November 21, 2020

‘Canadian by design’: Norwalk’s furniture store cluster expands with EQ3

‘Canadian by design’: Norwalk’s furniture store cluster expands with EQ3

As home to the lone Connecticut locales for magnet chains IKEA and Jordan’s Furniture, New Haven leads the state for furniture sales, topping the combined receipts of the next five largest centers in Manchester, Norwalk, Stamford, Milford and West Hartford.

But with the arrival of EQ3 in Norwalk and other stores to open in the past year at The SoNo Collection mall, Norwalk may be on the cusp of vaulting past Manchester to the No. 2 spot statewide.

Created in 2001 and based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, EQ3 opened its first East Coast showroom last year in New York City. The SoNo Collection storefront hit construction delays — a ground-level restaurant row remains a work in progress as well — with the opening date pushed back further after mall closures last March to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

EQ3 CEO Mark Letain said The SoNo Collection delay was not a concern, allowing the company to focus its attention on preparing existing stores to reopen. But for Letain, the pandemic’s toll has given extra meaning to the phrase “emotional quotient” that is the basis for the EQ3 name, reflecting the attachment people have for their favorite furnishings.

“One of the toughest things, obviously, was when we had to close down all of our stores (and) lay off everyone,” Letain said. “The timing was so bad for us. We had opened up so many stores, spent so much money. It’s so expensive opening up stores, particularly in the markets of Chicago and New York — all the training, all the marketing, and then not having any revenue. Honestly, I didn’t know whether we would survive.”

EQ3 and other furniture stores could get a major boost in the coming year, with real estate agents and municipal leaders saying a home-buying boom shows no signs of abating. A big spring market could cascade into furniture sales as New York City residents move to Connecticut or purchase weekend getaway homes.

With furniture store sales hitting $2 billion in 2018 — the first time on record as tracked by the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services — retailers saw their revenue dinged 5 percent last year. DRS has yet to published data for 2020, but sales were down 7.2 percent nationally for the first 10 months of the year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, despite some chains reporting faster-than-expected rebounds after stores were forced to close last spring.

“People can’t travel and aren’t eating out as much, so they are spending more money on home renovations (and) home improvements including furniture,” Letain said. “In the United States, it seems that the suburban markets are doing much better than the downtown markets. … New York has come back much slower because a lot of people have left. They are working remotely.”

EQ3 joins a number of furniture and decor showrooms at The SoNo Collection, to include Arhaus; the first U.S. location for H&M Home; mattress outlets Casper and Tempur-Pedic; and Artee Home, which sells fabrics for window treatments and upholstery. Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom also sell furniture in their SoNo Collection department stores, with Lillian August having yet to publish a target date to open at the mall.

Safavieh Home Furnishings also opened a stand-alone showroom this year in Norwalk, with other arrivals over the past several years including Bob’s Discount Furniture and Ashley HomeStore, the industry’s largest chain. Safavieh last month reached a $21 million agreement to purchase the Stamford Town Center mall, with plans to keep it a retail shopping center after years of speculation about redevelopment to other uses.

In its furniture design ethic, EQ3’s pieces echo the minimalist lines of Design Within Reach, the Herman Miller subsidiary that has its headquarters showroom in Stamford’s Harbor Point district.

“We talk about our company (as) ‘Canadian by design.’ It’s a little bit European-inspired in the sense of a little bit more sleek lines, a little bit more minimalist in a lot of our styles,” Letain said. “If I had to think of a retailer we are closest too, I would think … Design Within Reach.”

Letain added there is a ready local analogy to EQ3 in Ethan Allen Interiors based in Danbury, with both companies manufacturing the majority of the furnishings they sell in their showrooms. Entering November, CEO Farooq Kathwari said Ethan Allen manufacturing has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in advance of the holidays.

“People are in a hurry. They’ve been sitting in their homes, they want products and they want it tomorrow,” Kathwari said. “We can do some of that, but we cannot compete with folks who’ve got lots of inventory on hand and they sell it right from their warehouses, so that has (had) an impact. … But now what I hear is that they’re also running out of it and now they are waiting for containers coming from overseas.”

Includes prior reporting by Paul Schott.; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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