"The State of the Rug Industry"

 As seen in Rug Insider summer issue of 2008

For years we have been hearing about the imminent shakeout at the wholesale level of our industry and while it still hasn’t happened as a sudden cataclysm, some venerable names have disappeared over the years (Avakian, Amiran, Fritz and Larue, Pande Cameron, Zaloom, Near East, OCM, Noo Noo, Kashandia to name a few.)  Some family firms closed because the next generation wasn’t interested. Others changed hands only to fail under new management. This is the normal pattern of attrition in any industry and like others, ours has survived despite the disappearance of some of the “rocks”. If anything, the number of players has increased with new leaner operations popping up to fill the void.

Creativity and production are probably at an all-time high as a result of the natural-dye renaissance as described by Emmet Eiland in his informative book ORIENTAL RUGS TODAY. But once again there are clouds on the horizon not unlike those, which threatened the business in the 1950’s with the rise in popularity of broadloom among the post WWII generation of home buyers. A demographic shift in priorities is occurring which is having a profound impact on our product in many parts of America.Maybe retailers in certain markets such as the fast growing Southwest or some wealthy urban enclaves and their suburbs aren’t experiencing the phenomenon but from what I hear among my suppliers and my friends at the retail level, the problem is widespread.

Some rug dealers say that they are feeling the added competition from stores like T J Max and Home Depot who have expanded their rug selections to include some hand mades, and they are probably correct but I think the issue is much broader. Any large purchases that consumers make for their homes from electronics to pool tables soak up dollars that might have been spent on rugs just a few years ago.

Young homeowners are shelling out shocking amounts of money on showcase kitchens with professional level appliances even if they rarely cook. Brands like Sub Zero, Viking, Wolf and Vulcan that were only known to restaurateurs a generation ago are now de rigueur in new homes. Investment-oriented publications advise readers to include these features in anew home to insure its high resale value as if reselling were the main reason to purchase a new house in the first place.

Twenty years ago a central vacuuming system was considered cutting edge. Now you can actually activate a robotic vacuum cleaner from a wireless remote switch in your car or at your office and arrive home to find the task completed in your absence. This is just one of many high tech innovations available to the well-healed homeowner in the cyber age and one more drain on his furnishing budget.

Unfortunately for us home furnishings retailers, these pricey and soon to be outmoded add-ons are, all too often,more important to homeowners than a handmade rug that will personalize a room and not need a repair for fifty or more years. Other expensive options include sophisticated entertainment centers with central control panels for sound, lighting, video and security throughout the house. The purchase of an $8000.00 refrigerator (which works no better that its $1500.00 counterpart) causes no distress to the same buyer who balks at spending $2000.00 on something he’s going to walk on even if it will last 75 –100 years.

 Infact its durability seems to be viewed as a liability. Longevity is just not a desired feature in the minds of many young buyers. The word antique can be the kiss of death in advertising a sales event. Some antique shows are now called home furnishing shows to avoid the stigma of being associated with aging. Terms like heirloom and inherited can carry the same negative connotation as hand-me-down to some customers who prefer easy to choose – easy to dispose of floor coverings from mass-merchandisers who sell mass-produced home furnishings on line and in catalogs.

The situation as I’ve described it seems bleak but I believe there is hope. Our older and more worldly customers are down-sizing or dieing off and they’re not being replaced by young customers in equal numbers but there is, at least a small scale awakening among their offspring regarding the value of hand-made and one-of-a-kind rugs and furniture based on their beauty and authenticity. The lack of interest in these products combined with the heated up economies in the developing parts of the world where they come from portends a future demise of their production but a renewal of demand could at least forestall that awful day when artisans will cease to practice their arts.

As an industry, we’ve never made a collective effort to promote the advantages of handmade rugs over their machine-made alternatives. Many of the vignettes you see pictured in shelter magazines don’t even include handmade rugs and when they do the rugs are not identified or attributed to a source while every other element in the room setting is. A bit of lobbying on behalf of the Oriental rug industry might have an impact here. After all we represent a portion of the advertising dollars that keep these publications afloat. Perhaps it is time for a joint effort on our part to bring some recognition to our magnificent product before it is irrevocably reduced to commodity status or disappears completely.