Read an Excerpt
How to Get the Most Out of North Carolina's Furniture Stores, Whether You Travel to North Carolina or Not
We've all lived our lives with furniture all around us. But until you have the North Carolina furniture experience, you're like an Elvis Presley fan who has never seen Graceland, or a baseball aficionado who has never been to a big-league game. Once you shop for furniture in North Carolina, you'll never look at furniture the same way again. North Carolina is the furniture capital of the world.
Planning is the key to getting the most out of North Carolina's furniture stores. Don't think of a trip to North Carolina as an end in itself. Think of it as the culmination of weeks, months, or even years of planning. As in all areas of life, it helps to do your homework.
The goal of this section is to prepare you for the furniture-shopping experience of a lifetime. This begins with an overview of the benefits of shopping for furniture in the furniture capital of the world, including real-world examples of people who bought and saved. It continues by letting you know what to expect when you deal with the North Carolina furniture business: the different types of stores, how best to navigate them, how and when to negotiate, and how your purchase will actually proceed from ordering and deposit to shipping and receipt. Perhaps most important, this section is full of insider advice-based on interviews with the experts-on how to arm yourself for the most effective possible furniture shopping expedition: making floor plans, taking measurements and photographs, reading magazines, and shopping around locally to get ideas and inspiration. Throughout this section and throughout this book you'll find tips and strategies from veteran furniture salespeople, store owners, manufacturers, and experts, all with the goal of making you a better-educated consumer. And, of course, this section will lay out all the practical details: how best to get to North Carolina, the best times of year to go (and the critical times not to go), the situations in which you can make purchases by phone, and the essential information about airports, sales taxes, emergency services, weather, and more.
HOW MUCH WILL I SAVE?
There's no set formula for determining how much you'll save in North Carolina, but no matter what, you'll save a lot relative to the total amount of your purchase. Still, it's probably not worth traveling all the way to North Carolina just to buy a chair-unless it's a very expensive chair indeed.
To determine whether a furniture-shopping expedition to North Carolina is worth your while, you need only do a little arithmetic: First decide how much you plan to spend on furniture. Then assume you'll save from 40 percent (if you have very specific décor requirements and will be custom-ordering merchandise in your choice of color and style) to 70 percent and more (at the outlets and clearance centers, where you buy furniture directly off the showroom floor in whatever shape it's in). Then compute the cost of your trip (transportation, accommodations, meals, and incidentals) and subtract.
It readily becomes apparent that you don't have to buy a whole lot of furniture to pay for a trip to North Carolina. And since North Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in the nation, offering everything from picturesque mountains to the world's best whole-hog barbecue, think of a North Car-olina furniture shopping expedition as not only an all-expenses-paid shopping trip but also a free vacation.
A simple rule of thumb: If you plan to furnish a whole room-or your whole house-you're the ideal candidate for a North Carolina furniture shopping vacation. If you're only buying one piece of furniture, it's usually not worth the trip, unless you're buying a very expensive piece of rare furniture or you're going to visit some of the many sights the region has to offer anyway: the Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge or Great Smokey Mountains, the North Carolina Zoo, the Penland School, or one of the many regional universities like Wake Forest, Duke, or the University of North Carolina.
To put it in practical terms, here are a few real-world examples of people who shopped and saved in North Carolina (these are illustrations based on interviews I've conducted during my research trips to the area over a period of years; some of the names and specifics have been modified to preserve anonymity and reflect current facts).
*Cathy and Josh flew into Raleigh-Durham for one day ($211 per person on US Airways), rented a car ($24.99 from Avis), did all their shopping at Rose Furniture Company in High Point, and had everything shipped to their New York home. They heard about Rose from Cathy's mother after a terrible furniture-shopping experience in Connecticut (the store was not only overpriced but also went belly-up, taking Cathy and Josh's deposit with it). Cost of trip: $475 including airfare, rental car, gas, and lunch. Purchases: all made-to-order. Not only did they save money but they were able to buy, for $800, the very same wing chair they saw for $1,270 in Connecticut, plus a lacquer secretary desk, four end tables, two coffee tables, and a complete bedroom set. Savings (including costs): $5,500, approximately 45 percent.
*Maria and Manny, a young newlywed couple, rented a truck ($66 per day), drove 13 hours to North Carolina (joining truckers for a catnap in a rest area along the way), and purchased their furniture right off the floor. Cost of trip (including three-day truck rental, gas, two nights' lodging, and meals): $390. Purchases (all floor samples): bed, chest of drawers, bureau, dining room table, and six chairs. Savings: $3,500, approximately 70 percent.
*John and Barbara, recently retired, flew down to Greens-boro on Continental on three days' notice, utilizing a special fare purchased on the airline's Web site ($129 per person departing Saturday or Sunday, returning Monday or Tuesday), rented a car ($19.99/day with AARP discount), and did their shopping over a period of two and a half days (two nights' accommodations: $130, including extensive breakfast buffet). Cost of trip: $550. Purchases (combination of floor samples and made-to-order): sectional sofa, oak dining room table, and four chairs. Savings: $1,575, approximately 45 percent.
*Alice and Anne, a mother and daughter, traveled together to High Point to furnish their respective new homes: A retirement home for the parents, and a new home in the suburbs for the younger generation. Price was no object, and between the two of them they spent in excess of $70,000 on furniture and furnishings (carpets, lighting, and miscellaneous objects). They spent a lot, but saved even more: Had they bought the same furniture in the Greater New York area, they'd have spent approximately $150,000.
But perhaps more important than the raw savings, all of these customers were able to get more for their money. In other words, they were all planning to spend a certain amount of money anyway. But they got more and better furniture for that money. That's the true measure of a bargain: value. Don't be swept away by numbers. The important thing is that you get quality for your money. Furniture is an investment, and it's better to buy a few good pieces-even if they seem expensive-than to acquire a bunch of disposable junk and clutter.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Until you set foot inside the showrooms of the major North Carolina dealers, it's hard to believe what you're in for. Everything is a different order of magnitude from what you're used to at your local department store's furniture department. The stores in North Carolina are so large, so unexpected in their diversity, and so comprehensive in their inventories, it can be quite overwhelming if you're not prepared for it. Think Disney World, but bigger and full of furniture.
Hickory vs. High Point
The two main furniture-shopping areas in North Carolina are High Point (plus nearby Thomasville) and Hickory (including Route 321 to nearby Lenoir).
In 1859, High Point was named after the highest point on the North Carolina Railroad, and today the city draws visitors from 50 states and more than 100 countries for the twice-annual International Home Furnishings Market, the largest event of its kind in the world. High Point is home to mega-showrooms like Furnitureland South (a million square feet and growing, with so many choices it'll make your head spin), Rose Furniture Company (a much more manageable 175,000 square feet), Boyles, and Wood-Armfield. If you want to do all your shopping under one roof, with a single salesperson and in a day or two, and you're not interested in exploring North Carolina, High Point is your town: It's all about furniture. You'll need a car to get around.
Hickory, by contrast (90 minutes due west of High Point), has scores of smaller stores (though all is relative; these stores would be considered large anywhere else) collected in and around two large furniture centers: the Hickory Furniture Mart and the Catawba Furniture Mall. Shopping in Hickory is much more familiar and mall-like, and the town lies at the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains-a major tourism region in North Carolina. There are good hotel accommodations available on the premises of both furniture centers, so it's possible to do all your Hickory furniture shopping without a car.
In reality, you can get just about anything in either town (many of the major players have outposts in both), and prices are similar, but your shopping experience and options for extracurricular activities will be very different-and that's a matter of personal preference. If I thought one town was better than the other, I'd say so and I'd write this book just about that one town. But I've bought furniture in both places, and each is a worthwhile destination in its own right.
However, if you go anywhere besides Hickory or High Point, you're probably wasting your time. Don't be fooled by towns in other states that have relentlessly promoted themselves as alternatives to North Carolina's furniture towns. You may be able to get some decent bargains elsewhere, but the critical mass of great furniture bargains that exists in Hickory and High Point (and their outlying areas) simply does not exist anywhere else.
The Different Types of Stores:
What Does It All Mean?
There's a certain image of North Carolina furniture shopping that has been perpetuated in the media and popular myth: the crumbling old warehouse full of three-legged tables and beds without rails, all strewn about and piled haphazardly. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Imagine an entire, brand-spanking-new suburban shopping mall, anywhere in America. Now imagine that mall is just one store, and the entire store is full of premium furniture. That's what you'll be dealing with, many times over, in North Carolina.
There are three main types of stores you'll encounter in North Carolina's furniture regions:
The "Retail" Stores
Most of the large furniture stores in North Carolina are, in the strict sense of the word, retail stores. The designation "retail" is a source of much confusion, because so many people associate the term retail with high prices. Not to worry: The so-called furniture retailers in North Carolina offer prices any day of the year that would fall below the after-Christmas clearance sales anywhere else in North America.
No, by retail all that is meant in this context is that these are not manufacturers' outlet stores (see below). The retail stores sell first-quality furniture from dozens-sometimes hundreds-of brands. They are colossal (both Furnitureland South and the Hickory Furniture Mart are over a million square feet), comfortable, well-organized, well-lit, modern megastores with expert sales staff and even some unique amenities like video entertainment for the kids. But that's where retail ends: These stores offer tremendous discounts, ranging from 20 to 60 percent off regular retail prices-though the average usually falls between 35 and 50 percent depending upon the manufacturer and the retailer.
How do they do this? What's the trick? Actually, it's no trick: It's simple math. The North Carolina furniture retailers sell a lot of furniture. They maintain low overhead and they move product quickly. They compete vigorously with one another in a retail environment unlike any on the planet. The typical department store in your hometown likely sells just a few pieces of furniture a week, but it has to maintain expensive showroom space in prime downtown and shopping-mall areas. The typical major retailer in North Carolina might furnish a half a dozen complete homes on any given Saturday, and the stores sit on large plots of relatively inexpensive land. The North Carolina retailers have chosen to pass this savings on to you as an incentive to get you down to North Carolina. You'd be wise to RSVP "Yes!" to this invitation.
It's not all about price, though: The retail stores in North Carolina afford the consumer, among other things, the distinct advantage of selection. Nowhere else will you see so many different brands displayed so extensively for you to sit on, touch, prod, and poke. On account of fierce competition among retailers, as well as restrictions and requirements imposed by manufacturers, the major retailers in High Point and Hickory are forced to carry extensive selections that stores elsewhere can afford neither to stock nor to display. In North Carolina not only is the selection vast but the furniture is arranged in galleries to simulate rooms in homes: There might be ten living rooms set up showcasing ten different manufacturers' lines, or eight dining rooms showcasing twenty manufacturers' tables, chairs, and breakfronts.
When you order furniture from one of the retailers, you're not buying the actual piece on the showroom floor (unless the floor sample is for sale, which does occasionally happen). Don't show up with a truck expecting to take your new furniture home with you. Your order, complete with your selection of color, fabric, and custom features (such as whether you want a sofa or a sofabed, a stationary chair or a swivel-rocker), will be sent to a manufacturer and produced to your specifications, and then it will be shipped to you via truck. This process can take a couple of months, sometimes more. So it helps to plan ahead so as not to get stuck with an empty room or house while you're waiting for your furniture to be built.