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Fashion blows through window coverings

Marvin Lazaro, August 5, 2002

To attract the consumer looking for more than basic colors and constructions, suppliers are introducing a new generation of colorful, embellished and pieced window coverings.

Whether they supply the mass market, the mid-level big-box stores or the high-end retailers, suppliers said that, while basics will always be a part of the marketplace, the trend today is toward more fashion-oriented goods that lend themselves to more embellishments, different fabrics and richer colors. And although products may have a more expensive look, suppliers felt that consumers are getting more value now than ever before for their dollars.

"The market is really exciting because there's more fashion than ever before," said Cheryl Johnson, manager of window fashions for Croscill Home. "There's a lot more innovation than there ever has been at any other time."

Jerry Pittman, senior vp of sales and marketing for Arley Corp., said the innovation was necessary: "If we as an industry are not innovative, then the consumer will find other things to put in that space."

Johnson pointed to the popular trends — piecing, trims and embroideries — that are making their way through the apparel world and are rapidly gaining more ground in soft window coverings. Those trends are all now integral and established parts of producing trendy, fashionable and price conscious window coverings.

"We've really gotten away from being just basic fabrics. Now, there's always something, and lots of it, usually going on with each fabric you see," Johnson said about the wide variations in fabrications making their appearances on retailer's displays.

"Consumers are getting tremendous values, nowadays. Now they get decorator customer goods at ready-made prices,' said Carl Goldstein, senior vp with S. Lichtenberg. And the innovation, he added, will continue well beyond this upcoming market.

Said Park B. Smith Sr., chairman of Park B. Smith, "It's no longer just basic, basic. It's better materials and unique fabrications. There's no question that humdrum is dum-dum."

Said Wendy Keryk, president of Richloom Home Fashions' window division, "The biggest area of growth is the diversity of fabrics that's available now. The selection just continues to expand. You'll see a wider and wider range of fabrics appearing on windows.

"Consumers are getting more adventurous and confident and are enjoying the creative aspect of it," she continued. "We have to feed their appetite."

Smith went on to say that he believed there would be some surprises this October market from various suppliers — "not gimmicky" but good-looking, unique fabrications that would be easily affordable. The uniqueness, he added, signified the end of the "me too" era, when the style, fabrication, trim or any combination thereof, of a supplier that was successful at the retail level was rapidly copied by others, saturating the market with a look and essentially killing it before it's time was due.

Soft window coverings, he also felt, had far surpassed its usual "complementary status." In other words, consumers are no longer buying their panels, top treatments and sheers as merely a coordinate with what's on the bed; they're buying them to make a statement.

Retail price points for the most part have remained stable, with $19.99 being the general benchmark. Anything above that point, said Pittman, "you may see the volume of the item go down appreciably."

Smith agreed, but he added that higher prices are viable as long as consumers understand the quality is there to back up what is first and foremost on their minds, the look.

"If it looks like it should be $39.99 and you can sell it for $29.99 then you've got a home run," he said. "Give them the look and the quality, and consumers will assume the price."

When it came to retail channels, suppliers cited the success of the specialty chains and the continued success of JCPenney. Many also said soft window sales at home improvement centers such as Home Depot and Lowe's were natural extensions for their product assortments. They also felt that, as time passed, sales at the home improvement channel would grow in significance.

"There's a solid future within each of those chains," Goldstein said.

But while Katherine Welsh, Springs Industries' vp for soft window merchandising, agreed that soft window sales at the home improvement level were a logical move, she did have reservations.

"I think it is a natural extension for them, but their success, I think, depends on two things. Can they figure out what the right assortment is that they should carry? And they also need to determine how soft window fits into their overall mix."

Despite the inherent differences between hard and soft window coverings, suppliers of hard window face many of the same battles as their compatriots.

The hard window coverings business is worth anywhere from $3.5 billion to $3.9 billion, roughly equivalent to soft window. It is divided into two categories: the ready-made, pre-measured generally bought at any discounter or home improvement center; and custom-built. The business is growing, said Joe Jankowski, vp of corporate development for the Upper Saddle River, NJ-based Hunter Douglas Window Fashions, but it is a battle.

"With the economy the way it is, we are now fighting other industries for consumers' disposable income," Jankowski said. "It's not just an industry-related problem where we're competing against soft window makers. It's a lot of other industries, too."

"[Because] there are so many good products out there and there are so many choices for consumers, the biggest challenge is for manufacturers and fabricators to have new ideas but to avoid the price pressures that are happening in many categories," said John Fitzgerald, executive vp of Comfortex Window Fashions, which is based in Maplewood, NY.

Fitzgerald and Jankowski noted that hard window coverings manufacturers need better exposure at the retail level if they hoped to attract more consumer interest. A good example from a different industry, Jankowski said, would be an electronics retailer that, when it receives the latest in televisions for example, immediately displays it in front of the store complete with home theater system. However, a retail display for a new style of hard window covering often consists of a miniaturized model covering a piece of sheet rock.

"What it comes down to is this: In order for retailers to be successful they must have adequate space to showcase the products in normal-sized units with signage and graphics and they need an educated salesperson representing the category," Jankowski said. "Those are the areas I'd like to see retailers improve in."

Fitzgerald focused more on the education of salespeople, noting that one with a good, working knowledge of the product could sell a consumer an upgraded hardware package, benefiting not just the manufacturer with the exposure but the retailer with a higher sale.

Hard window coverings, like their softer fellows, are not lacking in innovation either. Said Jankowski, "There's innovation continually ongoing in hard window. Not just from a practical standpoint, but also from a fashion point of view."

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