ambista: Mr. Eberharter, you have been president of FENA, the interest group of European furniture retailers, since autumn 2020. What do you want to achieve?
Roman Eberharter: FENA has been dormant for the past few years. But an active European representation of interests for our industry is more important than ever at the moment. We are facing challenging times and it will take decisions that point the way ahead. That is why I have decided to take up the challenge and run for President. I want to reactivate our interest group - if you like, to set up a FENA 2.0 on its feet.
How is that going to work in concrete terms?
My first goal is clear: there are currently only a few countries represented in our organisation. Unfortunately, many members have put their activities on hold in recent years. I want to reactivate these member countries and motivate them anew. For this, I lack the fairs for face-to-face meetings at the moment, but I have numerous virtual appointments on my calendar. I am sure that we will succeed in getting new members on board as well.
Are there any other goals you have set yourself for the first time?
Another task will be to find topics that directly and indirectly affect the furniture trade. We are already in active exchange with European partners such as the EFIC (European Furniture Industries Confederation). Numerous other discussions and meetings at European level will follow.
How can trade and industry cooperate more closely in the future?
Politicians and end customers do not distinguish between manufacturers and sellers. In fact, certain topics concern both manufacturers and retailers, for example sustainability. There are many ideas on this in Brussels, such as the obligatory take-back of old furniture. In principle, we say yes to ecology and the EU's Green Deal. But the solutions should not degenerate into more bureaucracy or additional costs for the industry; what is needed are practicable solutions.
Isn't there a danger that the EU is mainly oriented towards the big players?
It is precisely the small and medium-sized enterprises that are enormously important for the furniture industry. Big players like Ikea or the XXXLutz Group dominate the market in countries like Austria. But it's mainly about the many SMEs, for example kitchen studios or craft businesses like carpenters who are also furniture retailers. We try to highlight their concerns and thus paint a realistic overall picture of the furniture trade vis-à-vis politicians.
You mentioned sustainability as a focal point. Is there a need for the furniture industry to catch up on topics such as recycling?
I see a lot of potential there: recycling and upcycling of furniture, extending the lifespan and the use of environmentally friendly materials are important topics. Cheap materials in particular generate a lot of waste, whereas solid wood furniture, for example, has a longer lifespan. In addition, certain components can be recycled.
Overall, we want to increase the quality of furniture in Europe. The EU's Green Deal also includes the "right to repair" as a catchword - we think that's worth supporting. This could strengthen local networks between traders and craftsmen. Furniture does not always have to be replaced, there is often the possibility of repair.
With food or electrical appliances, you usually know where they come from - with furniture products, that's often not the case. Is that a problem for the industry?
It is an important issue. At the moment, the idea of a product passport, which should also be available in digital form, is being hotly discussed. For example, the end customer could see at a glance what the product is made of and where it comes from, whether the product can be repaired or how big the carbon footprint is. I don't think this is a bad idea. But it must be clear that the producer must be responsible for this, not the local retailer.
You mentioned mandatory furniture take-back earlier - could that come?
That is still a long way off, but we have to be active in this respect now. It is only one of many ideas that are currently on the agenda in Brussels. There are already models in some European countries for taking back furniture that show how this can work. We as FENA will definitely take a closer look at this. To learn from best practice examples, so to speak.
Is packaging also an issue in sustainability?
There are already some good approaches here, too, because a lot of plastic waste is being produced at the moment. In general, sustainable packaging is another piece of the puzzle in an overall strategy for a more sustainable Europe.
Another current topic is online trade: many furniture retailers still have a hard time with this, don't they?
There is still a lot of room for improvement in digitalisation and e-commerce. Many companies are afraid that the big suppliers will take away their business. But if I don't do anything online, I won't be found. There are very good examples that we must now bring before the curtain.
We have to help small traders overcome the hurdles they face on the internet and give them support. We also know that professional advice, support and service will continue to be important points. Another future topic under the heading of digitalisation is the smart home: here, the furniture retail trade can be the link to the customer.
But don't many companies lack the opportunity to invest now because of the Corona crisis?
That is certainly a problem, but in Austria, for example, there are free webinars by the Chamber of Commerce on this topic. There is simply no getting around online trade and e-commerce, that will continue to accompany us. You have to move with the times, otherwise you move with the times.
Will Amazon soon be the furniture trade's most dangerous competitor?
Amazon should not be underestimated, the company has an enormous head start in online retailing. Moreover, it will also solve the problem of the last mile in the furniture sector. But it is only a marketplace and does not sell furniture directly. It is more or less a department store where I, as a furniture dealer, can offer my mattresses. eBay, for example, also falls into this category. It is precisely because of such large competitors that we small and medium-sized furniture retailers must take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalisation!
Many retailers seek their salvation in sharp discounts. What do you think of the ongoing discount battles in the furniture trade?
It's very difficult to get out of it. Personally, I am not a fan of such discounts. A product has a certain value or not. Instead of constantly baiting the customer, it would be more important to emphasise the added value and the strengths of the respective retail shop. Furthermore, the added value in the respective region is an important argument. It is important to appear self-confident and not to get carried away with discount battles.
Finally, a general question: How is the European furniture trade doing at the moment?
2020 was very challenging for the furniture trade, as for all other sectors, but in most countries we got off lightly. Consumers wanted to do a lot for their own homes in the previous year, there was also less travel. The supply problems or price increases for materials such as chipboard cloud the picture, but we can look optimistically to 2021.
Now it would be important that the lockdowns are over soon and people are allowed to go to the furniture retailers again. But I am sure: together we will get the European furniture trade back on track. I want to make my contribution to that.
Roman Eberharter is Managing Director of Betten Eberharter in Zillertal / Tyrol. Since September 2020, he has been President of FENA - the interest group of around 100,000 furniture retailers has its headquarters in Brussels. In the interview, Roman Eberharter explains his goals for representing the interests of furniture retailers.