The twists and turns of the seemingly endless COVID pandemic are clearly set to continue, but our sector is nevertheless finding its feet and slowly fighting back. Here at Maison&Objet, we launched a Digital Fair to replace our usual physical event. But what has your experience of this highly unprecedented and consequence-fraught period been? To find out, we surveyed brands, design houses, buyers, retailers, boutiques and department stores. Looking beyond the figures, what we’ve gleaned is that despite the ongoing sense of uncertainty, our industry clearly boasts one key asset: resilience.
According to the survey we conducted in September* amongst more than 1,600 Digital Fair attendees, 83% of international retailers say they intend to list new items within the next four months, whilst 90% of the brands surveyed plan to unveil new products. Meanwhile, 88% of retailers say that although the COVID pandemic will unquestionably weaken their business, they will be able to weather the storm. 90% of design houses and manufacturers say exactly the same. Whereas numerous economic sectors have either totally collapsed or survived solely thanks to one-off subsidies, the homewares sector has taken advantage of the huge amount of “interior” introspection in which the vast majority of the population has had time to indulge. “You’ve examined your home from every angle, now come and examine ours”, declared one Parisian estate agent as the city emerged from lockdown. Consumers certainly didn’t wait for life to return to normal to satisfy their need for change. Well before dashing to the shops the second they reopened, they’d already rushed to shop online. “When I first arrived at CFOC, someone shared a proverb with me: ‘travel is the enemy of the home’”, explains Louis Desazars, the firm’s new CEO, who previously spent many years working in the beauty sector. Today, however, he’s in no doubt whatsoever that lockdown is clearly its “friend”. The chain’s online sales have rocketed, and are currently up 150%. The most searched-for products? Office equipment and garden furniture. The same is true at French mail-order firm CAMIF, where small electrical appliances have also now joined the best-seller list. “Sales of DIY goods, such as yoghurt-makers and bread machines, are booming”, comments Magali Borlet, who heads up the high-tech and home decor division at the pure play homewares firm. “Highly mature markets, such as the bedroom and lounge market, are also performing exceedingly well”, adds Mathilde Sauvetre, head of the furnishings division. The Conran Shop has also noted a heightened interest in office furnishings and accessories, but the biggest surprise has come from its high-end fitness range of rowing machines and exercise bikes, which has met with the most unexpected success. “Customers were even ordering goods that weren’t instantly available. They were already planning for the post-lockdown period, as though they had realised that just like working from home, it was something that was set to continue. We’re going to carry on focusing on those areas”, analyses Pascal Corre, director for France. The brand’s teams in both London and Paris have spotted another trend, too: city livers’ craving for out-of-town housing that boasts its own outdoor space. A space that will, of course, need kitting out.
This somewhat reassuring market trend must not, however, obscure the apparently widening range of challenges that come with each lurch of the pandemic. Everyone is feeling their way forward, and forecasts remain timid. Product launches, sales figures, stock levels... Between June - the date of Maison&Objet’s initial survey - and September, the numbers reveal an upward trend, sometimes climbing several points. But when it comes to gauging how the pandemic has impacted their 2020 revenue, 33% of buyers surveyed responded: “I don’t know”, compared to just 19% in June.
“As soon as the country emerged from lockdown, which for Italy was on May 4th, demand was so high that we even had to take on new staff”, explains Giorgio Bagnara, who runs a specialised leatherwork business. But prior to that, his firm, Giobagnara, went through numerous unsettling phases that left them with no choice but to adapt: introducing teleworking for administrative staff, using some of the production lines to manufacture face masks for civil defence staff, and digitising customer relations. Fast forward to today, and the Genoese brand is preparing to launch two new collections that have stemmed from its collaboration with Belgian architect Glenn Sestig and Italian designer Francesco Balzano.
“We have extremely close ties with our manufacturers, and strangely enough, those ties only got stronger during lockdown, despite lots of them being forced to close or to switch to producing face coverings”, explains Borlet. “We had to be capable of announcing reliable turnaround times to customers via our website, and constantly stay up-to-date with our suppliers’ delivery dates.” Sauvetre shines a light on another challenge the profession may well face: “Today, there is a shortage of certain materials, such as foam. There is consequently a risk that prices will rise”.
The Digital Fair, virtual showrooms, online meetings: manufacturers, buyers, design houses and retailers have been highly adaptable and extremely inventive in order to meet customer demand. But when it comes to long-term prospects, even the most agile seem unsure... “Today, I was in yet another long-distance meeting with Korean customers. We continue to work well with our long-standing partners who are already aware of the quality of our products. It is allowing us to keep our business ticking over... But not to grow it. For us, finding new prospects is something that happens at the trade fair, in a face-to-face environment”, explains Bagnara, clearly concerned.
Over at CFOC, which fuses French lifestyle with global craftsmanship, travel restrictions are also standing in the way of creativity. According to Desazars, “our artistic direction team’s creativity is often fuelled by visiting new workshops, which gives them the opportunity to explore new kinds of expertise”. Controlling the quality of products that arrive from Asia is also proving tricky. In the current climate, making the decision to start working with new partners is by no means easy, seeming wiser instead to pursue relationships with tried-and-tested suppliers.
“The rise in online sales is also forcing us to rethink the way in which we deal with customers”, explains Corre. “Even though the Conran Shop was extremely well prepared, we still need to adapt to online customers who are used to buying from the likes of Amazon and can be highly demanding, notably regarding turnaround times.”
Nikolaos Varveris, Chairman and CEO of Greek online/offline retail chain Moda Bagno interni, remains philosophical about the whole situation: “The challenges we are facing are part of life, and for the most are unexpected, but we must stand strong, overcome them and try to do the best we can.”
Amidst all the upheaval, the most effective holy trinity for keeping business on track would appear to be digitisation, sustainable and “meaningful” products, and a top-quality customer journey. The period has also revealed that the industry is built on extremely solid foundations. “With everything going digital, for the first time ever I was able to see the showroom of a Spanish supplier I’ve been working with for 20 years”, says Borlet with a smile. “There’s been a real sense of solidarity with our suppliers. Whereas some big chains had started to say they wouldn’t pay them, we did quite the opposite and contacted them to see what we could do”, comments Corre. “Everyone’s pulled together. We’ve shared some really memorable moments with our partners”, adds Desazars. Solidarity, community, loyalty: another life-saving holy trinity in these challenging times.