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Making The Invisible, Visible

Furniture World Magazine



Designer, retailer, furniture industry consultant and manufacturer Dixon Bartlett shares his views on ways to improve retail merchandising and buying.

Furniture World spoke with Dixon Bartlett, a partner at HB2, a management consulting firm that provides strategic advice, implementation expertise, and adjunct creative services primarily within the home furnishings industry. He co-authored “A Pathway to Profit” (found at amazon.com). And yes, he’s also Chief Creative Officer at Norwalk Furniture. Although Bartlett has long been a creative force as a retailer, manufacturer and furniture industry consultant, when asked to describe his design creds, he was surprisingly modest. “Unlike some of my buddies in the industry, Patti Carpenter at Carpenter + Company, Michelle Lamb at The Trend Curve and Jaye Anna Mize at FS, I don’t spend every day looking for trends and how they relate to consumers and brands, and I don’t have any formal product or interior design training. But I do have an appreciation for consumer preferences, lifestyles and color trends, and I’m a keen observer of those style trends in the home furnishings arena.

“I attended the University of Virginia with a double major in anthropology and sociology and a minor in archaeology—more to do with an interest in people than with furniture design.

“After graduation, while spending six years working in the high-end hotel business, I met my future wife, who just happened to be the first employee of a little company called This End Up.

Becoming “That Guy”

“The night before the grand opening of the second This End Up store, I happened to walk by while she was setting up. I knocked on the window and went in. That was my first introduction to the furniture business, and to my future wife.

“A year later, I offered to help her by greeting customers at another store opening. I liked it and suddenly I was in the furniture business! Four months later I had broken the all-time sales record for the company. Stewart Brown, the owner of This End Up, asked me to establish and head up a commercial sales division. The special requirements of contract sales resulted in me being ‘that guy’ who was always at the factory asking: ‘Can you make this piece three inches longer? Can you make this chest of drawers higher?’ And before I knew it, I was deeply involved in product development and design.'

“Eventually, I took over the Mid-Atlantic store management for 80 This End Up stores. At the time, Caroline Hipple, the current president of Norwalk Furniture and my partner at HB2 consulting, was a This End Up store manager. Years later, when she became president/COO at the 74-store lifestyle retailing brand, Storehouse, I joined her as senior VP of merchandising. “

Dixon Bartlett, Chief Creative Officer, Norwalk Furniture, author, and also a founding partner at consulting firm HB2.

Merchandising Art & Science

“At Storehouse, we discovered that our buying teams were siloed. The upholstery team hardly talked to the accessory team. The textile team never talked to anybody, and case goods just went out and bought what they felt was warranted. To better coordinate the store’s aesthetic we brought our buying together, forcing them to talk about trends. The discussion started with the question every good merchant asks: ‘Who is our customer?’ We pinned pictures of what those customers looked like up on the walls. From those early days at Storehouse, we established a trend and style forecasting process that expedited the coordination of merchandising development.

“Effective merchandising is both art and science. Part of that science is the analysis of sales, product and price. But as it relates to trends, when you look at the top 10 best-selling SKUs or the top 10 fabrics sold by any furniture retail or manufacturing organization, you will probably find that these best sellers have relatively universal appeal. There are, of course, variations. In Dallas, the top 10 sellers might be arranged in order by SKU numbered one, two, three, four and five, while in Florida the same best sellers could be five, four, three, one, two.

“In some ways,” he mused, “our Instagram and TikTok lives have made what is sold at retail more uniform. People see those same images in a way that causes broader trends to get adopted more quickly. But that doesn’t mean that retailers and manufacturers should focus their efforts on appealing to a limited demographic group. The most successful companies I’ve worked with over the years,” Bartlett continued, “appealed to customers belonging to several unique lifestyle, economic or design preference groups. It’s proven to be a successful strategy consideration for almost any retailer. Retail merchandisers should also be aware of the many micro-trends in the market, applying them as appropriate for their target customers. There’s more to successful retailing than just doubling down repeatedly on ten best-selling designs.”

Making What’s Invisible, Visible

“If I had to pick an overriding theme that describes my tenure designing, merchandising and selling furniture, it would be looking for, and then making what’s invisible, visible.” Trends appear, peak and fade away. They cycle. Great new design ideas come into existence. But in the realm of commerce, Bartlett believes, there’s a process that can help bring industry- changing ideas to life.

“Invisible needs, once observed, identified and acted upon,” he added, “can be transformative for manufacturing brands and retailers. The idea that makes this possible can be triggered by almost anything. Even something that just feels like an itch that needs scratching.

“Here’s an example from my experience. At the beginning of the green movement, Spencer Morten at Bassett Mirror Company owned several old unused factories. Each was a few stories high, and because floors had to support huge, heavy equipment, the floorboards were typically two or more inches thick, laid down in at least two diagonal layers at right angles to each other.

“It occurred to Morten that this kind of old-growth wood could be reclaimed and re-purposed for furniture production. He asked HB2 to consult on developing new styles and price points for a reclaimed wood furniture line that we ultimately called Turning House. Our brand message was ‘Reclaimed, Renewed, Reborn.’

“The result was that Caroline Hipple and I developed five different style presentations, including an updated Summerhouse group, an American Classic group, and one that we called Belgian Modern. I recall that Spencer looked at us like we had ten heads and said, ‘What in the hell do you mean by Belgian Modern?’ We explained that it was a clean but rustic European aesthetic, and Spencer said, ‘OK let’s go with it.’ It turned out to be the collection that was the most successful.”

“Skillful visual merchandising invites customers to envision what their house could look like, even if they only buy a sofa. It’s part of creating a clearly defined and inspirational brand message.”

Sometimes when trying to bring new concepts to life, challenges associated with product execution crop up. “The fly in the Turning House ointment,” Bartlett recalled, “turned out to be not so much sourcing the wood, or developing designs. It was getting people on an Asian factory floor to understand that reclaimed and renewed meant NOT cutting out a knot in a board to make it look brand new and perfect. Getting the aesthetic balance just right was the key to making the concept of using reclaimed wood work beautifully.

“Impressions turn into dreams that can be put into words and become plans. That’s how I think about it. To get to the point of putting an idea to paper, step one is thought, step two words, and step three is the action or work required to realize the dream. Each step depends upon the others. This reminds me of a favorite Buddhist saying I learned in China: ‘No mud, no lotus.’ I think of the lotus in terms of beautiful, successful design introductions. But without the mud, or in this case a foundation and hard work, there would be no flowers. My experience is that making the unseen seen takes the mental flexibility to know when a path isn’t quite right, then make changes to be able to navigate to a successful result. In practice, focusing on consumers’ needs and wants and identifying gaps in the marketplace is very important. It is not an exact linear process, but to the extent you can keep moving everything forward a step at a time, the invisible dream will ultimately become visible.”

Visual Merchandising

When asked to comment on typical retail furniture stores, Bartlett replied, “from a display standpoint, in many stores, what I is see is typically quite minimal. That’s especially true for price-focused retailers. Generally, those stores could do a much better job in the area of visual merchandising. It’s one thing to buy lots of beautiful product. It’s another to attractively arrange it into coordinated vignettes on the sales floor. Unfortunately, visual merchandisers are some of the first people who get the axe when there’s cost-cutting. Creative merchandising has the potential to greatly increase sales in many furniture stores. Without it, retailers not only miss out on engaging their customers with vignettes filled with fantastic toss pillows, colorful rugs, fun ottomans and wall art; it’s a wasted opportunity to maximize incremental sales. Skillful visual merchandising invites customers to envision what their house could look like, even if they only buy a sofa. It’s part of creating a clearly defined and inspirational brand message.

“I admire Arhaus as a store that has invested in its visual display to create a differentiating kind of attractive aesthetic. Room and Board has distinguished itself over many years with a clean transitional vibe that supports their high-quality products. And Gary Friedman has also done an incredible visual merchandising job at Restoration Hardware. The price point might not be for everybody, but when shoppers walk into his stores, they instantly understand the retail environment and how it might translate into their homes.”

“Keep in mind that customers always shop first with their eyes. They need to like what they see and believe it will work in their rooms. After that, at least for upholstery, they shop with their tush.”


Bartlett noted that salesperson training has never been more important. “It’s a shame,” he observed, “that presentation skills, especially storytelling, are often ignored. Particularly at the higher end, mentioning furniture design details and making at least a small amount of effort to develop stories that reflect the thought processes and maybe even the history of a furniture design, cannot be underestimated as a helpful sales tool. At Norwalk, we spend a fair amount of time telling those stories to anyone who will listen, from buyers who visit High Point, to retail salespeople through our sales training videos, to our factory upholstery, cutting and sewing teams. I believe it’s important for retailers to remember that we are all in the business of design. Focusing on this element can open up a new world of possibilities for stores and their salespeople.”

Furniture World pointed out that doing this on a retail level is often easier said than done. Many manufacturers don’t provide their retail customers with adequate photography or detailed product metadata, much less focus on developing design talking points for retail sales associates. “At Norwalk, we create what we call characteristic sheets.” Bartlett explained. “These include three- or four-line descriptions of every piece. It’s a simple tool retail salespeople can use to point out details that shoppers should not miss. It also answers the customer’s question, ‘Why should I be interested?’

“Ideally, many stores can benefit from delivering a little hospitality along with better storytelling. Simple things like offering a bottle of water with the store’s logo, coffee, a bowl of nicely wrapped candy at the checkout, or maybe a glass of wine if appropriate. These small gestures make it plain to people that they are shopping at a store that cares about and understands their needs and desires.”

Incremental Merchandising

“One of my pet no-nos is incremental merchandising. There are examples on the manufacturing side as well as at retail. The concept follows this mistaken line of thinking. If a track arm 80-inch sofa sells well, then adding a 70-inch similar model makes sense. If a five-inch track arm sells, why not create a six-inch or four-inch track arm to increase sales? Incremental merchandising is the urge to keep repeating and adding to what has previously sold well. It’s a particularly insidious practice, quite honestly, because at some point, even though an incremental item may become a decent seller, in many cases sales just get split. The same shopper who bought that four-inch arm would have purchased the five-inch arm anyway.”

“There’s more to successful retailing than just doubling down repeatedly on the 10 best-selling designs on a retailer’s floor.”

Other Merchandising No-Nos

“We track furniture sales metrics as well as fabric usage at Norwalk Furniture. Last week, a very old fabric in a dusty Williamsburg blue popped up on one of my sales reports. It caught my eye because it was a surprising color with sales that seemed stronger than a color trend forecast would have predicted.

“Our sales manager, who happened to be in the room at the time, noted that the fabric had been purchased by a mid-sized retailer who has used it on a top-selling frame for the past eight years. I was disheartened, thinking about the missed opportunity for that retailer of keeping the same old fabric on that frame, while so many more saleable options passed them by. The curse of incremental merchandising strikes again!

Re-merchandising: Retailers shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but they should always look for ways to refresh and update their looks. “It’s a good idea to periodically move even best-selling frames to new locations in the showroom. If it’s a sectional, change the configuration and vary the color story. Something I’ve experienced a thousand times is the transformative effect of showing an old frame in a new fabric in a new location. Re-merchandise a little bit, refresh your visual merchandising and explore whether or not you are a victim of incremental merchandising. Do you really need three roll arm sofas on the floor? Couldn’t you get by with two and perhaps try a Charles of London arm instead?”

Accessorizing Imbalances: “Another mistake on the merchandising side is to over or under-accessorize. Recently, HB2 was hired by a stylish design-oriented retailer to help maximize the sales potential of their store. It was merchandised to the hilt with every square inch of sales space covered with ancillary merchandise. Our recommendation was to clean up the visuals. It isn’t necessary to put two lamps on every end table, You don’t need Valentine’s Day cards on your console. Do doggy beds really add to your sales? Showing more doesn’t always mean selling more. It’s better to have a point of view and commit to products that support you aesthetic and that you, as a retailer, can confidently stand behind.”

Keeping Up With Trends

What are other ways furniture retailers can keep up with trends?

“Michelle Lamb, co-founder of Marketing Directions, Inc., publisher of The Trend Curve, ™ talks about a trend cycle that includes emerging, incoming, pre-peak, peak, post-peak, outgoing and decline. All trends eventually reach their peak. That peak may come at different times for different retailers. Michelle also once told me to be cognizant of what you don’t see, because once it emerges it can frequently be the start of a new trend.”

“Some applications may seem a bit forward, but are still high design. They feature transformed textile materials used in ways that might look like a tree mended them together organically.”

Colors: “For years, we couldn’t sell any gray fabric, but eventually, it started coming back into the market in many shades from dove to graphite. Consumers found that it was an easy color family to live with, a neutral that looked fine with practically any other color. Gray has now peaked and started to decline, replaced by warmer, browner tones. For retailers, color trends can be even more important than style trends. We’re seeing more earth colors; soft browns, not-too-orange clays, camels and golds that are more burnished. Also, many more florals, palm and tree patterns that traditionally haven’t been top sellers, except in tropical environments, are beginning to get more universal interest.

“Not every trend becomes huge. Pink, blush and rose has been a color trend for a while; it’s fun but is not for everybody. In April, we are showing a large chair in very pink velvet. People are going to notice it, say that they love it, then order it in cream color. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth showing it that way on our wholesale showroom floor or a retail floor. Sometimes you’re invisible if you’re not a little outrageous.”

Fabrics: “If you, as a retailer, have frames you’re happy with, consider freshening them up right now with boucles and faux furs.

“For retailers, color trends can be even more important than style trends. We’re seeing more earth colors; soft browns, not-too-orange clays, camels and golds that are more burnished.”

“Boucles and faux shearling fabrics are hot at retail. Most are synthetic, wear pretty well and resist dirt and stains. My guess is that they are getting close to their peak on the curve, so it’s probably time to look at what might be the next emerging thing. I’m seeing lots of velvets. It’s another soft way to speak to the tactile touch of boucle. Can the return of chenille be far behind? I also see traditional design influences coming back in strong updated ways.

“On trend for the Spring High Point show and still moving up in popularity are cut velvets in multiple colors. I’m finding some especially nice ones coming out of Turkey. Italian cut velvets have always been glorious, and gloriously expensive. They’ve recently been nicely interpreted at lower price points.”

Balance Assortments

“I’m a great believer,” he continued, “that retailers should continually test new design and price concepts. I’ve always established retail guidelines for purchasing an optimal percentage of core and fashion-forward merchandise. As a retailer at Storehouse, I instructed our buyers to spend about 60 percent of their open-to-buy budget on core merchandise and 25 percent on fashion-forward, trend items. The remaining 10 to 15 percent was earmarked to stretch the product envelope in a way that presented shoppers with something completely unexpected. Most buyers are a little afraid of experimenting, but I don’t think 10 or 15 percent is too much for retailers to invest in a bit of experimentation.”

“People are going to notice it, say that they love it, then order it in cream color. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth showing it that way on our wholesale showroom floor or a retail floor. Sometimes you’re invisible if you’re not a little outrageous.”

Design Trend Services

Bartlett is a believer in using design trend forecasting services. “I suggest retailers subscribe to or at least follow one such service. Furniture World Magazine is a wonderful way to get to know some of those experts and read what they have to say. Forecast information can really help to organize buying at Market and set goals. We routinely speak to retailers who visit shows without well-defined buying missions. Professionals set goals, such as, coming back to their store from Market with three new color stories, or four fabric textures not currently shown on their floor, or two new thoughts for sofa or chair shapes, or one additional product category.

“Keep in mind that customers always shop first with their eyes. They need to like what they see and believe it will work in their rooms. After that, at least for upholstery, they shop with their tush—sit on it and say, ‘this is great. This is just what I want. It feels right for me.’ Finally, they shop with their pocketbooks. Is it something I can afford? These three steps never go out of style. Once a shopper falls in love with a piece of furniture, the price often becomes less of an obstacle to making the sale.”

Final Thoughts

To wrap up the interview, Furniture World asked about future challenges for the furniture industry.

“Leadership is a big one,” Bartlett immediately offered. “I have seen some mighty good companies trashed by leaders who came in from outside the home furnishings industry thinking they would revolutionize things. More often than not, it has not gone very well. Building talent from within has always been a better fit for our industry.”

Toward that end, Bartlett mentioned the Home Furnishings Institute, a program established by the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame Foundation. “The program,” he said, ”brings 25 young emerging furniture industry leaders to the High Point University campus for a four-day program to learn new ways of thinking and to become better prepared to do real-world problem-solving in the home furnishings industry. There’s much more information about the program, including a nomination form, on the Hall of Fame website.

“So, my closing advice to Furniture World readers is to invest in your own people to build leadership skills and abilities to create an internal culture that’s unbreakable.”

“Professionals set goals, such as coming back to their store from Market with three new color stories, or four fabric textures not currently shown on their floor.”


Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.

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