HICKORY, N.C. — Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of workers lost their jobs and companies fretted about their economic future, something unexpected happened at Hancock & Moore, a purveyor of custom-upholstered leather couches and chairs in this small North Carolina town.
Orders began pouring in.
Families stuck at home had decided to upgrade their sectionals. Singles tired of looking at their sad futons wanted new and nicer living room furniture. And they were willing to pay up — which turned out to be good, because the cost of every part of producing furniture, from fabric to wood to shipping, was beginning to swiftly increase.
More than a year later, the furniture companies that dot Hickory, N.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have been presented with an unforeseen opportunity: The pandemic and its ensuing supply chain disruptions have dealt a setback to the factories in China and Southeast Asia that decimated American manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s with cheaper imports. At the same time, demand for furniture is very strong.
In theory, that means they have a shot at building back some of the business that they lost to globalization. Local furniture companies had shed jobs and reinvented themselves in the wake of offshoring, shifting to custom upholstery and handcrafted wood furniture to survive. Now, firms like Hancock & Moore have a backlog of orders. The company is scrambling to hire workers.
12 percent nationally through October. Furniture and bedding make up a small slice of the basket of goods and services that the inflation measure tracks — right around 1 percent — so that increase has not been enough to drive overall prices to uncomfortable levels on its own. But the rise has come alongside a bump in car, fuel, food and rent costs that have driven inflation to 6.2 percent, the highest level in 31 years.
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The question for policymakers and consumers alike is how long the surge in demand and the limitations in supply will last. A key part of the answer lies in how quickly shipping routes can clear up and whether producers like the craftsmen in Hickory can ramp up output to meet booming demand. But at least domestically, that is proving to be a more challenging task than one might imagine.
container ships cannot clear ports quickly enough, and when imported goods get to dry land, there are not enough trucks around to deliver everything. All of that is compounded by foreign factory shutdowns tied to the virus.
With foreign-made parts failing to reach domestic producers and warehouses, prices for finished goods, parts and raw materials have shot higher. American factories and retailers are raising their own prices. And workers have come into short supply, prompting companies to lift their wages and further fueling inflation as they increase prices to cover those costs.
Chad Ballard, 31, has gone from making $15 per hour building furniture in Hickory at the start of the pandemic to $20 as he moved into a more specialized role.