Furniture stores in southern New Jersey are busy this month helping customers replace beds, sofas and dinette sets destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.

But the biggest surge in demand is expected to come weeks or even months from now once homeowners have had time to replace flooring, carpeting and insulation ruined by the storm.

“People are coming nonstop taking mattresses like cookies,” said Debbie Gallovich, general manager of Diamond Furniture in Egg Harbor Township.

The store serves Atlantic City and other flooded shore towns. Gallovich said she witnessed the flooding firsthand from her home in Somers Point when the Great Egg Harbor Bay swamped her backyard shed.

Stores such as hers are offering free layaway until customers get insurance checks.

“That way there’s only one delivery charge. We’re trying to work with people to help,” she said.

Some stores are still working to reopen after they, too, fell victim to the powerful storm.

Oskar Huber Furniture in Ship Bottom estimates it lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory from flooding. The store is hoping to reopen the showroom by January, co-president Ron Huber said. In the meantime, it is holding a “flood sale” today to liquidate its undamaged inventory.

“We’ve got the showroom down to studs and concrete floors. Our goal is to reopen by the first of the year,” he said.

In the meantime, the store’s sales associates are laid off and the warehouse workers are helping to clean up the showroom, he said. The store is taking customer orders for mattresses and bedding, he said.

“We’re in the same boat as our friends who lost things. We’re trying to help everyone out the best we can,” he said.

Local furniture stores said the storm comes at a time when they were starting to see a turn-around in sales for the first time in five years.

Furniture stores have taken a big hit in sales since the recession and the 2008 housing-market collapse.

New Jersey had 967 furniture stores in 2007 that employed about 7,384 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But by 2010, the state had lost 16 percent of its furniture stores and 24 percent of their employees.

The same contraction in the furniture business occurred across the country as an industry that employed 271,675 people in 2007 shed 66,305 jobs by 2010 - the same 24 percent loss in furniture-store workers observed in the Garden State.

In the aftermath of the storm, the boost in sales — however unintentional — no doubt is welcome.

“All of our sales reps say you have to beef up your inventory after a storm,” said Cori Sides, co-owner of Osborne’s Furniture and Bedding in Middle Township.

Her store serves customers in flood-damaged islands from Ocean City to Cape May.

“Most customers now are in here just trying to gauge how much it will cost to replace their furniture, so they can submit a claim to the insurance company,” she said. “We’re expecting to see more business three months from now, when they have had a chance to clean everything up. They’re probably doing carpets and floors now. Furniture is the last thing.”

Sides, of Middle Township, said she recommends customers put in special orders now so their furniture is ready when they need it. It can take six to eight weeks to special-order upholstery and fabrics for couches or love seats.

“The sooner, the better. I don’t know if people will be sick of waiting because it’s already taken them so much time to redo their carpets and walls,” she said.

John Alexander, store manager for Ashley Furniture Home Store in Northfield, said sales are starting to pick up as people seek replacements for bedroom furniture.

“Beds, mattresses, box springs — the stuff water destroyed,” he said. “People are financing or doing layaways while they wait for their insurance checks.”

Fall is a big season for furniture as people spruce up their homes for holiday decorating, he said.

“The week of the storm we had to cancel a lot of orders on the barrier islands. Most people were delaying delivery on their orders,” he said. “We’re still holding some orders for people.”

Some stores in the New Jersey chain were closed for weeks because of storm damage, he said. But the Northfield store was luckier, losing only a couple days.

“It’s definitely starting to pick up. Black Friday is usually one of the best days for us,” he said.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217