Challenges to the upholsterer

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As Generations X and Y become the most prominent group of upholstery consumers, upholsterers must change business habits to capture these clients through current marketing, popular trends, and specialized communication methods.

While adapting to these needs is an important step in gaining current customers, there are larger challenges that face the industry and threaten its future success. Declining teaching facilities, competition with mass production, and the need for more eco-friendly upholstery resources are all factors that threaten our industry. The need for solutions to these issues prompts upholsterers to creatively change within the industry, making it even more appealing to those looking for unique and custom options in home furnishings.

In Austin, Texas, as with many other cities, the upholstery industry has been stifled by the decline of educational facilities and resources from which to learn the trade. Interest has grown, possibly because of the do-it-yourself and crafting movements; however, those interested can rarely find a training facility within their region where they can cultivate the skills needed to succeed. Mike Gutierrez, upholstery teacher at Austin Community College (ACC) since 1983, taught a 1,400-hour certified program when he began at ACC. Since then, the program has been reduced to three, 40-hour classes with a limit of six to seven students per class due to classroom size.

“In 1997, the school tried to shut down the program, but the students rebelled and saved it,” said Gutierrez. For every upholstery class offered at ACC, Gutierrez and fellow instructor Paulette Defoe have to turn away interested students due to enrollment limitations; the program accomodates a maximum of 57 students annually.

With limited class availability, interested students have to look to other means of upholstery education; however, books and videos are rarely sufficient teaching tools for a beginner. Without hands-on training, a beginner may never develop the skills and confidence to do upholstery beyond simple chairs as a weekend hobby. As generations of upholsterers retire and the number of educational centers decreases, there will be fewer well-trained, professional upholsterers to fill the roles in the industry. Without new skilled workers, it will be harder to keep current shops staffed and even harder for the upholstery industry to replenish itself with new upholstery businesses. With a decline in the number of upholstery shops due to staffing and other challenges, awareness of the industry declines.

Work flexibility combined with inexpensive overhead have made upholstery an attractive profession for many. The modest profit one receives from the hours of manual labor put into a single project makes it physically and financially difficult to earn a living. With declining educational resources for learning upholstery resulting in a decline in the number of upholstery shops in operation, many upholsterers are left with the difficulties and challenges of owning their own small business. Upholsterers must find supplemental revenue streams to support themselves and their businesses, which may require expanding services and products, or even digging deeper into the furniture industry to identify current trends and consumer needs, such as eco-friendly upholstery.

While upholstery does support reuse, resources available to upholsterers concerning green trends and eco-friendly material options are few and far between. Consumers concerned with creating a healthy home may prefer organic cotton, wool and other fabrics, and the use of natural latex foams in lieu of off-gassing polyurethane foams and other synthetic materials. Change in the supplier side of the industry comes slowly, and suppliers are not keeping up with the current green trends, regardless of consumer interest. While most materials are available, the main hindrance in supplying them to shops is cost, and most upholstery customers are not willing to pay the difference in price, which can be four times that of standard materials. As the green trend grows, upholsterers and suppliers will have to work together to balance the supply and demand of green upholstery and bring this option to the forefront of the industry, maintaining its position as a desirable and affordable option for home furnishings.

Perhaps the most significant challenge to upholstery is the growth of mass-produced furniture and the affordability and accessibility it provides consumers. The detailed, hands-on aspect of custom upholstery, combined with a wide variety of project types, makes matching chain store pricing difficult, if not impossible. Upholsterers must provide clients with incentives for choosing custom upholstery over new furniture. One benefit of reupholstering over buying new is the customization options it offers customers. Upholsterers must identify current and popular trends in furniture design and make these options available to their clients. Being confident in suggesting design solutions is a crucial facet to this part of customer service.

As the furniture industry and consumers change, upholsterers must be proactive in order to stay competitive within the market. Upholstery training, sustainability and the use of eco-friendly materials, as well as distinguishing custom upholstery from mass-produced furniture are all keys to our collective future success.

Through these challenges, upholsterers have the opportunity to implement creative changes within the market that make upholstery an even more useful and interesting option when furnishing a home.

Amanda Brown and Lizzie Nguyen began Spruce in January 2008 to bring an updated approach to upholstery and furniture design. Spruce provides custom upholstery services, a large selection of designer and vintage fabrics, weekend upholstery workshops, and rejuvenated and inspired furniture pieces from vintage and antique furniture available for purchase in its Austin, Texas, showroom. For information, visit www.spruceaustin.com.

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