The global furniture production industry has been in a boom in recent years, according to a BusinessVibes.com international report, but South Sound retailers still seem to be struggling.
“It’s been down for a while, and it’s not just because of the government budget cuts,” agreed Alan Albanese, manager of S.B.’s Furniture in Lakewood.
Those around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in particular, have been subject to the double hit of both the recession and the civilian furloughs that affected more than 10,000 of the installation’s 16,000 non-military employees.
In April, those civilian workers at JBLM started a schedule of up to 22 non-sequential, non-paid furlough days off (up to 176 hours) through the end of the fiscal year in September. The only ‘excepted’ employees are those deployed; those designated life, health, or safety individuals; and other employees critical to base operations.
That’s a shame for S.B.’s, along with the other local stores where JBLM soldiers and non-military workers often shop, Albanese said.
His store, opened in 1984 by retired sergeant major and three-time Vietnam veteran Merlyn Williams Rimple, has long been a staple furniture-buying site for the military here. When Rimple sold the company to his daughter in 1995, sales remained strong over the next decade, so much so that the company expanded to a second building in 2006.
And furniture is just one type of big-ticket item that returning troops purchase upon settling back into the region after transferring to JBLM after time on another U.S. military base, or after settling here following a stint overseas, according to a study by the South Sound Military & Communities Partnership released last year. The $3.2 billion annual payroll that the installation, Washington state’s third-largest employer, supports, has an enormous impact on the local economies of Lakewood, DuPont, Yelm, Lacey, and other cities where soldiers and non-military employees live and purchase everything from clothing to cars, electronics and homes.
That the furniture is one industry still on hold in the South Sound, though, places it at the end of the trend in other areas. Worldwide, furniture manufacturing has been in growth mode post-recession; even in 2011, it earned $100.17 billion, according to www.BusinessVibes.com, up 7.3 percent over 2010, and is expected to reach $566.8 billion by 2015. The US and Canada are the largest furniture importers, with an annual 15 percent purchase increase; China remains the largest exporter.
But, at least locally, furniture purchases by both military and civilian employees at JBLM have been declining over the past five years, and are still in that dip, Albanese said. In fact, he noted that although S.B.’s sees many military customers come in to look for furniture, when it comes to buying it, “Either they don’t have any credit, or they’re broke.”
His hopes are that the area bounces back when it comes to shopping local for items larger than groceries and gas.
“It’s not just us around here,” he said. “A lot of people who have small businesses are still struggling in this economy, and the lack of military spending because of cutbacks is just a part of that.”