It is far too early to assess the full impact of COVID-19 on EU furniture imports this year, but early signs are that the downturn will be at least as great as during the financial crises of 2008-2009.
With its trade fairs cancelled, showrooms shuttered and deliveries of larger items largely curtailed due to social distancing, the furniture industry in Europe has been particularly badly hit by current restrictions on trade and travel. Brands that were already in a perilous position, such as Lombok and Laura Ashley in the UK, have started to collapse.
According to a study quoted by Statista on the projected impact of COVID-19 on retail sales in Europe, between March 9, 2020 and April 21, 2020, retailers are expected to face a loss of GBP3.26 billion (US$4 billion) due to disruptions caused by the current outbreak. Furniture is one sector expected to be hit hardest as consumers forego discretionary purchases in favour of stocking up on food and household supplies.
The larger better resourced furniture retailers, particularly those with a large and highly evolved online presence, have been better placed to respond to the crises. As the world’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea’s range of responses have been of a different order and scale than most of its competitors.
Ikea has refocused on its e-commerce platform and reports a surge in demand for many products, particularly in the home office category. Ikea is also trying to ensure the robustness of its supply change, offering loans and speeding up the payment of invoices to embattled suppliers.
However, Ikea is an outlier in this, as in so much else, and the impact of the downturn on smaller retailers and manufacturers worldwide will be profound, threatening their very survival as business entities.
The challenges are vividly illustrated in a recent statement by the Vietnam Timber and Forest Product Association (VTFPA) that the wood industry in the country faced a ‘disaster’ with many businesses left without orders from now until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many Vietnamese wood processing enterprises have had orders cancelled of suspended,” said the VTFPA. “Since March, 80% of Vietnamese exporters to the US and EU markets had received cancellations or delays until the situation improves”.
The VTFPA statement also highlights that wood manufacturing businesses are facing sharp rises in input prices for wood and other materials while freight costs have increased $500-1,000 per container. Some Vietnamese furniture companies are now sitting on 100s of containers of finished goods that cannot be shipped and must be stored in warehouses at considerable cost for an unknown length of time.
Unfortunately, this same situation now prevails in many furniture manufacturing districts where the survival of companies has become heavily dependent on the extent, efficiency and effectiveness of government intervention to help them ride out the storm.
Commenting on the situation in Italy at the start of April, drawing on the experience of industry contacts, the American Hardwood Export Council notes that “everything in Italy has virtually stopped. All nonessential factories are closed, which includes wood distributors and their manufacturing customers (furniture, flooring, kitchens joinery etc.). There are predictions circulating in the Italian media that 40% of industry may not even reopen after the lockdown restrictions are lifted”.
The furniture industry that eventually emerges from this crises may be very different from that which entered it.