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Differentiation is key to living with Goliath

Jan 06,2015
Local furniture brand Standard. a displays its high-end wooden furniture in the showroom near Hongik University.By Park Sang-moon
While Ikea’s arrival in Korea is guaranteed to upset the nation’s furniture industry, a few shrewd furniture makers are carving out their own niche to survive.

Standard. a is a wooden furniture brand run by three designers who attended Hongik University, where they majored in woodworking and furniture design.

The university is known for providing the country’s best training to aspiring designers and artists. The area surrounding the university has become home to many independent design shops.

The furniture store’s designers opened a showroom in the university neighborhood in Mapo District, western Seoul. A customer will find no eye-catching discounts or stacks of flat-packed, assemble-it-yourself furniture.

Kaare Klint merges a cafe with its display room at its branch in the university neighborhood. By Park Sang-moon
Instead, carefully crafted wooden tables and drawers that have finely finished surfaces exude an imposing uniqueness while maintaining a comfortable atmosphere.

That’s the brand’s strategy to compete against Ikea and a flood of mass-produced furniture imported from China.

Ryu Yoon-ha, one of the three founding designers, said that their store is more focused on quality and customized customer service.

“All of us are deeply involved from the very first step of material selection to the last stage where customers have the furniture delivered because the whole process takes place in our own factory in Bundang, Gyeonggi.”

The designers begin working on crafting the furniture after an order is made. Delivery can take two to three weeks, or even longer.

“It really takes time to finish one item because there are so many factors that need to be considered: functionality, durability and design,” Ryu continued. “At the beginning, we need to find matching grain and uniformity of color. And then we also pay attention to the type of joints, because they really affect durability.”

What also distinguishes the small, independent furniture store is customized orders. If customers request changes in the details, the designers can do it, providing the opportunity to create their own unique pieces of furniture.

During the process, the furniture makers exchange blueprints with their customers to reduce the gap between what the buyers imagine and the actual finished product.

When the product is finished, the designers arrange the delivery rather than using a third-party logistics provider.

Ryu believes that their engagement with delivery is an important role, though it takes up a lot of time.

“Having a finished piece of furniture delivered and set up in a customer’s home is part of our service for customers who value our high-end furniture,” Ryu said.

“When we deliver the items, we can explain how to keep and preserve wooden furniture. We can also actually see how the product fits into the customer’s house so that we can later give useful decorating advice.”

The focus on quality and customized ordering results in higher prices. Dining tables cost close to 2 million won ($1,800) while sets of drawers and smaller furniture such as dressing tables are priced in the mid-1 million won range.

Despite the prices, the number of orders and visitors has constantly increased. Now, an average of 30 to 40 orders are made per month, though the brand is not engaged in any promotional efforts.

In response to the growing demand, the store has expanded the size of its factory.

Other players in the industry are also seeking new ways to operate showrooms to attract customers. Kaare Klint combines a cafe with a showroom, using the brand’s tables and chairs in the interior.

People can visit and order coffee even though they’re not interested in buying furniture.

The major advantage is an influx of visitors who become interested in the furniture.

“People just come in thinking this is a common cafe,” said Park Jung-uk, who operates Kaare Klint The Cafe near Hongik University.

“But later they figure it out after seeing customers looking around. Many of the coffee customers later purchase furniture.”

Along with the tables and chairs used for the cafe, beds and chests of drawers are in another section of the venue.

Park stressed that the furniture is made of high-quality materials mostly sourced in Korea.

The three designers who founded Kaare Klint are in charge of making the products. Thanks to their fresh approach, the business has been successful so far.

With its headquarters in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, it now has six branches in different cites including Daegu, Suwon and Gimhae, South Gyeongsang.

“We hope that customers will have a pleasant experience while they look around at different home furniture items. We figured combining a cafe and a showroom would be a great idea because people can actually experience the furniture by using it.”

BY PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]


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