Through what channels can you get home decoration products onto the European market?
Real changes can be seen in the increasing segmentation of the European market for home decoration; especially in the upper-middle and higher markets, as well as in the increasingly diversified market for sustainable products. The distribution structure is fairly stable. Wholesale importers and, increasingly, self-importing retailers are the main channels between the exporters and the market. The popularity of online platforms continues to rise.
The home market is broadly segmented according to the value perception of products by consumers. As such, we identify a lower, middle and higher end of the home market (Figure 1). These segments consist of more detailed sub-segments (mid-low, mid-mid, mid-high, and so on), and differ per category and product group. For example, Christmas decoration is mainly low–end, but vases can range from “mass” to “premium”.
Figure 1: Segmentation of the home decoration market
High-end segment – luxury
This segment is characterised by products that are exclusive in terms of affordability (not for everybody) and availability (limited edition). Quality requirements are high. Often, they are statement pieces, either in terms of size or their extreme design quality. Trend is less important here than brand name, providing the consumer with status. Supreme handmade is often part of the benefits of high-end purchases, giving the consumer a sense of individuality and authenticity.
Consumers in this segment are not price-sensitive, but extremely sensitive to products that offer them differentiation. Exporters offering supreme handmade may be able to enter this segment, as luxury is changing from “bling bling” to “supreme craftsmanship”. Brand buyers are looking for alternative suppliers (other than China) who can offer the extreme mastery of techniques and materials to which they are used.
Today, luxury is also an expression of broad-mindedness (caring about People and Planet), as well as taking care of one’s physical and spiritual well-being.
Mid-high segment – value for money
The mid-high segment is dominated by consumers who look for the best without necessarily being able to afford it. Trends are important in this segment, fed by home magazines. Consumers want functional and decorative pieces that fit into a coherent style. Dominant styles in this segment include a cottage style (nostalgic with natural influences) or a “minimalist” style (cleaner, with straight lines and limited decoration).
Price is important here. Consumers will shop around (also on the internet) for the best buy. Lifestyle is a trend in this segment, with retailers offering ranges combining home decoration, fashion and furniture. Retailers range from small specialists to department stores and interior shops. A good shopping environment is important, with sufficient space to display the items and to suggest what the items could look like in the home.
This segment provides the best opportunity for exporters with a strong identity based on the use of authentic materials and techniques, combined with a touch of origin and sustainability.
Mid-low segment – basic but fashionable
Consumers in this segment consider price an important aspect of their purchase. These items may be an everyday basic, a seasonal product or an inexpensive gift. Both in design/trendiness and durability, consumers expect good value for money. They do not want to put too much effort into shopping around and expect to find their purchase at a retailer around the corner.
The consumer does not spend too much time selecting and buying. The items must have a popular price and offer more for less, either as sets of products or as price discounts. Products reflect the latest trends, so consumers know that they are buying the right product which everybody will love. Department stores, variety stores and garden centres are typical retail outlets. Promotion is based on trend/seasonality and good price.
Low-end – inexpensive
Products in this segment are everyday basics that are functional but not always durable. The degree of design is low and lacks originality. Consumers are price-sensitive and look for a bargain. They do not make much effort to shop around for these convenience goods. Typical outlets are one-stop shopping venues such as supermarkets and hypermarkets, Do-It-Yourself centres and discount outlets.
Direct, door-to-door promotion is a common form of communication with a focus on price. Trade relationships are focused on maximising supply security and reducing supply costs, offering large volumes at low margins. In this segment, you are in direct competition with volume suppliers from China or Vietnam. Generally, trade relationships are not based on longer-term loyalty but on quick wins. Tendering to an importer’s expressed product needs is part of the procedure.
A clear concept to increase your chance of success
There are a growing number of segments and sub-segments based on clear and focused buying motives, both on the mid-high and on the high-end market. This trend responds to the need of the trade to differentiate from others and to the growing need of consumers to buy products that say something about them and give them a good feeling. The clearer the concept, the more the consumers find their identity reflected in it, resulting in greater loyalty and less price-sensitivity.
Segments here can be based on handmade (supreme craftsmanship), design (innovative or experimental use of material or techniques), functionality (superior ergonomics or professional quality), origin (cultural traditions in a contemporary styling) or values (such as “green” or Fairtrade). Exporters who are clear about their own identity can find segments with matching identities and establish profitable, longer-term relationships.
On the one hand, consumers seek “value-for-money” products and opt for the convenience goods offered by the lower-end markets. On the other hand, they save up for products with “added value” from higher-end segments. This situation may leave the traditional mid-market on the back foot. For you, it may again point to the need to develop clear concepts, either based on “more for less” or “less is more” rather than “everything for everybody”.
- You need to differentiate yourself on more than just price when targeting the mid-high and high-end markets.
- Develop clear concepts, either based on “more for less” or “less is more” rather than “everything for everybody”.
- Dare to choose a limited set of special values and you will find a meaningful connection with a like-minded importer on interesting and potentially premium markets for home decoration in Europe.
- Only focus on the lower end of the market if you are able to compete with large producers from developing countries such as China, India, Vietnam and, to some extent, Indonesia. These producers benefit from economies of scale (they have low prices and margins, but they can make sufficient profit due to large quantities).
- The middle market can be a good option, but you have to make a clear choice on the benefits to be gained. To supply the mid-end, you must be able to supply large-volume, trendy products at competitive prices.
The diversification of the green market
A whole array of segments is on display, based on one or more elements of the People, Planet and Profit principle. Concepts based on recycling, the use of natural materials, bio-mimicry (imitating nature), clean processes, and so on are available for exporters with similar values to offer. Marketing communication on sustainability can range from passive to explicit (labelling or storytelling).
The green market seems to find a structural place on the European market for home decoration. Segmentation not only takes place according to “environmental” or “social” impact but also according to price/value. Green concepts can be found on higher and (mid-)lower markets, as well as in different forms.
Apart from the environmental aspects of green marketing, social sustainability is also making headway. In home decoration, this segment used to be dominated by the Fairtrade movement with its own associated chain of Fairtrade exporters, importers and retailers. The movement itself has mainstreamed, offering food and non-food products to other segments than the traditional world shop, such as supermarkets and “shop-in-shop” concepts.
The “mainstream” market has responded to the growing identification of consumers with fair buying. It has developed its own versions of fair trade, offering consumers the reassurance that their purchases contribute to the greater well-being of producers in developing countries. With the “fair trade” market becoming more mainstream and the “mainstream” market adopting fair trade principles, the opportunities grow for exporters with similar principles.
As green marketing has moved on from “trust me” to “show me”, any claim to a social or environmental impact needs to be verifiable. This fact can be realised in various gradations, from supplying verifiable information to certification. Transparency is the key for anybody in the chain.
- Find your own slot, based on who you are and what true benefits you can offer to your chain partner and the consumer.
- For more information, see our special study of Sustainability.
Figure 2: Trade structure for home decoration
Buying agents do not import, but they represent European buyers on the local market. Sometimes, agents have a more limited role; for instance, checking the quality of the shipments in your warehouse on behalf of a specific importer or checking the codes of conduct that you agreed with the buyer. Agents can work individually or as part of purchasing companies.
If you do not have any experience in exports, you may consider using a buying agent to open up export markets and to facilitate export logistics and quality management. Based on a commission, agents will link you to buyers that they work for or are able to approach.
Importers/wholesalers sell products to retailers in their own country or region, often taking care of the import procedures. They take ownership of the goods when they buy from an exporter (as opposed to agents), taking the risk of the onward sale of the home decoration products. Developing a long-term relationship can lead to a high level of cooperation on appropriate designs for the market, new trends, use of materials, type of finishing and quality requirements.
Importers/wholesalers are interesting if you want to develop a long-term relationship. They usually have good knowledge of the European market, and they can provide you with valuable information and guidance on European market preferences.
Retailers are the resellers of the imported product to the final consumer. Some retailers, especially the larger chains, are increasingly importing directly from their suppliers in developing countries. Others, mainly the smaller independent stores, order in Europe from wholesalers of brands.
Retailers come in many sizes: large and part of a chain, or small and independent. There is a tendency for consolidation in European retail, with large retail brands becoming more spread out over Europe and becoming more “lifestyle”-centred (offering home decoration and textiles as well as fashion accessories and furniture).
Smaller independent retailers are more specialised and carry collections that are closer to the needs of the local consumer. They buy from wholesalers or agents representing European brands, usually by visiting trade fairs, as well as from local manufacturers.
These specialists still represent the highest proportion of distribution in most European countries. They are the best channel for selling your product to a targeted consumer group. As they need small quantities and need them as soon as the shelf is empty, an exporter usually cannot directly service them effectively.
Figure 3: Retailers on the home decoration market
The project market
This segment mostly covers the market of the interior designers. They decorate corporate markets such as public buildings and the hospitality market (e.g. hotels) as well as people’s private homes, both in Europe and globally.
Interior decorators need displays of material and techniques as an inspiration for the process of designing for this market. They go to specialised wholesalers to find such product and material collections, or they work for these companies on a fixed or project basis.
This segment is likely to grow in the coming years due to:
- An ageing population, resulting in more sheltered accommodation, hospitals, and so on;
- A growing demand for leisure and entertainment, such as hotels, spas and restaurants, as well as yachts.
This segment is only interesting if you are able to provide a high level of design and service, often on a one-off basis. Prices and quantities can be favourable depending on the type of project.
Figure 4: The market for home decoration projects
Find more opportunities by targeting retailers
Wholesale importers are the main channel between exporters in developing countries and European retailers. However, as the market is becoming more and more competitive, large retailers are increasingly importing for themselves instead of through European wholesale importers. The obvious advantages are cutting out the margins of the wholesaler and reducing delivery time to the market. Because of this trend, the self-importing retailers might want to drive a much harder bargain with you.
Furthermore, prominent retailers and brands originally from the fashion industry such as Zara, Esprit, Fendi or Missoni are quickly gaining market share in Europe by offering fashionable home products. In recent years, the idea of products as the primary source of value has moved towards services as sources of added value. Now, the overall customer experience is increasingly seen as an opportunity for adding even greater value.
Smaller, independent European retailers continue to purchase mainly from domestic wholesalers/importers. As in other European market sectors (such as food or clothing), independent retailers in home decoration are struggling to compete with retail chains. They need to differentiate on value-added service, as well as specialised offers and authenticity.
These buyers typically prefer orders for small quantities of each item, small total order volumes and delivery to their doorstep (COD/CIF), with limited likelihood of repeat orders. You need to calculate whether such small orders are cost-effective for you.
Recently, smaller retailers have been engaging with exporters to see whether direct imports are possible. However, this process means delivery to the retailer’s doorstep and in small quantities. With improving technology and logistical services, this option may become viable in future.
The trend of direct sourcing is expected to continue in future and may create more opportunities for you. The pool of buyers may increase if more retailers become importers, possibly resulting in an improvement of your bargaining position. Importing retailers are ordering for their own shops and can therefore place orders much more quickly than importers/wholesalers, who first need to show samples to their retailers before exporters receive their orders.
- Consider targeting retailers directly.
- Relate your offer and terms to the targeted retailer (large/small). Ask your existing buyers how they operate if you are unsure. The better informed you are about this aspect, the better you will be able to set prices.
- Offer suitable service and build a relationship based on mutual benefits.
- When you are participating in international trade fairs, especially within Europe, make sure that you have a policy for small, independent retailers coming to your booth. If you choose to sell to them, you must have appropriate terms of trading (such as low minimum order quantities, delivery to the doorstep of the retailer or pre-stocking).
“Made in Europe” may pose a threat
European retailers and wholesalers are considering buying closer to home from manufacturing sources on the continent. These sources include the few traditional manufacturing bases remaining in Europe (such as Portugal for ceramics) as well as eastern Europe, where some remaining heavy and light industries can be tapped into or have been revived.
In eastern Europe, one can still find some traditional craftsmanship (for instance, in wood or metal), which can be used for interior decoration. Most importantly, labour costs are still lower than in western Europe. Sustainability also plays a role, as locally sourced home goods have a smaller ecological footprint.
This trend poses a threat to your business, as production in Europe shortens lead times, allows for smaller and partial shipments, and enables lower stock levels in retail. Communication may also be easier than with overseas partners. However, the overall costs may not always match imports from developing countries and not every product category is available in Europe.
- Be different; make sure that you offer authentic materials and techniques which are not available in Europe.
- Be indispensable; the more effective your business relationship with European buyers, the less inclined they will be to look for alternative sources in Europe or elsewhere.
E-commerce offers opportunities
The industry is rapidly embracing online platforms for “Business-to-Business”. Retailers can log in to their wholesaler websites for specific price offers and ordering, as well as for promotional material. This way, the websites support retail customers in logistics and marketing communication. A related issue for exporters is that they will increasingly need to pack and label goods for direct distribution to the retailer without unpacking and repacking by the wholesaler first.
Online “Business-to-Consumer” concepts in European home decoration are not generally used to import directly, except for a few large brands. Buyers prefer sourcing close to home (nationally or from western European brands), keeping stock risks low and with the wholesaler. Although there are exceptions, you as an exporter from a developing country would generally have to source a European wholesaler first in order to have your products distributed to online shoppers.
- Consider a “Business-to-Consumer” strategy to sell your goods online nationally, regionally or even globally.
- Remember that e-commerce requires a totally different and tailor-made business model, involving specific arrangements for working capital, investment, logistics, communication, stocking, range development and marketing.
- Offer the service that online wholesalers need in order to ship to their retailer or consumer effectively (without loss of time and money).
- Consider regional marketing and/or help your European partner to develop this market further.
- For more information, see our special study of E-commerce.
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