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High-end Retailers Cautiously Optimistic

SupremiumSupremium from Warm Things in Northern California.
NEW YORK - Convinced that "Christmas parties are coming back with a bang" this holiday, Phoebe Howard is concentrating her assortment on entertaining and decorative items at her four-unit upscale specialty retail chain, Mrs. Howard.
     While shopping the High Point Market last week in North Carolina, Howard told HTT that she is expanding her offering of table linens, tabletop, candles, hurricane lamps, and other festive wares to help her customers prepare for at-home entertaining - something she is sure her customer is itching to do after two recession-cramped years.
     "People are tired of not celebrating the holidays and not entertaining, so they want to celebrate this year in great style," she explained. Her four stores are located in: Atlanta; Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach, Florida; and Charlotte, N.C.
     "Today's standard is that everything has to be a great value," Howard continued. "Things can be stylish and beautiful - and not necessarily affordable - but have a great perceived value. It needs to be something timeless that she could use for years. And that is what I am expanding on in my stores."
     Howard's attitude is one shared, albeit in some cases more reservedly, among high-end specialty home textiles and décor chains around the country as the all-important fourth quarter approaches.
     Many independent retailers are largely giving attention to the table and entertaining categories this holiday for the same reasons Howard gives.
     But a sense of guarded optimism for sales improvements in November and December looms over many small retail owners.
     Turning the spotlight on its newly enhanced table linens line is Bedside Manor Ltd., which operates four stores within the Chicago area.
     "We're trying to develop our table linens category more for this holiday, and we're doing it around a few of our manufacturer partners, like Sferra Bros. and Yves Delorme for some traditional and classic looks and Ann Gish for a more fun, colorful contemporary take," explained Meg Carroll, owner. Price point is "not a real concern," she added.
     Bedside Manor is featuring "front and center" in each of its stores a 36-inch round table that is decorated with a variety of table linens and accent pieces, "grouping the merchandise together for nice impact."
FraîcheFraîche On the Avenues in Richmond, Va.
     "I think right now the economy is getting better, or maybe we are just getting accustomed to managing it, and people want to gather with their family and friends," Carroll said.
     Bedside Manor also has a new initiative to thank its top customers with personalized gifts. In celebration of the retailer's 25th anniversary this year, Carroll said she is sending a dozen Sferra Modern Monogram cocktail napkins to the top 25 customers of each of her four stores, "thanking them for their support." Each customer's set features his/her initials monogrammed in taupe on a creamy linen-colored ground.
     Special events, such as trunk shows, book signings and in-store free decorating classes are some of the ways Richmond, Va.- based Fraîche On the Avenues has "survived" the economy's impacts since the one-unit specialty home décor shop opened its doors just over two years ago.
     Vickie Blanchard, who co-owns the store with Lou Gambill, told HTT that Fraîche recently organized two trunk shows - one of them a linens event with Matouk in September - "that have really helped business."
     Encouraged, the shop has planned several other special events for the holidays. One is a free flower-arranging demonstration that works in tandem with a live orchid arrangement presentation which incorporates merchandise from the store to teach shoppers how to create a festive atmosphere in their homes for the holidays.
     Ahead of Thanksgiving, Fraîche is hosting a Lynchburg, Va.-based artist to teach shoppers how to create decorative centerpieces with organic items like flowers and feathers as well as candles and other small pieces. This event, too, will also feature some store products to promote sales.
     And finally, a special book signing event is scheduled at the end of this month. Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, the sixth generation of the Thalhimer family, which founded the former Thalhimer department store chain 150 years ago, is presenting her new book, "Finding Thalhimers," at Fraîche.
     Also keen on trunk shows is Covington, La.-based Hestia Luxury in Linens - a one unit store owner and operated by Jenny Mutter. Hestia opened its doors six years ago.
Hestia LuxuryHestia Luxury in Linens in Covington, La.
     In late October the store is holding a table linens trunk show spanning five different lines, including holiday styles. Mutter said she will also offer a door prize for shoppers during the event.
     "We do things like that and have before - sometimes they are successful and sometimes they are not. But it is still worth a try because it's better than just having my shoppers buy from neimanmarcus.com or someone else," Mutter said.
     She is also stocking up, "getting more and more things for Christmas and building my inventory this holiday," she added. New merchandise includes an expanded table linens offering, coverlets in neutral tones "so my customers can just come in and pick one up," white and ivory sheets and sheet sets, "and more and more towels."
     While utility bedding isn't typically a holiday item, three-unit Warm Things, with stores in San Francisco, San Rafael and Oakland, Calif., is banking on value-driven luxury comforters this fourth quarter to ring sales.
     Richard Smith-Allen, owner and founder, stressed that the holiday season is "very important for us. It's when we generate our highest percent of sales in the entire year."
     And those sales are largely dependent on down comforters and pillows and other utility products that fall in price and quality in the mid to luxury levels.
     For this holiday, Warm Things has created and is offering Premium 700, which is filled with a 700 fill-power white duck down versus white goose down. Priced to retail for $389.99 in a full/queen size, it falls between the company's alternative goose-down fill products - Premium at $369.99 and Supremium at $469.99.
     "The duck down is cheaper - this where our value comes in - because the duck down is cheaper than goose down, a lot of our sales will sell with a discount," Smith-Allen said.
     Nashville, Tenn.-based Bella Linea is grand opening this month in a new location after 23 years in a former space.
     Owner Linda Berry told HTT that she had waited more than two decades for a storefront location in the heart of Green Hills.
     "With this new location, sales are already proving it was the right thing for us to do," Berry said. "For holiday, we are expanding all of our product offerings, and also expanding our price points."
     Bella Linea's assortment spans bedding, bath, and utility bedding as well as and gifts and decorative accessories.
     "I think this will be a conservative holiday, but our goal is to appeal to a wider base of consumers with our linens and gifts," Berry added. "And we plan to market ourselves aggressively this holiday."
     "Just hoping for the best" this holiday is Las Vegas-based Elegant Linens, a nine-year-old husband- and-wife store that relocated from Park City, Utah in 2007.
     "We started off well when we first got here, but shortly thereafter, the bottom fell out of the economy," explained Ann Jurgens, co-owner.
     More recently, "our business seems to be up a little," she added.
    Jurgens said in terms of merchandise, this holiday will be "business as usual," with an emphasis on giftable items like blankets, throws, bath robes, towels and other such items.
     "I think business is coming back, but no one, including myself, is ready to invest anymore in inventory until we really see the economy coming back," she said.
     Also approaching the holidays as usual - with restraint - is Joan Miller, the owner of 14- year-old Omaha-based luxury linens store Early to Bed.
Bedside ManorBedside Manor in Chicago.
     "I am very much a high-end luxury linens store, and I always approach the holiday with cautious optimism because I don't do a lot of Christmas," she explained.
     Miller did say she has customers who come in to purchase luxury items as gifts, but not enough lately to ramp up inventory.
     "In the last couple of years I am thinking, ‘Gosh, do I really don't want a lot of inventory right now?' I have to make sure I'm not overloaded so that I don't end up with a lot of payables come January and February," she explained. "That will stress me out, and I don't want that."
     Instead, Miller said she intends to ring in the season by "dressing up the store with some fun things people can purchase as gifts," but she warned, "not too deep and not with many items that are so holiday focused that they can't move later in the year."

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