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 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

Selling Bespoke Furniture in The Modern Age  


After seeing a "Comedy of Errors" at "Shakespeare in The Park" (very good BTW) I walked through the park at night and then down Madison Avenue with my wife and Sister-In-Law. Madison Avenue has some of the more rarefied shopping in the world and while the stores were all closed the windows were lit and a theory that has been banging around my head for several years passed another test.

Lower Madison Avenue is mostly multinational flagship stores. But upper Madison Avenue, where more wealthy people live than tourists, is loaded with small boutiques with tiny and some cases unique brand names. I pointed this out to my wife and we both agreed that (with the exception of Ralph Lauren on 72nd street) most of the stores on upper Madison Avenue aren't household names. These stores wouldn't want to be. Every consumer, in all markets, wants to be treated special and these stores all thrive on selling expensive exclusivity. These stores are small (although some have other outlets in other equally rarefied neighborhood worldwide) and if they expanded too much or didn't constantly ensure that their store and merchandise was unique, they would vanish from Madison Avenue. Many do and then new stores take their place.

A furniture maker is in exactly the same situation as these stores. A bespoke table, that is a table you would make for a client, let's say it takes a week. In theory, being a trained craftsman you would want at least $1000 for your effort, plus materials. Really more, I'm basically picking a number. But $1000 for a dining table isn't a lot and typically dining tables are several thousand and up. But it doesn't matter, the number of people in this country who can spend $1000 on any bespoke piece of furniture is pretty small. This isn't anything new, the very cost of bespoke furniture limits your customer base.

The stores on Madison Avenue spend a lot of time and money to make sure that they have unique exclusive merchandise. That there are so many stores on Madison Avenue that are small and not well known, shows how important exclusivity is for selling to people can afford something special. For the single crafts-person there has always been a compelling story of a personal relationship with a customer, with the very fact of limited production being appealing. There is also the compelling appeal of a customer "discovering" a new maker "I found a little shop in Bushwick that's hard to get to and nobody has heard of....". You can deliver the exclusive product that customers want. The trick has been getting the word out to potential customers without the advantages of a small store on a ritzy street, down the block where the ideal customers live.

With the arrival of the Internet everything has changed. New methods of communication between maker and customer are developing rapidly and these days there are increasing numbers of news and promotion opportunities outside the mainstream major media, all with a desperate need for new stories. You don't need a fancy store on a fancy block to reach customers (even if the experience is quite enjoyable) you can reach customers in a whole bunch of new ways. In the next coming weeks I hope to expand on some of the marketing and branding things a beginning professional might be interested in doing. There is good work out there, the trick is finding it, nurturing customers, and getting paid enough.
Tags:Product News, Sales, and Promotions,Misc.
Comments: 9
06/05/2013Third coast Joe 

you have always written well. But lately your writing is developing in a subtle but really engaging way. And the 'off topic' topics you pick are so well selected! Looking forward to further entries!
I wonder what the lease rate is for a tiny upper Madison Ave. store?
Thanks very much for your kind remarks.

Madison Avenue is some of the most expensive retail space in the world. According to an article in the times (and the market has gotten stronger since then - I saw very few vacancies) in 2012 asking rents were are about $1500/sq ft - that's per year. So a small store of 10'x20' = 200sq ft, 200x1500= $300,000 / year = $25,000/month.
SOHO used to be home to several unique furniture and design stores, but most seem to have moved on due to the ever increasing rents. I miss Droog Design and Troy, but BDDW ( is still down there and is always worth a visit. Also R 20th Century and Espasso in Tribeca occasionally have some amazing pieces.

A big trend in retail these days is to open a small storefront that basically serves as a way to allow people to sample/see goods/services before making the actual purchase on the web.
Following up on "framed". The "pop -up store" can allow short term access to your product. Why not team up with other vendors doing the same thing- a short term promotion; they may well be in the Fashion industry , and your stuff may be part of the display , but done right it will be "seen".
Thanks Joel for your blog, and your store. After reading your comments I thought that maybe the "flash store" concept could be used to display individuals projects for a day or week-end or week, what ever the landlord would give up for a reasonable rate, in a neighborhood that would welcome the exposure to what was being crafted in the area.

Also I have purchased many works of art that I truly love at open studio week-ends, is anyone organizing that concept for woodworkers? I love to see others work spaces.
06/11/2013Craig Diamond httP://
Hi Joel, great article - craftsmanship, once admired by many people seems to be jobbed out overseas like most everything else. People like the idea of something bespoke, but don't really want to pay for it. Man hours to complete a project? Too depressing to add up sometimes. I am looking for 3 or 4 other artists to share a retail store with a working shop somewhere in or around the city. Let me know if you happen to come across anyone! Thanks!!
Good points. As much as the web makes it possible to get in front of so many more people, the low barrier to entry just makes that much more noise to cut through in order to be seen.

I think there would be more people able to spend a few dollars for well crafted furniture if they'd stop blowing it all on kitchen renovations LOL!
06/28/2013Ari Z
As a fellow New York City furniture maker, I know exactly what you are dealing with. It is hard to drive people into your store when you have competition from the big box retailers like Ikea and Target. Throw in the ease of having furniture shipped right to your door from the internet, and it becomes a battle to get your name out there. The difference is, unlike particleboard, piece-together units, smaller craft stores offer a much higher quality product.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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