Exhibitors and dealers at the NAIFM are going through hard times

As four brave employees documented the horrific aftermath of a mattress shortage in 2016, they made headlines across the country.

Where once the largest trade fair in the United States — the North American International Furniture Market (NAIFM) — would boast nearly 200 product manufacturers and home-shopping outlets, there are now only three. Merchandise is increasingly shunned by buyers and owners, and the industry has shrunk to a fraction of its prior size. With per-person sales down by about a third, it is easy to see why the annual industry exhibition has been rechristened in light of the enormous economic impact that the tradeshow once had on the middle class. Furniture manufacturers and retail investors have temporarily forgotten the show’s roots in financing innovation and new products, putting investors on the hook for the business part.

Instead, NAIFM continues to play a vital role in local economies and other international markets, but with few of the traditionally small-scale buyers and manufacturers. In addition to the annual exhibitors, the Exposite was responsible for providing customers with a captive audience for innovative new and improved products that customers could not find anywhere else, including a showroom space for the best emerging designers in the business, which no longer exists.

And, of course, NAIFM relied on all the traditional middlemen, including retailers and producers, to stock in their showrooms. When retailers cut back or stop making new orders, everything is lost.

The increased competition and diminished number of showrooms have destroyed a number of brands with tens of thousands of products. Furniture showrooms can no longer meet the growing demand for products, particularly handmade upholstery and upholstery flooring. Furniture manufacturers that are not equipped to meet the demand can no longer fill in the gap.

Much of the industry’s current instability can be attributed to a shift in emphasis from the manufacturer/retailer relationship to the consumer relationship, but the remaining manufacturers have not been able to adapt quickly enough to the new dynamics of the trade show. Just as retailers are retreating from the floor, exhibitors have closed their booths and moved to showrooms for the consumer audience. That is when the mattress industry faces its hardest times.

Needless to say, it is much too early to count NAIFM’s figurative coffin, and dealers need to recalibrate their capital investments in new inventory. But NAIFM’s demise will be much more gradual than it was with the bursting of the tech bubble and the real estate bubble in 2007 and 2008. The furniture industry will endure, but it will be a much smaller player that drives innovation and success.

Reinventing NAIFM is not a simple matter — there are so many competitive supply and distribution networks and new competition. A path forward depends on a new model for financing the business. Policymakers, retailers, investors and the manufacturers themselves must join together and reimagine the way trade shows are structured, funded and developed. Companies should create community-level savings accounts that provide capital relief for buyers. In return, companies in the trade show industry would:

• Design innovative modern buildings that help build community and business through mix-use initiatives

• Recognize the potential of the improved productivity of their employees through stock options and acquisition by public firms

• Assume liability for employees’ personal medical expenses

• Free themselves from other travel and living expenses.

• Create an extensive support network to assist attendees and exhibitors

• Create a list of ideas and inventions that can fund their future

• Establish an endowment fund to fund research and development

• And, if funding isn’t available, to sell services to other companies and make lifelong friends

That will not be easy, but it is essential to remain open and focused on reinvention and finding new ways to support innovation and the continued growth of the industry.

Leave a Comment