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Archives > June 2013 > Assessing Furniture Suppliers

Assessing Furniture Suppliers

Purchasing furniture for college or university learning environments can be a challenging process. With so many products on the market and so much competitive advertising, it’s often hard to assess the merits of various furniture suppliers.

By: Bob Roskos

Focusing on essentials helps to simplify the process. For instance, we all recognize the importance of examining product features and benefits. And while most of us agree that evaluating furniture isn’t all about pricing–since the cheapest furniture usually doesn’t provide the best overall value–we all make a point of carefully comparing prices. Unfortunately other key considerations, like the advantages you get from furniture suppliers with American factories, are often overlooked.

Established suppliers with large U.S. factories can give you exceptional benefits. The more capabilities they offer—including processing raw materials; molding and forming components; assembling finished goods; and stocking a wide range of furniture year-round with fast shipping lead-times–the more likely they’ll be able to provide the functional, long-lasting furniture solutions you’re seeking. That’s especially true if these manufacturer/suppliers have a track record of designing, testing and introducing dynamic new products, and working with educators to develop custom products.

Other suppliers with scaled-down facilities may only be able to assemble components fabricated overseas while stocking a small range of furniture items; additional products may be available from offshore sources, but with extended lead-times. A minority of domestic suppliers don’t make or assemble anything at all; they simply resell products from other–mostly foreign–manufacturers!

In what follows, we’ll see that suppliers with more Product Quality, Compliance and Service advantages will give you a better furniture value for your learning environments. We’ll also see why domestic Origin really does matter.

PRODUCT QUALITY
Manufacturing capabilities provide a good starting point for an analysis of product quality. Beginning in the 1990s, many manufacturers attempted to cut costs by closing their U.S. factories and moving operations offshore. While this strategy may have resulted in short-term savings, there have been negative longer-term effects. Companies that depend on overseas manufacturing supply chains are more liable to experience delayed leadtimes for product delivery, repair or replacement. They also have less direct control over product quality than suppliers who chose to keep their domestic factories open and thus maintain day-to-day contact with their furniture as it’s being made.

Among furniture suppliers with domestic manufacturing capabilities, those that have continued to modernize and upgrade their facilities—and to expand the scope of their operations—naturally give you more advantages.

Furniture manufacturers who can produce their own in-house tubular steel and stamped steel components are better positioned to serve you than those who can’t. That’s because they can efficiently produce these components on an as-needed basis, compared to manufacturers who buy pre-fabricated components from other sources, often with a significant supplier mark-up. Moreover, companies that make their own components can exercise direct quality control throughout the manufacturing process; suppliers who outsource their components have to rely on vendors to maintain quality standards.

Manufacturers with soft plastic injection-molding and hard plastic compression-molding capabilities give you even more advantages. Along with better quality control, these technologies let them give you a wider range of plastic colors for school furniture products with faster lead times than companies who don’t have comparable equipment or expertise. Vendors that also fabricate their own particleboard- and plywood-core work surfaces provide further quality-control and color related benefits.

Since most furniture items for on-campus learning environments are predominantly made of steel, plastic and/or wood-based components, suppliers with in-house manufacturing operations for these materials are the best equipped to consistently offer you superior quality furniture for greater product value.

In addition to product quality, manufacturers with superior distribution capabilities offer you important related product selection benefits. Large warehouse facilities—some manufacturers have over 1,000,000 sq. ft. of inventory storage space—enable them to stock a wider range of furniture and equipment items. For you, that means better lead-times–not just for a handful of items in a single color–but for hundreds or even thousands of models in multiple colors.

Suppliers with a commitment to the design, testing and development of new products can make a huge difference to how effectively your learning environments are furnished, since they can offer—or work with you to develop—custom furniture that enhances the way your school uses technology, promotes collaborative learning, and supports students with special needs. If you decide to order custom-made furniture for your campus, it’s definitely advantageous to work with a domestic manufacturer with whom you can communicate directly and whose facilities you can readily visit. Moreover, U.S. manufacturers with extensive fabricating and molding capabilities have the tools, and the geographical proximity, to more quickly provide high-quality custom products compared to suppliers who aren’t fully equipped domestic manufacturers.

COMPLIANCE & CERTIFICATIONS
If manufacturing capabilities provide product quality, then health and safety regulation compliance helps to verify product quality. But how can you be sure that school furniture suppliers comply with mandatory regulations?

One way is to visit supplier websites, since some regulations–such as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (“CPSIA”), which among other things applies to furniture with lead-containing paint—require certificates of compliance to be available to customers. Although this availability requirement doesn’t oblige a supplier to post certificates online, a supplier who wants customers to know that they’re CPSIA-compliant is more likely to post certificates prominently on their website.

The same holds true for voluntary third-party certifications. A quick search of a supplier’s site should let you know if their classroom furniture has earned any long-standing and well-recognized certifications, such as GREENGUARD® Children & Schools Program certification—now known as GREENGUARD Gold certification—which was established in 2005. Information about products covered by more recent certification programs, including level® certification, should also be easy to find.

SERVICE
American furniture manufacturers with a nationwide, in-house sales force are especially well positioned to serve you. Compared to suppliers who sell furniture from several manufacturers, factory-direct representatives are better trained and more knowledgeable about their company’s products; they also have the connections to quickly get you CAD layouts and product samples that will provide a clearer picture of how particular furniture models will support your college or university. These suppliers should be happy to bring in multiple furniture samples so that your instructors and students can try out a variety of chairs, desks and tables; likewise, they’ll be eager to provide you with as many CAD layouts as you need to pinpoint the product combinations that provide the best fit for the various learning environments on your campus.

When it comes to shipping and installation, U.S. furniture suppliers with factory-direct crews can give you a choice of delivery services: tailgate delivery, which includes moving products to the tailgate of the delivery vehicle for customers to unload and install; inside delivery, which includes moving products inside to the first floor for customers to set up and install; and fullservice delivery, which adds furniture set-up and installation—performed by experienced workers familiar with their company’s products—and removal of packaging materials.

If you’re furnishing a newly constructed or renovated facility, or making a large furniture purchase for whatever reason, some U.S. suppliers have a furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) planning service that’s especially useful. When evaluating planning services, you may want to ask potential suppliers the following five questions:

1. I’d like you to help assess my facility’s specific FF&E needs; what are the tools you’ll use to do this?

2. Can you provide a detailed analysis of competing products that will help to identify the best FF&E combination for my budget?

3. Once we’ve identified an FF&E combination that appears to be a good fit, can you provide an item-by-item summary of my facility’s targeted purchases.

4. To save time and get the best pricing, I’m interested in using a purchasing contract to place my order. Does your service offer any purchasing contracts that private colleges and universities can use?

5. After our order has been placed, what project management services—in terms of delivery, installation and other follow-through—will you provide?

ORIGIN
At this point, it’s worth noting that when it comes to identifying products, including furniture items, as “American made”, “made in America”, or “made in the U.S.A.”, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a standard—namely, that All or Virtually All of specified products must be made in the U.S.A.— which must be met in order for products to be identified as such. For more information, or to download a PDF with examples that illustrate how this standard can be applied, visit http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus03-complying-made-usa-standard.

While reasonable people can differ as to how this FTC standard should be interpreted, most would agree on the benefits of purchasing furniture that’s largely prepared and processed by American workers in long-established U.S. factories. Along with the advantages we’ve already discussed, buying furniture from these factories helps keep more Americans working at good jobs, strengthening our economy at large as well as the communities where the factories are located and where their workers live.

We should also note that employees in American factories are protected by U.S.workplace safety laws; sadly, that’s not the case in foreign countries where unsafe working conditions, and unjust wages, are all too common. Likewise, American factories are required to comply with an array of regulations that help to protect our environment. By contrast, other countries where environmental oversight and legislation aren’t high priorities effectively permit their factories to freely discharge dangerous pollutants into the local air and water.

Origin can also matter when it comes to product warranty issues. Many long-established domestic manufacturers typically offer a 5- or 10-year warranty, but some foreign furniture makers have been known to provide a 25-year— or even a lifetime—warranty. While seemingly impressive, these lengthy warranties can be tied to factories on the other side of the planet, and to parent companies that lack the resources, and perhaps the intention, to fulfill long-distance warranty claims.

Finding the best furniture value involves working with the supplier who can do the most for you. And as we suggested at the outset, the more in-house capabilities your supplier has, the more likely they’ll be to give you the best overall product value for your available funds.

For a clearer picture of individual suppliers’ capabilities, you may want to ask them about the topics we’ve covered in this article. On Product Quality, you can ask what makes their steel component fabrication and their plastic molding processes superior to those of competitors. On Compliance and Certifications, you can ask if products covered by the CPSIA have certificates of conformity, and if these or other products have earned any voluntary third-party certifications. On Service—in addition to the FF&E planning service questions posed above—you can ask suppliers about the scope of their capabilities, including sample availability, CAD layout drawings, and delivery options; you may also want to know if individual suppliers have trained factory-direct representatives who can come to your campus and meet with you. On Origin, along with any warranty questions you may have, you may want to ask how long a supplier’s factory has been in a given community, and how the supplier “gives back” to the community. Moreover, as suggested below, you may want to actually visit supplier factories.

Be sure to take notes and compare the answers you receive from various suppliers. If the answers you’re given end up generating further questions, you may want to ask a colleague to recommend a furniture expert who can provide additional input and assistance.

To take your assessment of supplier capabilities to the next level, why not ask for a factory tour? By visiting the factories of various suppliers, you’ll get a first-hand look at how their products are made, meet the people who make them, and see how these suppliers maintain their facilities.

You may also want to ask suppliers for written testimonials from customers who state in their own words what they liked about the supplier’s products and services. The more written testimonials you can review, the better!

 

 

About The Author
Bob Roskos

is the Corporate Copywriter for Virco Mfg. Corporation, which offers a complete range of furniture solutions for higher learning institutions. Feel free to email Bob at bobroskos@virco.com, or contact Randy Smith, Virco’s Vice President of Marketing & Corporate Stewardship, at randysmith@virco.com.

 

 

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