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  • Jennifer Marks

Innovate We Must

"It's time to think out of the comfort zone."

According to economic prognosticators, the slowing housing market means one of two things: a) now that people are done flipping properties they can turn their dollars to furnishing them; or b) now that people have mortgaged themselves to the hilt and face escalating interest rates, they're tapped out and will be spending less on furnishings.

Either scenario makes a compelling argument for more creativity, greater innovation and fresher fashion. As the industry prepares to head into the spring market, it's a good time to remember that even Wal-Mart, which made itself an international powerhouse by honing in on consumer needs, has awakened to the realization that it also must cater to some “wants.”

Yes, innovators, you are going to get ripped off. So what? Everybody knocks off everybody else all the time – it is a time-honored tradition. Many of the same suppliers who complain about their big-box customers filching ideas also order swatches from fashion fabric houses and race them off to China.

If those big-box customers heading to New York next week prove too timid to embrace the new, then go explore retailers that are more open-minded: furniture stores, apparel stores, mattress stores, luxury catalogers, Internet retailers, hoteliers, healthcare stores, airport chains and –dare we suggest it? – offshore retailers.

Find a promising retail concept that isn't selling home furnishings and convince management to give it try – with your outstanding product.

The retail world is more than the sum of its suburban strip malls and lifestyle centers. And anything, anything can be made innovative.

Consider the polyurethane foam slab. Not very sexy. But Tempur-Pedic has created an $837 million business by marketing the hell out of it. In the process, it exploded the category from a small niche business to a big niche business that has benefited all foam pillow and mattress pad manufacturers.

Now Tempur-Pedic has struck an alliance to create a branded line of surgery pads designed to fit custom and standard operating tables. Talk about your channel extensions!

Forget the old “think out of the box” mantra. It's time to think out of the comfort zone. That goes for retail buyers, who may be too attached to their spreadsheets, and for suppliers, who may be too fixated on the plug-a-chug “fashion” requirements of a handful of customers.

Carpe diem.

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