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Across the country, furniture retailers are reporting months-long delays in every step of the supply chain - from overwhelmed factories to clogged ports - amid surging demand for desks, chairs and sofas during a pandemic that has kept millions of families largely stuck at home for nearly a year.
'It is a uniquely busy and challenging time in the home industry right now, even here in our area,” agreed Emily Hughes, owner and principal interior designer at Mix Home Mercantile in North Liberty.
'We are facing delays in getting items shipped both to us for our shop and for our customers' special orders,” she said.
'There are challenges on every level and it is frustrating as the middle man, having to be the bearer of bad or disappointing news to our customers.”
She said that many of their typical 'in stock” items from her vendors are now taking four-to-six-weeks in transit to Mix Home Mercantile, instead of the usual two-to-three-week travel time, because of a shortage of, and recent changes in regulations for, truck drivers.
Russell Carmody, store manager of Phelan's Interiors in Cedar Rapids, said they have been facing similar challenges. What typically could be a four-to-six-week or eight-to-10-week delivery windows are now extended to 16-to-20-week delays.
'We just checked on an order we placed in November and were informed that it is pushed back until May,” Carmody said.
'We've had to communicate as honestly and as often as possible with our customers waiting on their special orders,” Hughes added.
'Most are understanding and aware of the numerous issues brought on by the crazy events of the past year.”
'You have two problems - high demand and a broken supply chain,” said Greg Portell, a partner in the consumer and retail practice at consulting firm A.T. Kearney in Chicago.
'All the places where this stuff gets manufactured, whether internationally or domestically, have been disrupted by covid and are under enormous strain.”
La-Z-Boy customers, for example, now are waiting an 'unprecedented” five to nine months on their orders, chief executive Kurt Darrow said in an earnings call last month, adding that manufacturing disruptions and shipping delays amounted to $30 million in lost business in the latest quarter.
Another reason for the backlog is a shortage or reduction of workers at vendors due to COVID-19 safety modifications for factory works, some of whom are operating with half their typical staffing levels.
But it also is partly due to a shortage of materials, some of which come from overseas and some which are affected by the recent weather issues in Texas.
'A huge part of the delay, particularly in anything that is upholstered, is the recent ice storms in Texas,” said Carmody, noting that two large manufacturers there were affected, with huge portions of the composite foam material being damaged.
'So it's not just pandemic-related, but our supply lines have been totally halted,” he said.
At the same time, the furniture business is booming - driven by big jumps in work-from-home arrangements and home sales - making it an unexpected bright spot in the otherwise flagging retail sector.
Americans last month spent an estimated $11.3 billion at furniture and home furnishing stores, up 12 percent from a year earlier, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.
Monthly sales in the sector have soared 181 percent since April, while overall retail sales have grown 34 percent.
Local retailers are seeing a small boost in shoppers looking for new furniture pieces.
Hughes said they have seen an increase in business due to both COVID and the derecho.
'Spending more time at home due to COVID shifted people's spending habits and priorities,” she said.
'Since they weren't able to take vacations and travel, they wanted to improve their daily surroundings. We've had a lot of clients wanting to update or remodel their interiors to make their homes better fit their style and to make their spaces more functional, stylish and up to date.”
Many furniture shops say pandemic sales have followed an unpredictable but clear pattern. Revenue dropped precipitously in March and April of last year when much of the country went into lockdown.
But by May, when Americans realized they'd be stuck at home long-term, they started snapping up desks and patio furniture, then upholstered chairs, couches, dining tables and just about everything else - and demand has remained at elevated levels since.
'Our sales are not soaring, but we are definitely holding our own given all the circumstances,” Carmody said.
Not surprisingly, these local retailers have been getting in creative in working around the challenges.
'We've tried to stock more items that we can sell off the floor and replace quickly so that our clients who don't want to wait six months for special order furniture have better in stock options,” Hughes said.
She noted she also brought on additional special-order furniture suppliers to meet the price points and lead times customers are seeking.
'We are offering some group pricing as we know some customers are coming in looking for more than one piece for their home,” Carmody said.
'We also have pieces that can be bought right off the floor, or what we call one to show and one to go. And we are also focusing on getting more ‘quick ship' items in our inventory.”
He noted that 'quick ship” typically means four weeks and is currently running at about eight weeks out.
Despite the shipping challenges, local retailers are thankful for the ways that local shoppers continue to support them.
'I think COVID really has caused people to rethink their priorities in terms of supporting their local businesses,” Hughes said.
'I think many locals have bought more locally in the past year to keep the businesses and restaurants they love around during these challenging times.
'I think it is nice that even though we've had to be isolated for health reasons we've still found ways to reach out and support each other both financially and with a new level of patience, tolerance and compassion that we might not have had prior to COVID.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.