is worth it, Rock House Farm and companies like it near High Point have turned to a new player in the industry: The interior designer.
Gary Inman was born for the job. When he turned 10, he asked for a design budget to redo his bedroom. “I don’t like the room you did,” he remembered telling his parents.
Inman is not like most furniture buyers. He knows furniture deeply, having followed his early passion to a career as a fashion designer, then doctoral work in architectural history at the University of Virginia. There are few people as knowledgeable about furniture styles and trends.
That’s why a growing number of people are hiring Inman, who splits time between Richmond and High Point while running his own design firm and teaching design at High Point University, to furnish their houses and hotels for them. He’s far from alone. The interior design industry has exploded in the past decades and now represents over 60 percent of the buying segment attendees at High Point Market. Inman helps run the market’s Style Spotters program, where interior designers guide retailers and manufacturers through changing trends and fashions.
The rise of designers is not just about aesthetics, though. For consumers who can afford them, designers also offer the simple service of dealing with all the headaches of the furniture buying process.
“One of the nicest things I do for my clients that makes it worth paying me is that I take all of that away and they don’t have to deal with any of that stress,” Inman says.
The growth of interior designers can seem paradoxical, given that it happened at the same time that consumer options have proliferated through national chains and online retailers. It used to be that designers were useful because they had access to products consumers couldn’t get otherwise. That’s no longer the case, especially after Covid helped temporarily boost sales for online providers like Wayfair, which in 2020 saw a 51 percent increase in active customers.
But consumers have never had much brand awareness of actual manufacturers, the ones who supply Wayfair and brick-and-mortar retailers with the goods. In the new global normal, the disconnect is worse. In some cases, it’s downright impossible to know who made the item you’re purchasing, much less whether it will show up on time, how well it will be made, or its true value. There’s no Kelley Blue Book for a couch, even if it costs as much as a car.
It can all be overwhelming, and designers can be the solution. “I would always say to my clients, I will edit the world for you,” Inman said, referring to one client who worked as an ER doctor but broke down in tears while furnishing her home.
Manufacturers have begun to recognize the value, too. Rather than market directly to consumers, Rock House Farm markets to designers, who in turn have influence over their target markets, Shuford said. Even lower-end retailers have begun branding their salespeople as “design consultants.”
Moreover, the more positive consumer sentiment for US-made furniture may not be about better quality or shorter shipping times at all, in Shuford’s opinion. He shrugged off the explanation that would make his company look better and instead claimed it’s mostly a result of being in a market niche focused on giving consumers lots of options for customization, as Rock House and companies like La-Z-Boy do.
“The retailers who carry those product lines have to have very well-trained salespeople on staff to handle that higher complexity product,” he said. “And a lot of customers’ experience, whether it’s positive or negative, can be tracked back to the quality and education of the salesperson.”
Furniture That Actually Lasts
“The smartest move I never knew I was making was courting all those designers,” says Carol Gregg, the owner of red egg furniture. “And I’m happier doing what I’m doing now.”
On the outskirts of the High Point-centered industry, there have always been small enterprises where craftspeople and textile artists pour their hearts into furniture as an art form. The interior designer-centric shift creates new opportunities for them to reach more consumers who are ready to invest in pieces they can pass down to their grandchildren—but also new challenges.
Gregg was an early pioneer. Her historic studio is just beyond downtown High Point, tucked just a few minutes walk from the corporate showrooms along a small road fronting the railroad tracks. With a background in textiles, Gregg started red egg 25 years ago to import antiques from Asia. But she learned industry buyers didn’t really want one-of-a-kind pieces—they wanted them by the hundreds.
Gregg developed relationships with factories in Asia and began designing furniture for them to make, selling pieces wholesale to Horchow, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s while selling the antiques to interior designers.
Once the import boom happened, the factories Gregg had worked with dropped her for larger companies. So she moved her business to High Point and hired laid-off factory workers. “My prices tripled,” she says. That change priced out retailers, so she leaned on her interior design clients, who now represent 90 percent of her customers.
Today, Gregg is proud to point out that red egg is the only High Point Market showroom that’s actually a house. It’s inhabited, too: she lives on the second story, while the first is filled with the Philippines-made rattan goods and North Carolina-made wooden pieces red egg sells. Her reclaimed wood hanging bed, priced at $10,115, is displayed on the inviting wraparound porch.
Though red egg is relatively small scale—it sells about 100 of its most popular chairs per year—Gregg is thoroughly embedded in the High Point world, even serving as a board member for the High Point Market Authority.
There’s one hiccup for other small-scale makers, though: Manufacturers have to produce enough that the interior designers can take a cut of the profits. That, in turn, means either higher prices, or traditional, built-to-order furniture has to be produced in a more efficient factory setting.
That’s why acclaimed craftsman and furniture designer Brian Boggs has long avoided High Point Market and the institutional furniture industry.
The gentle-but-imposing man began as a chair maker in Berea, Kentucky, because it was the cheapest way for an arts-loving child to get started in furniture. He’s grown into the kind of businessman who leaves sawdust fingerprints on tables art collectors will later buy.
It makes for an odd fit in High Point. “It all looks the same,” he said of the furniture displayed at last fall’s market, contrasting it with the long-lasting, aesthetically exacting functional art he crafts. But Boggs is mathematically matter of fact about the business implications of his approach: “We have not had the margins” to do anything but circumvent retailers and designers to sell directly to affluent consumers, he said.
To do otherwise, Boggs says, “You have to manufacture at about 25 percent of the value of retail.”
His company, based out of a large shed-like building in Asheville, can only manage production costs over 50 percent of the retail price – and that price averages around $3,000 for a chair.
But as more of his target market has begun hiring interior designers, Boggs has been forced to begin courting them. Doing so has instigated a surprising decision for a man who designs popular chairmaking tools: he outsourced his chair production to a larger company in New York.
Ever the engineer, Boggs builds his chairs with deeply analog methods. The complex dual-bend of the slats on one of his chairs starts in a steam chamber he built from plywood and hot tub parts, the handles gently rounded. Once steamed to pliability, the piece is pulled out and placed in molds that could be mistaken for discards from a high school theater project.
The result is part of a best-in-show winner from a 2022 International Society of Furniture Designers competition. And it only takes a few seconds; Boggs timed it.
The problem is it only works with certain pieces of wood. Not only must it be a straight-grained species, but the grain must run horizontally, in line with the longest bend. Anything else would twist or crack. And that means Boggs or one of his four employees must hand select each log and precisely plan out each cut.
“You could never do that working on an industrial scale,” he said.
By necessity, then, outsourcing means re-engineering each piece of furniture to ensure it can be economically produced in larger quantities—even quantities far less than Century makes, much less Ashley. In December, Boggs was still negotiating quality from the first batch of his new supplier’s chairs.
Working with interior designers does add another benefit: they are educators explaining the value that goes into a chair.
“When you see a leather chair advertised in some big store for $99? That’s not a realistic price,” says Gregg. “I don’t want to say you shouldn’t be able to buy a $99 chair, but you really shouldn’t. Someone’s giving something away to make money somewhere else.”
Her voice just audible over the din of her sewing machine, former certified nursing assistant Erin Roberts explains that the furniture her father brought home from the Kincaid Furniture factory he worked at still fills her mother’s house.
“It’s some good quality furniture,” she says. “It’s held up.”
But Roberts scoffs at the idea of buying similar pieces today. “I couldn’t afford to pay that much,” she says. “If I had it, I would. It’s beautiful.”
Many of the people who buy $99 chairs who muddle through IKEA instructions are like Roberts and those with her at the sewing machines on a Thursday night in early January, taking classes at the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy just outside Hickory.
The long history of the furniture industry’s transformation—outsourcing, supply chains, interior designers—is almost beside the point. People just want decent furniture without having to stress so much about it. In the end, what happens at High Point Market twice a year has little to do with them, because most of them are living on the detritus of the furniture industry’s glory years. Even the people who’ve worked in furniture all their lives say they mostly have hand-me-downs and whatever they found at the thrift store.
Meanwhile, importers are still moving factories around the globe, looking for cheaper wages—even Chinese workers are costing a little too much these days—domestic manufacturers are busy chasing the same pool of well-off consumers, and a recession is looming.
But Shuford, the Rock House Farm CEO, is unfazed. Sure, the next few years will be bumpy, he admitted, “but over a five to seven year period of time, the demographics in the U.S. point to a great upward growth story for home furnishings.” Increasing remote work and other changes will help, too, he said.
If he’s right, workers like Roberts will have jobs making the quality furniture that Shuford’s family has made for three generations. Along with other consumers, they might just be able to afford it, too, even if it means doing so on credit. Industry boosters point to the fact that furniture upholstery jobs like the one she’s training for grew over 40 percent between 2011 and 2018, from less than 13,000 jobs to over 18,000, as a sign that the future might start looking like the boom times that launched Century Furniture so long ago.
But U.S. furniture manufacturing remains on shaky ground. Nearly a third of the growth in upholstery jobs was lost during pandemic shutdowns. By 2021, it had only recovered to 15,000. Lane, one of the largest domestic manufacturers in the country, closed without warning in November, laying off all of its 2,700 workers and setting off alarms around the industry that more companies would follow.
In light of it all, consumers have little choice but to hunt for the deals they can find, unless they can afford to hire a designer to do it for them. That means suffering through delayed, disposable mass-market furniture or buying good used stuff and repairing what’s stood the test of time.
For Roberts, that meant buying two chairs, a sofa, and some pillows made by students like her at the furniture academy. She liked the style. She tested the pieces and they seemed durable. All told, it was around $600.
“The prices were good, so that’s where our furniture is from,” she said.
Matt Hartman is an Assembly contributing writer based in Durham. He’s also written for The Ringer, Jacobin, The Outline, and other outlets.
Kate Medley is a photojournalist and filmmaker in the American South. Her work, which explores themes at the intersection of culture and social justice, regularly appears in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.