Shopping: North Carolina : Armchair Traveler : Buying Discount Furniture in the Shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Wise is a travel writer who frequently writes about shopping in destinations around the world

Having both purchased larger houses, my business partner Diane Marshall and I needed new furniture to soften the echo of our near-empty rooms. We had heard that by shopping close to the source--furniture showrooms in North Carolina--we could save enough money to pay for the cost of our trip. Somewhat skeptical, we cashed in frequent-flier miles, made car and hotel reservations and went in search of furniture bargains.

We didn't have to look very far. Though North Carolina is widely known for its beaches, Blue Ridge Mountains and lakes, it also has furniture. Lots of furniture. Within a 200-mile radius of the towns of High Point and Hickory, companies such as Thomasville, Henredon, Lexington, Drexel Heritage and Broyhill handcraft more than 65% of all American furniture. These and other manufacturers operate showroom outlets and sell through local furniture discounters at what we found to be savings of 35% to 50% after shipping costs were paid.

We knew that many are open to the public but what we expected to find were poorly lighted, dusty warehouses with chilly concrete slab floors. Instead we found professionally designed showrooms staffed by sales people who are experienced interior designers. They answered decorating questions and gave us advice on what to look for in fabrics, woods and craftsmanship. They also told us that our September visit was occurring at one of the best times of the year. In March and September, discounters and manufacturers further reduce prices to make room for the new furniture to be shown during the International Furniture Market, a biannual trade show held in April and October.

We got the best savings by doing a little homework. We noted prices, manufacturers and style numbers of furniture we liked at local stores before we left for North Carolina. We also wrote to some manufacturers requesting brochures or sent them pictures we found in home decorating magazines asking for style numbers.

We gave ourselves two days each in High Point and Hickory and one more day to visit showrooms such as Thomasville, Statesville, Clemmons, in rural areas between the two towns--their locations gleaned from correspondence with the High Point and Hickory chambers of commerce.

Our first stop along High Point's Main Street proved our research invaluable. At Worboys, a manufacturer of contemporary upholstered furnishings, every sofa, love seat and chair was priced at least 30% below suggested retail. Scores of mint-condition floor samples were reduced an additional 25% to make room for the new season's models. A love seat with a suggested retail of $982 usually sells in the showroom for $589, or 40% less. With the additional 25% reduction, it was $441.75. Including delivery to Diane's home in Florida, the total price was $492.75, a 50% savings.

The items on our collective shopping list included a Bernhardt sofa with two matching fringed pillows that I saw on sale for $1,621 in San Diego where I live and a Maitland-Smith leather cocktail table that sold for $1,724 in San Diego and $1,950 in New York. For these items we were directed to Furnitureland South, Rose Furniture and the Atrium, the largest discounters in High Point.

Furnitureland South's sleek, three-story glass building showcases 230,000 square feet--equal to five football fields--of furniture from various manufacturers. After signing in and getting a map, we were free to browse, touch, sit in and eyeball the furniture and accessories. With more than 300 furniture lines at Furnitureland South, the maps were essential to finding the individual galleries, designated by manufacturer or style or category.

It was impossible to make price comparisons looking at the sales tags, which had only the manufacturers suggested retail prices. To find out the discounted price or get help, we had to pick up one of the 50 telephones located throughout the building to arrange for a sales consultant to meet us. We were annoyed by the practice until a saleswoman explained that the discounted price would vary depending on our choice of finish and fabric. She took us to the third-floor library, where we pored over thousands of fabric swatches, wood finishes and furniture catalogues.

After four hours of wandering through furniture galleries and comparing prices, we were sated. Our feet ached and our eyes blurred. Each display began to look like the previous. Recognizing that a tired and hungry customer has a short attention span, Furnitureland South built a ground-floor cafe serving food and beverages. We headed downstairs for refreshment. Off our feet, we reviewed our notes. Furnitureland South didn't carry Maitland-Smith furnishings, but it did have our Bernhardt sofa for $1,330, including delivery. That was almost $300 less than in San Diego. We also noted a price of $479, including delivery, on a king-size headboard in Lexington's Weekend Retreat collection--about $350 less than what I had seen at home in San Diego. Refreshed, we moved on to the next discounter.

While Rose Furniture has about half the showroom space of Furnitureland South, it represents almost twice as many lines and is one of the area's oldest furniture companies. With so many manufacturers to choose from, we easily found furnishings and accessories, including patio furniture by Tropitone and Brown Jordan. The second floor had some of the most eclectic gallery displays in town.

We found our Maitland-Smith cocktail table priced at $1,102, almost $850 less than in New York and $662 less than in San Diego. Rose Furniture's price for the Bernhardt sofa was $1,293, a savings of $328 over San Diego and $37 less than at Furnitureland South. However, at $495, the headboard was more expensive than at Furnitureland South.

Besides its discount showroom, the company operates the Rose Furniture Clearance Center in a no-frills warehouse on Main Street. It sells samples, clearance items, end-of-season merchandise and damaged carton goods. Prices were clearly marked, but most were negotiable. A sample Casa Bique chaise lounge, for example, was tagged $715. But with a little bargaining, the salesman reduced it to $649. (At Furnitureland South it sold for $857; the suggested retail price was $1,500.)

On Main Street we found the Atrium: a 250,000-square-foot discount furniture mall. With brick walkways, large windows, open stairways and a highly recommended restaurant, it speaks anything but discount. Yet its 27 galleries represent more than 200 manufacturers lines offering savings of 40% to 50% below retail. Each gallery specializes in different lines and styles, though there is some overlapping. Among them Bedroom Boutiques features custom-made bedroom furniture, bedspreads and window treatments; La Maison handles screens, accessories and lighting fixtures and Leather Forever carriers leather furnishings in more than 90 colors.

But it was at the Hickory Furniture Mart where we found the lowest prices for items on our shopping list. This combined with the convenience of being able to make our purchases with credit cards (in High Point, we were asked to pay with personal checks), made shopping here particularly attractive.

The Hickory Furniture Mart dominates furniture shopping in Hickory. The four-story, 12-acre complex has approximately 60 galleries, factory stores and outlets selling more than 500 lines of home and office furniture, accessories and lighting at a discount. A furniture museum and the Mart Cafe provide a diversion from shopping.

We used a free pocket-size booklet with a directory and map of the complex to find such shops as Gallery of Lights, which sells discounted lamps and light fixtures, including those made by Waterford and Wedgwood. The Boyles Distinctive Furniture Shop had terrific buys on mattresses by Kingsdown, Stearns & Foster and Simmons. A California king-size Simmons Beautyrest Royalty mattress with two box springs retails for $1,049-$1,799, but because it had mismatched colors, it was priced at $198 Other sets with scuff marks or minor blemishes were priced from $298 to $699.

On the third floor, Hickory Park Furniture Galleries had substantial savings on a pair of sample Hickory-Frye love seats (with matching slip covers) that retail for $1,769 each. They were reduced to $699 each, a 60% savings. When ordered separately, the slip covers alone cost $480 apiece. Though not on our shopping list, we couldn't resist the price and bought them both.

A 70,00-square-foot, four-floor section houses the Home Outfitters Factory Outlet. It's 10 outlets in one, with galleries for Maitland-Smith, Drexel Heritage, Baldwin Brass, Fredrick Edward, Symphony and Henredon, among others. Prices are up to 70% below retail on wood and upholstered furniture, hardware and building products, decorative fabrics and window fashions. Annex merchandise consists of market samples, factory close-outs, discontinued items, market promotions, overruns and irregulars.

Downstairs, we found attractively priced window treatments in the Symphony outlet. Their custom window shades, made from fabrics in stock, cost $5 per square foot, compared with $12-$15, the usual cost. A 72- by 60-inch shade that retails for $450 was marked down to $150. We saw that custom shades from specially ordered fabrics run 40% below retail.

We finally found our Maitland-Smith cocktail table on the fourth floor at Wildermere Gallery. The salesmen originally quoted us a price of $1,289, including shipping, but eventually was willing to beat Rose Furniture's price by $1 to make the sale. We made the deal. He also beat Furniture South's price on the headboard by $21, but we decided we didn't really need it.

Beyond Hickory Furniture Mart, scores of other furniture discounters line U.S. 70, as well as U.S. 321 into Lenoir. Among them we found Bonita Furniture Galleries. "If you are looking for Bernhardt furniture," salesman Kevin Watson at Bonita Furniture Galleries said, "you can't buy it for any less in America." Indeed, comparisons at almost a dozen shops in Hickory and High Point showed that Bonita's price, including delivery, for our Bernhardt sofa was $1,195 or 8% cheaper than the next lowest discounter and 26% less than in San Diego. Bonita Furniture also carries Casa Bique, Link-Taylor, Hammary, Hickory-White and Lane, as well as Stiffel, Fitz and Floyd and Baldwin Brass lamps and accessories.

While we spent a considerable amount on furniture--I spent $3,500 for $6,000 worth of furniture; Diane spent almost $900 for $1,648--our combined savings of just over $3,000 far surpassed the cost of the trip. And we had the opportunity to spend a little time in North Carolina, enjoying the spectacular fall foliage of the Blue Ridge Mountains and some Southern hospitality.

GUIDEBOOK: Finding Discount Furniture

When to go: Many showrooms are closed to the public and accommodations sold out during the International Furniture Mart in April and October (this year, Oct. 20-28) so plan trips for other times.

Getting around: It's an easy two-hour drive from High Point to Hickory on U.S. 64 and Interstate 40.

Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express, 2250 Highway 70 SE, Hickory; part of the Hickory Furniture Mart complex; rates start at $50 per night; (800) HOLIDAY, (704) 328-2081.

Holiday Inn Market Square, 236 S. Main St., High Point; across the street from the Atrium; rates start at $50 per night; (800) HOLIDAY; (910) 886-7011.

Radisson, 135 S. Main St., High Point; three blocks away from the Atrium; rates start at $90 per night; (910) 889-8888.

Buying furniture: Most discounters require a 25%-50% deposit per order; the balance is due when the furniture is ready for shipping or upon delivery.

Delivery times vary from eight to 12 weeks and uncrating and set up is included. Delivery charges vary by weight and distance shipped.

Cancellations are accepted only if the manufacturer agrees. A restocking fee of 25%-35% is usually charged on canceled orders.

For more information: Local chambers of commerce have maps and guides to furniture manufacturers and showrooms. Greater Hickory Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1828, Hickory, N.C. 28603-1818, (800) 849-5093, (704) 322-1335.

High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 2273, High Point, N.C. 27261, (910) 884-5255.

North Carolina Travel and Tourism, 430 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh 27611, (800) 847-4862 or (919) 733-4171.

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