The International Textile Alliance (ITA) held its second virtual roundtable discussion earlier this week about the effects of COVID-19 on the home furnishings industry, including closing retail stores and manufacturing plants, and canceling or postponing several industry shows.

Textile industry veteran Jack Eger, senior vice president of Crypton Home Fabrics, moderated the discussion, along with panelists Jeff Harris of Furnitureland South, George Jordan of The MT Company, Kathryn Richardson of Libeco, Patrick Shelton of Valdese Weavers and Greg Thomases of Swavelle Mill Creek.

The first ITA 2020 virtual roundtable took place back on May 18, moderated by ITA president Kelly DiFoggio. It included the same panelists, with Eger as one of the panelists.

All of the panelists for this roundtable said that demand had increased over the summer and into the fall. At Furnitureland South, floor traffic has been up 30% and web traffic up 50%.

“The consumer demand for the products has been incredible,” said Harris, CEO, co-owner and president of Furnitureland South. “In August, we had the largest month in the company’s 51-year history. Now, the challenge is how to keep up with the demand. We have been selling more domestic brands.”

Valdese Weavers held a soft opening for its new showroom in the Hamilton Wrenn district this fall but hopes to hold a grand opening in 2021.

“We have been eager to open the showroom for 10 months now,” said Shelton, vice president of sales for Valdese Weavers. “In the meantime, we were forced to adapt in how we promote and showcase product. We have been using Zoom. The team also worked with customers pre-Showtime. We’d like to get back to some semblance of normal as soon as we can.”

The MT Company went from famine-to-feast around Memorial Day, according to Jordan, company president. It has learned to take the good with the bad over the past few months. “There are a lot of complexities with textiles and the ‘just-in-time’ suppliers. There’s less cushion time since many manufacturers have had to deal with COVID-19 closures and yarn outages. So, there are a lot of moving parts.”

Jordan added that the company isn’t staffed to address tens of thousands of pieces with varying lead times.

Swavelle Mill Creek is based outside of New York City, and one of its challenges includes losing weavers due to quarantine regulations during the pandemic. “We have a talented workforce, so it’s tough to lose a weaver who can’t be replaced because of their unique talents and skill set,” said Thomasas, CEO.

He said that the way the company meets with customers depends on the area of the country: In the Northeast and California, the meetings are all virtual, while in the Southeast, it can still see customers in person in small groups.

Libeco is based in Europe, which poses its own set of challenges. Many of the COVID-19 vaccines for Europeans are coming out of Brussels, Belgium, so that reduces the amount of available transportation for product.

“The cost of vessels has skyrocketed,” said Richardson, vice president of sales for Libeco. “At this point, FedEx and UPS are the only games in town. And, there are labor issues in Europe which put a strain on the cash flow.”

Several of the companies, including Furnitureland South, Swavelle Mill Creek, Valdese Weavers and the MT Company, all received funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The panelists said the money was helpful, but many aspects of the program were confusing.

“The rules continue to change. Each state has to make its own decision about whether this is a taxable event,” Jordan said. “The program was extremely beneficial, whatever comes of the taxes we’ll deal with it.”

“We used the PPP funding to cross-train in different areas to battle absenteeism due to COVID,” added Shelton, from Valdese Weavers, which made capital investments in new equipment and machinery this year since the company knows it needs to invest in order to grow.

Looking ahead, the panelists think uncertainty will reign in the short term, but the demand for home furnishings will continue.

“We feel like there are a million planes in a holding pattern waiting to land,” Harris said. “But we are all about goal setting, so we are continuing to set ambitious goals for growth and looking for vendors who can ship product.”

He added that Furnitureland South is buying more inventory now than ever.

Richardson said the move to e-commerce has also affected Libeco’s hiring practices. “It changes the labor field, who you hire and what skills they have. The goal for the next year is how to get on the train with the switch to digital.”

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