RALEIGH, N.C. — Ah, the recliner. The American invention that linked lazing in the living room to television and frozen dinners is one of the few bright spots in a well-worn U.S. household furniture industry.
Sales of reclining chairs are getting a lift from the growing popularity of high-tech TVs, home theater equipment and video games, as well as an aging population that is less active. Even the recession, which forced many Americans to cancel vacation plans, seemed to have help sales of the comfy lounge chairs.
"People think, `I'm not going to travel. Doggone it, when I go home I'm going to be comfortable,'" said Don Hunter, who heads Catnapper, a recliner-focused division of Jackson Furniture Industries in Cleveland, Tenn.
Sales of reclining chairs and sofas totaled $3.5 billion last year and are expected to climb to $4 billion within five years, according to trade magazine Furniture/Today and New York-based Easy Analytic Software Inc. Nevada and Arizona, both popular states for retirees, will see sales jump 25 percent.
That's a stark contrast to the nearly 13 percent drop in sales furniture stores saw through September this year, compared with the same nine-month period last year, according to census data. That bad news includes a slight 1.4 percent rise in retail sales from August to September, the government reported this week.
On Saturday, as the household furniture industry assembles in High Point for the start of its twice-a-year international trade show, several manufacturers will be showcasing recliners with more gizmos.
Berkline is introducing a recliner line starting at $699 with installed stereo speakers, a subwoofer, and a plug for an iPod. The company has an existing model called the ButtKicker, which can be hooked up to a special amplifier that delivers the shakes and vibrations of the action on your home theater system.
Also new this year, is a top end to the line of massage chairs retailing for about $1,200 to $2,400. The deluxe version offered this year costs $2,599, conforms to the shape of the user's body and includes a system of pressurized air bags for a massage that mimics human hands.
For cash-crimped consumers, Berkline is targeting them with models that start as low as $299. That will help drive sales up 10 percent this year, said Rob Burch, CEO of the Morristown, Tenn.-based company.
Industry executives also see opportunities for chairs that use electric power to tilt back or lift up a person who may be too weak to do it on their own.
Manufacturers "benefit from an older population, and from some technological advances that make them not only comfortable but good for your health," said Jerry Epperson, an industry analyst with investment bank Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd.
The recliner was invented by La-Z-Boy in 1929, just months before the great stock market crash. And despite the current recession, recliner sales remain steady, said Paula Hoyas, vice president of upholstery merchandising for La-Z-Boy.
"They are a staple in American homes, and consumers consider recliners to be an easy and affordable way to add a bit more comfort to a room," Hoyas said.
The U.S. is the world's largest furniture market, accounting for about a quarter of global furniture sales, according to the Centre for Industrial Studies, an economic research and consulting company in Milan, Italy. Yet with the recession, American furniture manufacturers and wholesalers limped along with profit margins of less than 2 percent in the past year, while retailers have stayed afloat on profits of less than 0.5 percent, according to Sageworks Inc., which collects data on private companies.
For Americans facing job insecurity and weak home sales — the strongest driver for people to buy new furniture — conserving cash has led some families to open the pocketbook just a bit so that they could at least ride out the recession in comfort.
Mystery book author and retiree Pat Browning said she cashed in her stimulus check this spring and bought a $199 blue microfiber recliner at Big Lots! in May.
"The comfort level is important because I am home all the time," said Browning, 80, of Yukon, Okla. "I spend my life sitting at a computer, writing and doing endless research, but the mind can absorb only what the seat can endure. My best writing takes shape when I'm drowsing and dreaming at nap time in my new recliner."
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