What is custom? In our industry we refer to custom cabinets, custom millwork, custom furniture and so on. We're talking about custom-made, which Webster defines as "made to individual specifications."

I hadn't really thought about the definition of custom until I wandered into a major, company-owned furniture retailer the other day. I was assaulted by signs all over the walls about how everything in the store was custom. I was invited to build my own furniture to meet my specifications.

A salesperson quickly approached. I asked how they defined custom. "You can get the wood furniture in a variety of configurations in any finish we offer, and the upholstery in the cover you want," I was told. That sounded great. I asked about delivery times. "Upholstery is eight to 10 weeks, the casegoods 10 to 12 weeks."

You want it when?

Ok, that's a little slower than I wanted, but it is custom. So I tried to throw in another variable. "This table is not the dimension I was looking for. How about making it six inches shorter?"

I was told that didn't fall into the custom category. Interesting. It reminded me of the old saying, "You can get it any color you want, as long as it's black."

I had just come from a custom cabinet producer we're on the front end of a kitchen remodel. I hadn't told them what I do for a living, so they had spent a lot of time explaining the benefits of a custom kitchen. I have an odd-sized kitchen. I've done designs using standard boxes and wasn't happy with the narrow drawer units and fillers. I told them that, and they carefully explained the design and manufacturing process. My cabinets would be custom built to the widths needed to eliminate those problems. I was quoted delivery time of four to six weeks.

So I didn't quite know what to think about this major furniture manufacturer/retailer's venture into custom furniture. In many ways I applaud the effort. As readers of my column know by now, I believe that speedy delivery of custom-made furniture is the wave of the future. Someone will fill that gap and offer the consumer what they want, when they want it. Some smaller manufacturers are doing that now, and I wasn't surprised to see a major manufacturer stepping into the fray.

Custom-made?

But I was a little taken aback by how they defined custom. I didn't see much different in their approach from what they were doing before. Had they simply labeled everything custom, and used that to justify the 10- to 12-week delivery time? No, they had done more than that. They had set up a system where I can get the casegoods configured the way I want in my choice of finish, but I'm still waiting 12 weeks for delivery.

My conclusion is that Brand X's custom furniture doesn't quite fit my definition of custom-made, but I'm heartened to see them making the effort to market their product as custom. If it catches on, maybe the choices will expand and lead times shrink. My guess is the baby boomers driving the market today are willing to pay for what they want. The industry just needs to learn how to give them those choices. I'm glad to see they are trying.

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