Once limited to simple, functional styles, the range of choices in children´s furniture has exploded along with demand, thanks to a collection of new market forces.
Foremost is the renewed interest shown by large manufacturers, especially those from Asia, proving there´s money in producing kid-sized chairs, desks, beds and dressers. Cheryl Shaw, CFO of Little Colorado Inc., has seen manufacturers’ interest in products for children wax and wane over the years.
"For as long as we´ve been in business, we´ve seen a lot of people, even the big guys, get in and out. Probably because it´s not anybody´s main business," she observed.
But now, Shaw thinks some societal changes have opened a lot of eyes to the lucrative world of children´s furniture.
"Certainly with the change in our society with two earner families, houses have gotten bigger, so there´s more physical room to add to the furniture in a child´s room or a play room," she said, noting today´s selection is better than ever. "There was inexpensive children´s furniture and then there was high end furniture. You either got cheap or you went all out, but there was nothing in the middle of the road."
Some American companies are concerned by the attention Asian manufacturers are paying to this previously ignored mid-price range area, noted Pat Bowling, director of communications for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.
"In fact, imports of bedroom furniture from China have grown so dramatically in the last several years that a consortium of domestic manufacturers recently announced it would file an antidumping petition against China this fall—specifically targeting the category of wood bedroom furniture," she said. "This is a topic of hot debate in our industry."
The reasons for this explosion of selection are wide and varied, but industry observers point to a few main factors. First, the combination of aging Baby Boomers and young Generation Y consumers has put a premium on style and individuality.
"Today´s teenagers represent one of our nation´s fastest growing consumer segments," agreed Bowling. "Estimated at 31 million, this group is commonly regarded as Generation Y, however, the furniture industry likes to describe them as Generation "I" for individuality, independence and imagination."
Bowling´s organization surveyed young consumers on the furniture piece they would most like to add to their rooms, and the results were intriguing. The most frequent answer among all ages was a place to sit, such as a sofa or chair, followed by a new bed, a computer workstation or desk, and a dresser.
"Of the children surveyed, the youngest—ages 8 to 10—expressed the greatest desire for a change in colors and accessories," she said. "The older kids declared their need for additional furnishings, such as a place to sit with friends or storage pieces for computers and electronics."
Shaw says doting grandparents are often the source of these new pieces for the child, and their disposable income is now a target for marketers.
"There are now specific catalogs for grandparents with pages and pages dedicated to quality gifts for grandchildren," she said. "Parents and grandparents bring in their children and they´re often times doing the choosing. When I was 11 or 12, I got to choose the color of the walls and maybe the bedding. But you didn´t choose your step stool or your dresser."
What´s also pushing the market is the exposure parents now have to design and accessory ideas relating to their children´s rooms.
"There is a growing population of parents who are asking for stylish, quality children´s furniture that will match the decor of their home," said Leigh Nagy, product manager (furniture) for Little Tikes. "The trend is being influenced by a flurry of home decor focused media such as Trading Spaces and Martha Stewart Kids."
While the market for kids´ furniture generally is rising, the future of one standard style is less certain. Assemble-at-home products currently represent an important sector of the furniture market, but Shaw says there are pros and cons with that style. These products are less expensive to ship but require either store staff or the consumer to spend time putting it together, something that can be an issue.
"Courier companies and trucking companies raise their prices five or ten percent every year, and they´ve got rising fuel prices to factor in. You can send it out flat and save money," Nagy said. "The flip side is no one wants to spend three hours to put it together. If it´s shipped out like ours, it´s shipped at 70 pounds.
"No one is getting more time in their lives," she said. "I don´t see that market getting totally knocked down but I can´t see it any bigger unless it´s made easier to assemble. And I´m sure some engineer out there is working on that."