Meet the Agent – James Howard

In the first of our new series of interviews with agents across the furnishings industry, we spoke with James Howard as he approaches his first anniversary of being an agent.

Meet James

James Howard, owner of Chapter Fifty Ltd, represents Buoyant Upholstery, Global Home/Corndell, Adjust-A-Bed and Vogue Beds (South East).

How long have you been an agent in the industry?

I became an agent in April 2023.

What drew you into the life of an agent?

I was offered the opportunity by Mike Aramayo to become an agent with Buoyant – he thought I’d be a great agent (thanks for that Mike) and after some conversations with others like Paul Owen and Chris Bland, I decided to ‘go for it’! Most days I’m out on the road, typically I’ll work an area every day and see 6/8 customers depending on location and traffic. Most weeks I’ll cover 600/700 miles easily. I would try and see each customer at least every 6-8 weeks.

What is the best part of your role?

I love meeting people, meeting people and helping them with their showroom plans and furniture model displays. Although still really new to being an agent, I’ve learnt lots about what sells well in what areas and where my brands fit alongside other brands etc. and I’m very lucky to have had the support of some amazing colleagues.

What is the most difficult?

Dealing with service issues. I realise these issues are part and parcel of the role but no one wants to deal with shading problems or broken parts. Although service issues can arise, working with such great manufacturing teams means these issues are not common and thankfully I’ve got some patient, understanding retailers.

Do you have any particular highlights so far?

There are many highlights I’ve enjoyed in the last 10 months…too many to mention. I would however say that being back at the January Furniture Show as an agent was a brilliant experience. Some of you may know that I was Show Manager at JFS23 – returning to JFS24 as an agent was a highlight for me – poacher turned gamekeeper – with my own business, supporting my retailers was fantastic.

What challenges do you think currently face agents in the furnishing industry?

Every retailer I speak to has worries about the current financial situation. With households facing very difficult ‘cost of living’ challenges, I know that this affects peoples spending plans and first to go are luxury items like new sofas, dining tables and bedroom furniture. 2024 will be difficult but I’m seeing small green shoots of optimism. We’ve faced difficulties before as an industry and ‘brighter days are coming’!

What would you like to see change?

Traffic on the M25! No seriously, it would be great for retailers to keep an open mind! I understand completely if my brands aren’t right in certain retail outlets, however, all brands are improving and changing their models regularly and it would be amazing if retailers at least looked at the new models and said ‘no’ rather than saying ‘no’ just because they think they know what these hard-working design teams are creating. At least say no having looked at the range.

What would help agents more?

An agent network portal would be useful – somewhere that agents could share information about market conditions. I’ve had some great support from established agents around me but it’s been tough at times not knowing if I’m doing the right thing, or asking the right questions. Anyone thinking of coming into the agency world will need support and honesty – it’s not all ‘moonlight and roses’ out there!

What would you say to someone considering becoming an agent?

Determination, open mindedness, hard work and most importantly find an agency with a manufacturer you believe in – it’s much easier to promote a product you can get behind. Stick with it – it took me six months to start seeing good results from my efforts and I’m still not there…. but 100% back yourself!

What is the most important attribute to have as an agent and why?

Anyone who has worked in events will tell you that you become brilliant at problem solving. Having worked in that arena for many years it’s given me many useful things but certainly the ability to problem solve is a trait I’ve called on everyday over the last 10 months. Yes, an interest in furniture design, fabric choices and retailer sales plans help but the ability to think on your feet is non-negotiable.

Can you share something that irritates you the most as an agent?

Negativity – I can’t stand it. My glass is always ‘half full’, nay overflowing!

Can you share an insight into your plans for the year ahead?

I’ve set myself quite optimistic targets form the coming year. Having only recently added Global Home and Corndell to my offering, I’d really like to build that agency into areas I’m already working in with Buoyant and vice versa. My Adjust-A-Bed agency is a great little product. More and more I find customers looking at motion beds as a lifestyle spend, it always used to be a distressed purchase…not so these days, the designs are really modern and smart.

I’m focusing on lapsed customers as I’ve already enjoyed success with this section of retailers in recent months. For me the most important element of growth will come through the relationships I’ve built in the last 10 months. One big thing I’ve realised is that I support my retailers with these brands. As soon as an aspiring agent realises this, things start to happen. With the continued belief and trust of my retailers, I’m excited about what the next 12 months will look like for them.

What’s the next big thing you are seeing in the industry?

For me, moving away from ’50 shades of grey’ in showrooms will be amazing. Being bold with your colour choices is demonstrating success – I don’t mean putting a yellow sofa in your window will inspire people to start buying yellow sofas…. but it will certainly get people’s attention!

I believe that big textures and bold fabrics are coming back – more jumbo corduroy, more heavy texture and some really rich colour pallets. 

Final thought?

I’d like to wish the industry well – together we can work through the challenges we face and be better for it in the long term. Spread some positivity… I know I will be!

james@chapter50.co.uk

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