HIGH POINT — For the past several years, Poland has become an increasingly important supplier of residential furniture to the U.S. market.
In 2019, for example, the country shipped $265 million in finished goods to the U.S. While the number was down 13% from the nearly $304 million it shipped in 2018, Poland remained on the list of top 10 largest source countries for the U.S. market. At number nine, it was just behind India and one spot above Taiwan.
Miscellaneous wood furniture, wooden bedroom furniture and wood beds were the top three largest categories Poland shipped, followed by wood frame and metal frame upholstered seats, respectively. The next five leading categories in order were wood frame upholstered chairs, wood dining tables, wood kitchen furniture, non-upholstered metal seats and wood chairs.
Much of Poland’s prominence has to do with shipments to Ikea, including RTA furniture produced by highly automated plants in Poland that have invested millions in state of the art equipment necessary to produce to Ikea’s standards.
Ready to sell
But manufacturers are looking to make inroads in other parts of the market as well, selling not only to suppliers, but also to retailers looking to buy direct.
Due to COVID-19, this year has been a challenge for furniture manufacturers around the globe, Poland included.
“For the Polish furniture industry, mid-March was like an earthquake; traditional trade practically stopped overnight,” said Michal Strzelecki, office director of the Polish Chamber of Commerce of Furniture Manufacturers. “The most difficult thing in all of this was that this situation affected practically all of our export markets as well as the Polish market at the same time.”
He said the slowdown for both exports and the domestic market resulted in a roughly 35% drop in industry sales compared with the same period in 2019.
While business slowed significantly in March and April, the situation improved by May, and many factories were busy trying to keep up with the demand once retailers in and outside of Poland, including Europe and the U.S. reopened.
“When the pandemic started, all businesses across the board were significantly impacted,” said Michal Blonski, founder and managing partner of TransAtlantic Trade For All (TAFTA), noting that production declined from 50% to 75% in the first period of March and April.
“May was the first month that brought a pickup in orders, whereas in June, production leveled to 2019 orders,” he added. “All manufacturers introduced multiple shifts to be able to keep up production in the worst case scenario if a COVID-19 case was detected on site.”
Today, Blonski and others note, Poland is the world’s second largest furniture exporter, behind China, with an estimated record $13.5 billion in shipments last year. While the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will certainly lower that number — by some estimates as much as 25% — Poland is expected to keep its presence on the world stage.
“Furniture made in Poland is present in all European countries and beyond,” Blonski said, adding that during its period of growth in recent years, Polish furniture producers developed the ability to adapt to specific market requirements in both design and other specifications.
“The growth was possible thanks to significant investments into production lines. For the past three years, we have had the pleasure to host a number of U.S. customers visiting product sites, and they were comparing them with Asian factories. All of them were highly impressed with the high level of automation, cleanliness and organization.”
So how large is Poland’s furniture industry? Tomasz Wiktorski, a consultant to the Polish Chamber of Commerce of Furniture Manufacturers, estimated that there are about 80 large manufacturers with more than 249 workers, about 310 medium-sized manufacturers with 50 to 249 workers and 1,400 small companies with 10 to 49 employees, with the entire industry employing some 160,000 workers.
In addition, he noted, there are some 26,000 “micro-companies” bringing the grand total of employees in Poland’s furniture industry to about 200,000. These micro companies include suppliers of components such as wood parts.
Some 80% of the manufacturers, he said, produce residential furniture, with others producing furniture for HoReCa (hotels, restaurants and cafes).
Through the pandemic
One of Poland’s well-known brands is upholstery manufacturer Benix, which has been in business since 1993 and has sold to the U.S. market for the past five years. While the pandemic caused a drop in production, the company was able to continue operations even during the height of the pandemic.
“At this point, we operate at full production capacity, as the order volume is higher than before the pandemic started,” said Nicole Mazur, director of marketing at Benix.
With just 1% to 2% of its exports shipped to the U.S., the company has plenty of room to grow in the market. But Mazur noted that the company’s focus remains on “establishing cooperation with chains selling furniture in the U.S. We have in mind both showrooms and e-commerce sales.”
Gala Collezione is another upholstery manufacturer that is looking to expand its presence to the U.S. market. It has been in business for more than 20 years and currently ships to more than 30 countries. This includes the U.S., where it has been shipping product since 2018.
During the pandemic, it said it did not close production despite a decrease in orders.
“Our goal was to not fully stop production,” said Kobus Krzysztof, export manager. “We are responsible not only for our company, but also for the whole chain of suppliers. Thanks to our competent management team, we were able to plan production for all our four manufacturing plants. … Our strong export to many countries enabled us to collect orders from any direction.”
Since many retail stores reopened this past spring, he noted that business has risen 30%. The company hopes to continue this positive growth by boosting its business to the U.S. It plans to show in High Point this fall, although that could be impacted by travel restrictions.
“We plan to come and meet with new potential partners, but it depends on the global pandemic situation and travel limitations,” Krzysztof said. “We want to show modular sofa systems with electric functions, a modern corner sofa with an adjustable backrest and modern armchairs with relaxed function. Every new small and medium partner who will appreciate our design, functionality and quality will be a good step for us to become a reliable and recognizable brand in the United States.”
‘Business is growing’
Dating back to the 1980s as a family-owned carpenter workshop in Eastern Poland, Black Red White today produces a line of upholstery, mattresses, wardrobes, dining room furniture and kitchen furniture in some 19 plants that employ nearly 9,000 workers. It currently ships to 57 countries and has been selling to the U.S. since around 2010.
Like others, it too, was impacted by the pandemic, which included a two-week government mandated lockdown. However, it was able to restart production in May and is running at full capacity, said Kamil Kaczmarek, export department director. He noted that after BRW resumed production, the value of orders has grown.
“June, July and August 2020 have had a positive dynamic for us compared to 2019,” he said.
While Europe has been its main market so far, the company is looking to grow its business in the U.S.
“Currently, establishing cooperation with the largest companies in the U.S. is our strategic goal,” he said. “We want to present them our capacity, flexibility and short lead times. We can offer our own design from our catalog, or develop new products, carefully listening to our partners’ needs.”
As the business is growing, he said, the company also plans to make investments to increase its capacity next year.
In business since 1957, Szynaka Meble now has eight plants that produce master and youth bedroom, occasional, upholstery and office furniture. It has been shipping the U.S. market for 10 years.
During the pandemic, it kept production to a minimum, while selling inventory from its warehouse.
“Right after the announcement of the gradual lifting of restrictions, it was quite challenging, but we started to ramp it up from week to week,” said Jacek Topolewski, corporate sales director. “Currently, we notice a high demand and are working at full speed.”
At the upcoming High Point Market, it will be showing its newest and best-selling KD and fully assembled products, including items in its TrendLine and PrestigLine collections.
“Definitely we are preparing to enter the U.S. market at a much bigger scale than before,” Topolewski said. “We are in advanced discussions with potential business partners.”
Looking ahead at the balance of the year and beyond these and others remain optimistic about their prospects for the U.S. market, particularly as more consumers look for ways to spruce up their homes and spend less money on travel and other forms of entertainment involving large crowds.
To expand their opportunities in the market, officials note, they also need to continue to market and communicate the capabilities of the industry and how that will benefit potential customers in the U.S. market.
“First of all, it should be noted that our industry has many years of tradition in the production of furniture,” said Strzelecki, of the Polish Chamber of Furniture Manufacturers. “Many of today’s leaders in our industry developed over several decades from small carpentry workshops to the largest furniture companies, not only in Poland, but in the world.
“The second factor in our producers being very well-received by foreign customers is our experience in trading furniture in Europe and on more distant markets. Today the Polish furniture industry is also practically the most modern technologies using in the production of furniture, which makes us very flexible in our approach to customer needs.”
He added that this flexibility extends to styles produced and use of mixed media materials such as glass, metal and plastic.
“The challenge for this year is to achieve a result similar to that of 2019,” he said of the estimated $13.6 billion in industry sales. “The feasibility of this goal depends mainly on how the pandemic will develop and what autumn will bring.”
He added, “If everything goes well and the world situation stabilizes, we should get a better result in 2020 by 4% to 6%.”
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