I recently attended a furniture trade show at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago where the overwhelming presence of imported products reached the proportions of a tsunami. Although I am generally in favor of free trade, I must admit that some of the related influences are distressing.

Our company was introducing a new furniture collection that has taken two years to develop in concert with the design direction of a respected American architect. We have spent several thousand dollars in travel, prototypes, shipping and photography, and we will pay a royalty to our architect/designer for as long as the collection is produced.

After the first day of the show, at an industry banquet sponsored by the Merchandise Mart, I happened to sit next to a furniture dealer from Indiana with a practical viewpoint. Last year he imported five containers of Chinese furniture. His methods were simple. He hired an agent for a modest commission who arranged manufacturing and ocean transport. The designs, he offhandedly informed me, were borrowed and "slightly changed" from branded products. The brand has no particular value or legal standing in the mind of this furniture dealer. His light-fingered style of lifting design was disturbing, and I fear his attitude is common.

As I walked the long, cavernous halls of the monumental Merchandise Mart, I observed that the high-quality specialists in the industry have ventured far afield from their core. The luxury-market manufacturers are allowing careless craftsmanship to appear with their respected old American brand labels. Specialists in teak furniture are making woven rattan-style products. Specialists in metal are now importing wood. Everyone is invading everyone else's territory because the barriers of manufacturing skills have almost disappeared.

Brand management

Some fine old brands are withering as new brands present fresh, brilliant design and craftsmanship. All of the characteristics which defined and distinguished our old American brands are becoming blurred. On the other hand, new companies with unknown brands are presenting brilliant design and craftsmanship.

I've been in the furniture industry long enough to feel pangs of nostalgia for "the good old days." But I've also had the chance to see how a knee-jerk, emotional response can derail development of an effective strategy.

Looking to another industry that has already gone through the transformation in international free trade, I suggest studying the example of the footware industry. I have a little experience as a marketing consultant to one of America's best-known footware manufacturers, Wolverine World Wide. This company grew to prominence during the 1950s and '60s as the manufacturer and marketer of the Hush Puppies brand. I worked with them during the 1980s, a time when offshore manufacturing of footware was engulfing the American footware industry.

Old shoe factories, especially in the Northeast, were closing. Wolverine World Wide fought with the traditional tools of the trade for a few years, as profits shrank and stock value declined. Eventually, management saw the potential in combining well-known American brand names with products made by offshore manufacturing resources.

The brands it chose to license were often from fields that had no direct connection with footware, such as the Caterpiller construction equipment brand. Wolverine World Wide relied on its superior competence in management of finance, marketing and distribution, and has become much stronger in the years since this epiphany.

Superior strategy

This example of how an industry situation was solved by superior strategy applies well to the furniture and building industry. I am not suggesting that a line of Cat furniture would be successful. The idea is to look at all the options and influences that drive consumers, then forge a plan that ignites a reaction in consumers' hearts and minds at the point of sale.

Deft selection of design, material and craftsmanship doesn't give a furniture company enough power to succeed in the international marketplace. It was enough in 1950, perhaps even in 2000, but it's not enough to ensure success in 2005. Today, it takes some vibrant creative electricity at the point of sale to move furniture off the retail floor. The source of that electricity needs to be unique and worthy of a registered trademark and a design copyright.

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