In less than two decades, the graying of America will be inescapable: Older adults are projected to outnumber kids for the first time in U.S. history.
These adults will also be retirees, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, which says that by 2035 there will be 78 million adults over the age of 65, compared to 76.4 million children under 18.
By 2030, all baby boomers will have turned 65, which makes 1 in 5 Americans older adults. But the gap is expected to widen even further—with estimates showing that by 2060, there will be 95 million older adults compared to 80 million kids under 18.
So what does this mean for the furniture industry?
In the grand scheme of things, it could have an effect on nearly every part of the industry—from sales reps to retail staff, and more.
In the second part of this four-part series, we’ll focus on how challenges to being a sales rep may impact the future of the role.
In today’s world, it isn’t easy to be an independent sales representative. And after talking to several sales reps who have been in the game for years, it may not get any easier.
While reps will likely never go away completely, due to financial challenges, travel issues, family businesses falling to the wayside, and more, it’s going to be harder to bring new and younger folks into the business.
Raymond Isser, a past president of the IHFRA, has been a sales rep for 45 years. He says back when he started, it was a very lucrative business and reps could make a great deal of money.
That was key because reps have a lot of expenses—from travel to hotels, meals and more.
“But over the years, changes in company’s incomes weren’t the same,” Isser says. “You really can’t make a lot of money today unless you’re an internet rep. But a lot of hard goods don’t do well on the internet, which is why online companies are opening up brick-and-mortar stores.”
As they open these stores, their prices go up. But they also need people to do the training. And as retail salespeople keep turning over, there’s always a need to train.
Isser also says that a lot of companies that were family-owned sold out to corporations, which left a lot of problems with the families owning companies.
“They were making their money basically from their real estate,” he says. “They were making 2% profit. After taxes, it was a lot. In the meantime, you had a lot of MBAs that now came in as sales managers. And what’s the first thing they look at? Who’s making money. The simple fact was, they were making a very good living and they thought they could hire a couple of kids out of school, pay them a salary and their expenses. So reps with kids, they saw no future for their kids. My son, he’s a lawyer, why should he come into this business and make a lot less money?”
And when it comes to older reps, Isser says there’s a lot of age discrimination out there as companies don’t want older reps and people are living longer.
“The whole industry is under flux, the whole industry is changing,” Isser explains. “A lot of people are trying to cut reps out, they think they can save three to five percent and that will go to their bottom line. But it costs them in the end— the companies that decided that they were going to do sales in-house ended up firing reps, again, after firing all the reps that built them up.”
He also says he’s seen a lot of good companies get run into the ground. Companies that were wealthy and doing hundreds of million dollars in sales went out of business within four or five years.
“But the good companies, and the family companies, they’re still in the business centuries later,” he says. “And one of the basic reasons is that they have good management and family that grew up in the industry, so they know what to expect and see the value of sales reps.”
For the reps still in the business, John Pinion, president of the IHFRA’s executive committee, says Covid accelerated the future. And in that regard, in-person business, which was the primary method of relating and selling to customers, has been altered.
“Now you’re not just selling, but also you’re truly a manufacturer’s representative, you’re communicating a lot of what the factory can or cannot do, given the current climate,” Pinion says. “That’s something that sales reps didn’t have to do even as recent as two or three years ago.”
As a result, Pinion says technology skills are more important than ever, which is another reason the industry needs younger sales reps.
“Where this has created a problem is for the reps who have no technology skills.” he says “They’re kind of left in the wind. And they’re not able to send these reports to dealers and keep them informed.”
Pinion says the biggest problem is the economic setup for younger reps to come into the industry. He came into the industry in 1998, after his father, who was also a rep, and he was able to call on small mom-and-pop accounts and create an income that way.
“Really, that network of small mom-and-pop dealers is not bad for somebody,” he says. “And it’s really the bigger deals that have gotten bigger and stronger, and the network of smaller dealers is just not there. And I’ll give you a perfect example. My first tutorial was Louisiana and Mississippi. I had 120 accounts in 1999. Out of the 120 accounts in that region, only seven are still in business.”
When I got started, there was a list of all the open accounts that you could have, and if you were somewhat good, you can open them up and make a little bit of a living,” he says. “There’s really not that opportunity for younger reps. And also, the bigger problem, too, is the average expense. Back in 1999, my average expense was $80 a day. Now, given hotel gas and food, my average expense is $225 a day.”
Harrison Rose, vice president of IHFRA’s executive committee, is also considered a younger rep, and he agrees with Isser and Pinion on the matter of fewer reps being brought into the business by their family or friends.
“Most of the reps, including myself, that I know either were brought into the business by family, by friends, or it was word of mouth,” he says. “Nobody was recruited off of a college campus, or by a headhunter. It’s just not the way that the industry operates. My gut feeling is that as the older rep generation retires, I think there will be a real challenge that will have wider-ranging repercussions for the industry that are already at play. There is clearly a want for more youthful and new blood in the role of sales rep.”
To bring younger reps in, Rose says there could be a bigger effort from the industry as a whole to try and make the role a bit more attractive to new talents.
“It really does provide so many wonderful career opportunities,” he says. “And for younger folks who are working in a lot of these roles, there’s more autonomy, more flexibility, the ability to kind of set your own hours, which they like. But I also think to bring new people in there needs to be a bit more mentorship. If there’s a group of reps that will retire in the next 10 years, who is going to succeed them? And is there an opportunity for those reps to be mentors to younger reps?”
With this type of role, Rose says it’s very important to have a good mentor because there is no textbook on how to be a furniture sales rep. And there aren’t many programs that are out there for sales reps, so having somebody who’s done it for decades can really give them invaluable insight.
Pinion adds that another way to bring in younger reps is for manufacturers to be financially reasonable
“For these new reps to come on, reps need to be guaranteed to be able to make a living,” he says. “Also, retailers need to give them the courtesy of time as well as honest feedback.”
Sales reps will always be needed, but if the home furnishings industry can’t learn how to bring new reps in and make the role both lucrative and desirable, the industry is going to quickly lose these younger people to other professions.