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Correction to This Article
A July 29 Business article incorrectly said that Rowe Cos. is headquartered in Richmond. The furniture manufacturer and retailer is based in McLean.

Sagging Times at Furniture Showrooms

Bill Diffee Jr., owner of Colony House in Arlington, recently closed a second store in Centreville.
Bill Diffee Jr., owner of Colony House in Arlington, recently closed a second store in Centreville. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bill Diffee Jr. had big dreams for the expansion of the Colony House furniture store that his grandfather founded in 1936.

Three and a half years ago, he built a new store in Centreville to cater to Washington's increasingly wealthy and growing suburbs. The store had twice as much room for Colony House's signature high-end traditional furniture as the original location on Lee Highway, just off Route 66 in Arlington. But business never took off.

Two weeks ago, Diffee let go most of the staff and shut down the store.

"I had envisioned it to be a big success," he said recently, sitting in the office of his remaining store in Arlington. "It didn't work out."

Similar scenarios have been playing out at other independent furniture stores in the Washington area. Stanis Furniture, based in Fairfax, is closing its second location, in Chantilly. Mastercraft Interiors Ltd., one of Colony House's main competitors, is liquidating its four stores after filing for bankruptcy in May. Brown's Wood Stuff closed two of its three Virginia stores. Even Georgetown's home design hot spot Cady's Alley has taken a hit, with upscale retailers Hollis & Knight and the Ambiente Collection going dark.

The sector has been assailed on several fronts: The housing boom has begun to deflate. Asian imports are lowering prices. Consumer tastes are shifting from more expensive, traditional-style furniture to cheaper and chic design. And the market keeps getting more crowded.

"The state of the furniture industry right now is very tough in this marketplace for a lot of reasons," Diffee said. Then he asked, "Are you going to write an article, or are you going to write a book?"

The average time that a home in the District sat on the market in June has nearly doubled since last year, from 25 to 49 days, according to the latest data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the area's multiple listings service. In Northern Virginia, the average has jumped from 15 to 49 days.

Some retailers and industry experts say the cooling housing market is directly related to weak performance in home furnishings. Fewer houses sold means fewer to decorate -- and slumping sales for retailers.

"The softening in the housing market is definitely having an impact on what consumers perceive they need to buy," said Janet Hoffman, a managing partner for consulting firm Accenture.

Anthony Lanier, head of EastBanc Inc. and developer of Cady's Alley, said that when the market is hot, "it's difficult to make a mistake." He said, "If we assume we are going into a slower economic environment, then I think it becomes just more competitive."

But others interpret the effect of the slowdown differently, saying it actually should wind up boosting the home furnishings industry. People should have more to spend if they aren't saving up for a down payment, the theory goes. And since they're not buying a new house, they might as well redecorate the old one.

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