If Sean Pathiratne has his way, the word “futon” will gradually fade from the home furnishings lexicon.
Pathiratne is president of Lifestyle Solutions Inc., a major manufacturer of futon frames. His choice of words: “sofa-bed convertible.” In fact, that’s what he now calls his product in his promotional literature. To Pathiratne, “futon” too often conjures up the image of the disposable, cheap contraption used by college students.
Low-cost futons will continue to occupy a niche on the floors of mass merchants and warehouse clubs. But if the futon category expects to gain acceptance with high-end consumers and traditional retailers that have so far shied from this category, the products and image will have to be more upscale — and challenge the cumbersome fold-out sleeper sofa, according to Pathiratne. Other manufacturers of futon products are starting to think along those same lines and devoting more effort to quality workmanship and the promotion of style.
Furniture stores are a key part of this plan, according to Pathiratne. “Furniture stores are the next frontier,” he said. “For furniture stores that sell sofas and sofa beds and move the customer up, this is perfect for them.”
Some of the more forward-thinking furniture stores, such as R.C. Willey and HOM, are starting to offer futons as potential alternatives to these best sleeper sofas. The appeal for a consumer? Easy conversion from sitting to sleeping; high-style, hardwood frames; a mattress that rivals a conventional bed; a rainbow of covers that can be changed with the seasons. Add to that the fact that a futon is lighter and less cumbersome to move and suddenly the whole aging boomer and retirement categories are interested.
Tony Wolf, president of Wolf Corp., a futon mattress manufacturer, launched a Serta-licensed futon line last year, which could add to both consumer and retailer appeal. He sells to the retailer both a frame and a futon mattress, which is then sold under the Serta name. A retailer eager to limit its suppliers now has the opportunity to buy these two components from one source
Bob Naboicheck, president of Gold Bond Mattress Co., a family-owned manufacturer of futon mattresses and conventional innerspring mattresses, expects futon sales to continue to climb. He cited the “bang for the buck” factor during a soft economy.
“In any soft or down market where customers are looking more for value, futons will excel,” Naboicheck said. “I think futon sales will continue to outpace upholstered sleep sofas, daybeds and the other alternatives that one would have for a convertible sit-and-sleep product. Our futon business has been phenomenal, especially in the upgraded, better [futon] mattresses. You can go from a Yugo to a Rolls Royce in a futon for maybe a hundred dollars.”
But making that same jump in quality in the innerspring category would be several hundred dollars, he added.
Advantages for the retailer? He enjoys the sale of a product that rivals a $499 sleeper sofa in price, and the easily removable fabric covers offer a constantly changing floor display.
And those covers are a big part of the push. John Christiansen, customer service manager at SIS Covers Inc., a manufacturer of futon covers, has seen a sharp upswing in the quality of covers demanded by consumers. Leather covers, for the first time, are making a dent in the market. A consumer can get the look of a $3,000 leather sofa for a fraction of that cost. Fabric covers, too, offer fashion statements, as contemporary patterned fabrics with a rainbow of colors and hues take off. Futon stores still have the lion’s share of business, but the improved quality and styling of the covers has turned the heads of a growing number of mainstream furniture stores and mattress shops, Christiansen added.
Assuming the futon industry does go more upscale in 2003, who’s going to get that business? Independent futon shops have been the innovators and spear carriers for quality futon products thus far, but, according to one vendor, “they can’t rest on their laurels.” Dilution at the retail level for quality merchandise will continue to grow, and the same independents that have been the anchors for the futon industry could see their business erode if more retail furniture chains sell the big-profit, low-inventory, high-end products.
Otis Bed Manufacturing Inc., a producer of futon mattresses as well as conventionally shaped foam mattresses, broadened its retail presence by going into Costco warehouses, as well as continuing its existing retail base at the middle to upper price ranges.
“It helps bring more positive awareness of futons to consumers,” said Karen Day, director of sales and marketing for Otis Bed. As a board member of the Futon Association International, she is trying to give the word “futon” a more upscale connotation.
“I think there needs to be more awareness that they really are a viable, functional piece of furniture you can have in your home for years,” Day said. “Dealers should not be afraid of the price. They should just go for it. Try it. But if they do jump into it, they should get a good mix and don’t be afraid of the higher ticket items because you will sell it.” Retailers also need to understand that the three-component makeup of a futon (frame, mattress, cover) with its array of options for a consumer can work for them.
“They find it a little bit difficult to put the whole thing together,” she said.
For 2003, Day expects futons to continue to get more upscale, as latex, viscoelastic foam and other premium products get used more. She also thinks that better-engineered futon frames, such as Otis’s Futonic adjustable electric massage unit, will gain in acceptance.