Tougher times for Tupelo Furniture Market

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Published: March 3,2008

Tim Militello peered into the windows of the darkened Crown Mark furniture showroom early Saturday afternoon. The permanent exhibitor in the Mississippi Building of the Tupelo Furniture Market had closed with a day-and-a-half of the four-day market left.

“We were coming back to make an order, but it must have been too slow for them,” said Militello, who was buying for his B.J.’s Warehouse in Hammond, La. He was accompanied by his wife, Barbara.

“They have a nice line,” Barbara said of the Houston, Texas, furniture wholesaler. Trouble is, if it’s not available for viewing and sitting on, retailers like Militello will likely shop elsewhere.

The Tupelo Furniture Market has for more than two decades provided a place twice a year for furniture manufacturers to show their wares to buyers representing retail stores around the country. Of late, all those players are reeling from a weakened national economy whose housing market has plummeted. The Tupelo market itself is also feeling the competing effects of a glitzy new market in Las Vegas.

Market officials are counting on buyers like Militello to keep the Northeast Mississippi market viable.

On opening day — Wednesday, February 20 — Crown Mark sales representative Iris Monroy spent a portion of her afternoon taking a big order from Mike Tricou, owner of Royal Furniture in Baton Rouge.

“I’m buying for my mailer,” said Tricou. Judging by the smile on Monroy’s face, it was looking pretty good, if a little light in warm bodies making the rounds.

“It’s been terrible,” Lise Poirrier, sales rep for Slidell, La.-based French Market Collection, said about her sales of throw pillows and area rugs. “Thursday morning was great. Thursday afternoon and Friday morning were horrible.”

“We sold a lot, but at cost or under,” said French Market owner Peggy Richardson. She said her investment for the four days includes $2,000 for the temporary floor space and rental of a local house for $1,000.

Richardson said the Tupelo market could cut down to three days and it would be plenty of time for buyers to make the contacts and purchases they want.

All around Richardson and Poirrier in the huge building, traffic from buyers like them was practically nonexistent by Saturday afternoon.

Next door to French Market, Jim Chrisco, owner of Ozark Copper Works in Franklin, Ark., was pleased with the sales he’d made of his wall-hanging and floor-sitting metal water sculptures.

“This is the first show I’ve ever had here and it was satisfying,” said Chrisco, who sold all his display pieces, ranging in price from $200 to $2,100. “I showed in Atlanta, but it was too expensive for what I sold.”

Chrisco said he has no intention to go to Las Vegas. Richardson said she won’t show in Vegas again.

“We closed our Las Vegas showroom because we’re just too high-end for there,” she related, explaining that rent alone on her showroom there was $6,000 a month “and the market’s only open 10 days a year.”

“We were in Las Vegas for the first show there,” said Larry Green, sales manager for Smithville, Tenn.-based Denny Lamps, surrounded by 180 different lamps in his large booth space. “But the cost-to-earnings return wasn’t there. The Tupelo market in an off-market is still much better that Las Vegas or High Point.” (High Point, N.C., twice a year holds the largest furniture market in the United States.)

“The number of buyers weren’t where we needed,” said Tupelo Furniture Market founder and CEO V.M. Cleveland. “But, still, the numbers are better than last year.”

Cleveland is candid in admitting that “Las Vegas has had an impact on us.” But this year could be a turning point, when the Tupelo effort regains some exhibitors lost to the city in the Nevada desert.

The cost of leasing exhibition space at the Las Vegas market is more than four times the $8-per-square-foot Cleveland “shoots for” in his leasing efforts.

One redeeming feature of the recently closed spring market is that the buyers who did show were there to do business. “They weren’t just kicking the tires,” remarked Cleveland.

“And the housing market is bad everywhere,” he continued. “The housing market comes back to haunt us. Vegas is beginning to feel the tug, too.” Cleveland said 700 exhibitors were at the Tupelo market, down from a peak of 1,000 several years ago.

Rumor during the Tupelo market centered around the possibility of consolidating the two massive buildings (comprising 1.8 million square feet) into the Tupelo Complex, the larger of the two, in the future. Cleveland said he has thought about the possibility but doesn’t have enough available space “behind the glass” — permanent showrooms — to accommodate companies desiring that type of exposure.

Cleveland pointed out that the market is a constant work-in-progress as he, his staff, exhibitors and buyers all cope with market forces, most of which are out of their control.

“Considering all things,” said Cleveland, “it was a decent market.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .

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