Kids furniture sales a bright spot

The arid landscape of a furniture industry in a slump has found one of its few oases by targeting customers too young to buy.

One of the industry's most promising niches is children under 18, said insiders gathering this week at the twice-yearly furniture trade show in High Point. The younger generation is seen as an underdeveloped market for bedroom furniture, even though consumers are worried about their jobs, loans are hard to get and falling home sales mean fewer families are buying furnishings.

“Kids furniture is doing very well. We're having lots of kids and you can't exactly lay them on the floor,” said industry analyst Jerry Epperson with investment bank Mann, Armistead and Epperson.

More children, coupled with social changes encouraging separate bedrooms for kids, means consumers are expected to increase their spending on youth furniture by more than 23 percent between 2007 and 2012. That would create a $6.3 billion market by that year, according to market research compiled by Kids Today, a trade magazine that covers the youth furniture business.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2010 there will be nearly 75 million under-18s in the country, about 24 percent of the total population of 310 million. To be sure, it's the 83 million Americans in the prime furniture-buying years of 25 to 44 years old that are expected to remain the industry's bread and butter.

“You always want to go after the people who are changing their residences,” said Don Essenberg, chief marketing officer for Magnussen Home Furnishings.

Nevertheless, it was children's furniture that offered some solace in Stanley Furniture Co.'s otherwise disappointing financial results.

Though companywide sales were down 25 percent in the third quarter, the downturn in the Young America division was fairly modest and remains pretty healthy, Stanley chairman and chief executive officer Albert Prillaman said in a conference call.

The vice president for Stanley's Young America division, Kevin Walker, said that while parents can postpone buying a dining room set until economic times are better, “if you're expecting, you're going to have to buy a crib.

“When a toddler comes to the point where its time for a bed – wants a big-boy's bed or a little-girl's bed – it's tough to say no to your children,” Walker said. “That's what's sustaining the business.”

Children's furniture sales are steady, and that's catching the attention of retailers, who are feeling the slump in larger and broader furniture products for the rest of the house.

Other large producers of adult furnishings that have moved strongly into children's furniture include Lea Industries, a division of La-Z-Boy Inc.; Broyhill Furniture, a division of Furniture Brands International; and Legacy Classic Furniture.

At the High Point Market, Powell Co. showed off youth bedroom sets with themes inspired by cowboys, pirates, commandos and princesses. It also featured a bedroom set launched last year made with fiberboard covered with a glossy, durable white paint that allows children to write on them with dry-erase markers. A six-drawer dresser sells in retail stores for $700, while a desk is $500, said Tom Liddell, senior vice president of sales.

“It's not the cheap stuff like the race-car beds. It's substantial stuff,” he said.

A lot of middle-class moms don't want the lowest-priced bedroom furniture for their children, just like many demand pricey sport strollers with titanium frames.