26 Sept 2019
Rival Furniture Expos Battle to Become Fixtures on the Shanghai Scene
With the dates of the China International Furniture Fair and Furniture China clashing earlier this month, time and cash-strapped exhibitors and buyers were left wondering just which one they ought to back and which one to give a miss…
China is now, by far, the world's largest producer of upholstered furniture, accounting for 46% of the global market in 2017. According to Xu Xiangnan, Chairman of the China National Furniture Association, China is home to about 6,300 large companies that specialise in the sector, with their combined 2018 output value estimated to be about US$99 billion (RMB701 billion). In addition to the success enjoyed by such businesses in many export markets, the rapid rise in domestic disposable income levels, coupled with the country's massive urbanisation programme, has led to robust local demand for furniture products at both mass-market and high-end price points.
Given the current scale of the industry, it is no surprise that the number of tradeshows dedicated to the sector has also risen sharply. One of the veterans of the scene, however, is the China International Furniture Fair (CIFF). Now on its 44th edition, it staged its spring show in Guangzhou back in March before shifting to Shanghai for its autumn incarnation. First held in 1998, the Guangzhou edition is generally double the size of the Shanghai event and typically sees up to 4,000 brands in attendance.
This year, the Shanghai edition, somewhat unfortunately, overlapped with another identically themed expo – Furniture China – which was also being held in the city. Inevitably, this forced some exhibitors to make a decision as to which one to back.
One company that had plumped to stay with the more established event was Sukk, a Zhejiang-based furniture manufacturer making its fourth appearance at the event. Explaining the reasoning behind such a display of loyalty, Sales Manager Dalton Xie said: "While this show is certainly better for us than the Furniture China show in Pudong, I think the Guangzhou edition is better still. We specialise in outdoor furniture and have found there's not much competition for us at this event.
"We also tend to do well because our furniture is machine-manufactured, allowing us to sell it for about half the price of its handmade counterparts. We have been producing plastic garden furniture for about three years, originally for the export market, but things are changing somewhat and the domestic market is expanding rapidly.
"Although our major markets are still the EU and the US, domestic sales account for about 20% of the company's total. In terms of exports, to date we have largely been unaffected by the US-China trade war. If it does start to become a problem, though, we will probably just switch our manufacturing to Mexico."
As well as outdoor furniture, another popular niche among exhibitors was child-friendly furniture. Looking to take a lead here was Kid2Youth, a subsidiary of TCT Nanotec, a Taiwanese manufacturer of commercial and residential furniture. Operating out of Taichung, Taiwan's second-largest city, it has been producing specialist children's furniture since 2005. It now claims to be the leading such brand in Taiwan and one of the top three on the mainland, where it currently operates 80 self-branded outlets. It also has a retail presence in 31 other countries.
Outlining Kid2Youth's reasons for attending the event, Sales Manager Marco Tung said: "One of the main reasons we're here is because this show has always done well for us – and we can get a more prominent position than we could at Furniture China.
"Last year, though, by this point in the event, I had already had approaches from 80 overseas customers while, this year, there has only been about 20. Overall, I would say there are definitely fewer foreign buyers here this year. As our current priority is to expand our number of domestic dealers, that isn't too much of an issue for us."
One exhibitor was very clear as to why her company had opted for this particular show, rather than the competitor event just around the corner, with Sue Ke, Vice General Manager of Dongguan-based Premier Furniture, saying: "We're here primarily because our main competitors are here."
With a heritage dating back to the 1960s, Premier was originally a family-owned British business. While its current incarnation is jointly UK and China-owned, members of the founding family – the third generation – retain an interest in the business, which specialises in exporting sofas to the UK and Australian markets.
Outlining the company's current positioning, Ke said: "We aim to serve the higher end of the market and pride ourselves on offering outstanding quality and service. This year, we are looking to build up our global business connections, so I am particularly pleased to see so many overseas buyers in attendance.
Securing high-quality clientele was also the objective of Dongguan-based A2Stone, with the company returning to the event for the third time, once again looking to promote its range of natural marble furniture. Explaining the company's somewhat singular modus operandi, Product Manager Thomas Peretti said: "Basically, we import marble from Italy and elsewhere and then cut and polish it in our factory in China. It is then used to create our dining table, side table and coffee table lines.
"At present, the domestic market is our primary target, although our exports to the US, Australia and Singapore are also doing well. In terms of the show, the turnout seems very similar to last year's event. For us, the Guangzhou edition is always a better bet, however, as it tends to attract more high-quality-minded buyers."
Not every company, however, was reporting a broadly positive experience, with both a Chinese watchmaking business and an Indian rug manufacturer seemingly unimpressed with their reception at the Shanghai show. In the case of the former – the Qingdao-based Mapleleaf Clock Company – the staff on its stand were clearly wondering if the 1,500km round trip had been worthwhile.
Sharing his concerns, Sales Manager Alexander Zhang said: "This is our second time here and this time around it has been very bad for us as there are few potential buyers of our products here. Last year, it was much better, so maybe it's on account of the downturn in the economy.
"Overall, clocks are seen as luxury products of a very specific type and maybe that particular market is not growing. To my mind, only well-educated rich people buy high-end clocks, while those who are newly well-off and poorly educated tend to buy a high-priced watch instead – largely just for the sake of being ostentatious."
Similarly, becalmed in a sea of non-buyers was Javi Home, a northern-India based handmade rug producer. Commenting on the company's experience, Divisional Merchandising Manager Saif Khan said: "It has been pretty slow for us here – maybe the people we are trying to attract are actually over at Furniture China.
"To be honest, we had really hoped to be attending the other event, but its organisers had a preference for mainstream furniture companies rather than accessory manufacturers such as ourselves. Overall, we've been selling into China for four years now, although the US remains our primary market. Locally, purchasing power appears to be on the up and mainland consumers are increasingly willing to invest in the kind of premium handmade items we produce."
The autumn 2019 edition of the China International Furniture Fair (CIFF) took place from 8-11 September at the National Exhibition and Convention Center, Shanghai.
Chen Rong, Special Correspondent, Shanghai