The Uncomfortable Truth About Why Buying Furniture Is So Miserable

March 21, 2023

In 2021, Kitty King and her husband purchased a Broyhill-branded mattress, box spring, sectional, and recliner from Big Lots for $1,700.

“It was a deal wasn’t it?” she said. “But that’s because you get what you pay for.”

Founded in the 1920s in Lenoir, North Carolina, Broyhill was one of the manufacturers that turned the North Carolina and Virginia piedmont into the beating heart of the global furniture industry. The 20th century giant’s bedroom suites were often featured prizes on The Price Is Right.

But the company has been slowly gutted over the last 40 years. It was sold to a shoe company-turned-conglomerate, and then an investment firm. Multiple bankruptcies eventually brought it into the hands of Big Lots, which purchased the Broyhill name and trademarks in 2019.

The furniture consumers once loved was long gone, though.

Within a few months of her purchase, King says the recliner stopped reclining, half of the sectional sagged, and both the mattress and the box spring collapsed entirely. Big Lots replaced the latter two, but the replacement box spring also collapsed.

King brought the box spring back to the store and got into such a heated shouting match when her third refund request was denied that the store called the police. She insists the officers were on her side.

“If I was a criminal, I would go rob them,” King said during a phone call in December. “I know you’re taping me, but I really would. I would go get my money back.”

She abandoned the box spring at the store, but her fury hasn’t dissipated. It was just redirected to leukemia.

“They’re lucky my husband started dying,” she said, “because what happened was I had to revert my energy somewhere else.”

For decades, companies like Broyhill provided the economic backbone for entire regions, especially the area around High Point, North Carolina. As they furnished homes around the nation, their factories, showrooms, and distribution centers spread across the landscape—it can still be hard to spot a building in downtown High Point that isn’t connected to the industry. But now the companies are often more hated than known.

Data collected by ConsumerAffairs shows that customer satisfaction, especially among the largest retailers, has been steadily declining since 2011. Too often, the buying experience is simply miserable, and it’s only got worse during the pandemic.

The furniture industry’s fall from grace, in the typical consumer’s mind, can be traced back to a number of long-term, international shifts in how furniture is made and sold. Ironically, the same factors made the industry bullish—but now the biggest winners are large multinational companies, not homegrown manufacturers.

This looks like bad news for consumers. The most likely outcome is an industry that continues its current direction, offering more and more services for the wealthy and cheap, too often terrible goods for everyone else.

And yet, in North Carolina and Virginia, where it all started, some in the industry are working against the tide. Despite all of the economic forces turning furniture into a disposable good, they think they can transition manufacturing to a post-industrial craftsmanship for the benefit of workers, the region, and the kind of consumers who can pay more for higher quality.

The question is, can the rest of us?

Read the rest at The Assembly or CurrentAffairs. You can also read a sidebar about the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy.