The UK domestic furniture market is highly fragmented and complex. It has moved in a volatile pattern since 2007, but in overall terms has declined by around 7% in that period, adversely affected by the slowdown in the housing market, the financial crisis and falling levels of business and consumer confidence. The market reached its peak in 2007, following a sustained period of buoyant growth in the economy, low interest rates and a growing housing market. Towards the end of 2007, the onset of the housing crisis, the impact of the global credit crisis and the world recession reduced levels of consumer and business confidence which combined to drive the market down, before modest growth in 2010. However, there was a further slight fall in 2011, with the housing market continuing to impact adversely on the furniture sector, before further modest growth in 2012 and 2013. The construction industry was particularly badly affected during the recession, which in turn impacted adversely on related markets, such as furniture, sanitaryware and floorcoverings and contributed to growing uncertainty amongst consumers.
Other pressures within the domestic furniture market have included the rapid penetration of low cost imports from the Far East and Eastern Europe, which has driven down prices and margins. Total furniture imports account for around 35% of the furniture market, although the rates of import penetration differ significantly for different product groups. The upholstered furniture and beds sector still continues to dominate the overall furniture market, with an estimated market share of 46%, followed by the kitchen furniture and dining and living room furniture sectors. Furniture multiples account for 49% of the upholstered furniture sector and 46% of the beds sector, with specialist upholstery outlets and beds specialists dominating their respective categories. Furniture multiples also dominate the dining and living room sector, as well as the bedroom furniture sector, although fitted bedroom furniture specialists are significant in that sector.
The kitchen furniture market differs from other sectors of the furniture industry in terms of the important distribution channels, with the main difference being the 36% share held by builders’ merchants, together with trade-only suppliers. Home office furniture currently accounts for only around 4% of the domestic furniture market, with bathroom furniture also taking a relatively minor share. DIY multiples and builders’ and plumbers’ merchants dominate the bathroom furniture sector. Growing competition in a market, which had been declining in relative terms, is also reflected in the increasing number of business failures in the sector, both at manufacturer and retail level. However, historically the retail furnishings sector has generally had a high failure rate, with a number of high profile companies going into administration/liquidation over the last decade. Although the Internet is playing an increasingly important part in the sales process in the furniture sector, the majority of consumers undertake research online and then purchase in store. Whilst there are a growing number of companies operating solely through e-commerce transactional websites, the bulk of furniture sales via the Internet is directed through established furnishings retailers, using a multi-channel approach to marketing, together with catalogue/mail order retailers. The Internet also provides an opening for new entrants and niche players, allowing smaller companies to succeed in a way that they could not have done if they had to develop a retail network.
In general, it is clear that the improving prospects for the UK economy in the next 5 years are likely to prove beneficial for the furniture industry, with forecasts showing increasing growth in the domestic furniture market in the period to 2018. Total sales of domestic furniture are expected to show steady growth of around 3.0% per annum in 2014 and 2015, with growth of 3.2-3.4% in the following 3 years. Sales are forecast to reach £11,425m by 2018 representing a rise of 13% in RSP value terms compared with 2013 sales. Growth in the furniture market in the longer term looks more assured with forecasts showing a steady increase in the UK population and households, together with a general awareness of the urgent need to increase housebuilding construction, not just to meet this future need, but also to address the current housing shortage. Although the total number of outlets selling domestic furniture is likely to fall in the next few years, particularly in the independent sector, as conditions in the industry remain highly competitive, companies not normally associated with selling furniture, continue to increase their investment and presence in this sector.
It is difficult to imagine import penetration increasing any further, given the current 35% share and the dominance of UK manufacturers in specific sectors of the industry. Imports from low cost producers in the Far East and East Europe seem to have levelled out and, as the market improves, design innovation should provide some opportunities for product differentiation and margin protection for UK manufacturers. In the longer term, technology is likely to drive any fundamental changes in the way domestic furniture is purchased in the UK. The number of UK households with Internet access will continue to grow to near saturation, with a large proportion of these households having a broadband or mobile Internet connection. Use of mobile Internet technology is likely to grow significantly, although as far as furniture is concerned mobile phones are more likely to be used to browse options, to find the best deals and discounts, rather than purchasing products, particularly bulkier items, such as upholstery and beds or products, where installation is required, such as kitchen furniture, fitted bedroom furniture and so on. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the incidence of online purchasing will increase in the future, particularly as the younger generation become householders.