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Home Textiles Grow Online

For any vendor that thinks a trend can be too narrow too sell well, the Internet is a reality check. Too much camouflage bedding in stock? No problem — and no surprise — there’s an Internet site devoted to just that. For $69.40, consumers can sweep up that twin-size green camouflage comforter set at camoflaugebeddingandlinens.com. In fact, a recent search of “camouflage bedding” on search engine Google resulted in 89,400 entries.

The result speaks to both how expansive the Internet can be and how incredibly focused it is as well. This is not lost on home textiles makers and retailers, who are jumping in with both feet to get their share of the soft goods market in what is still a relatively new arena. In addition to the websites that serve as secondary outlets for the big-box stores (bedbathandbeyond.com, etc.), more and more smaller, web-only businesses are finding ways to slice the pie. And it’s a big pie. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that e-commerce sales in 2008 reached $134 billion in total retail sales (excluding travel).

HTT spoke to some of the players about the ups and downs of selling home textiles on the internet and the challenges of a competitive economy.

On the upside is a completely different infrastructure. With the right partnerships, most sites ideally carry no inventory and have manufacturers drop ship product on an as ordered basis. On the downside is the marketing challenge of getting a site’s name and purpose in front of the right people. No one, however, disputes the advantage of carrying a wide spectrum of products.

“There’s no way a store could carry 1,000 different patterns of bedding,” said Tony Jacobs, president, beddingsuperstore.com and its sister site, camoflaugebeddingandlinens.com. “We started out as an offshoot of a stand-alone bedding store 12 years ago and now have more than 1,300 patterns of bedding we offer.”

“One of the key differences of online retailing is the uniqueness of products,” agreed Terry Taliken, manager, classicduvets.com. “The internet offers unique patterns, fabrics and offerings that shoppers can’t find anywhere else.” Classicduvets.com has been in business for six years and now carries vendors such as Nygard Home, Lawrence Home and Mystic Valley Traders.

Unique also describes the products on allergybuyersclub.com and its sister company greenandmore.com. The former was founded in 1998 by Mercia Tapping, who was dealing with her own health issues. Now, the site is listed among the top 500 ecommerce sites by Internet Retailer and is a one-stop-shopping source for items like mattress pads, pillows, covers and toppers designed specifically for those with allergy issues. Greenandmore.com followed four years later with organic household products, including bath towels, sheets, blankets and more.

One obvious question, particular to home textiles, is how to overcome the need for a tactile experience in purchasing a product. Jacobs’ site answered that challenge that by offering a swatch service. But the online shopper is also different from the run-to-the-store shopper.

“Our shoppers tend to be more sophisticated and comfortable with the technology,” said Justin Potts, founder and ceo of Yankee Retail. The company began a site for water fountains when Potts and co-founder and wife Wendy Potts saw a gap in their own search for home décor. Now, in addition to water-fountain.biz, the company runs baby-bedding-co.com, curtainscompany.com and home-decorating-co.com, which includes bedding from Laura Ashley, Nautica and Croscill Home.

Just like a bricks-and-mortar store, relationships with vendors are a crucial part of the equation, as is the art of managing expectations.

“People want to make a million overnight and it’s not going to happen. You have to be patient,” said Jacobs, whose site has grown as result of word of mouth and a growing subscriber email list of customers. “Unlike a store where you walk in, maybe ask a question and then go to the cashier, a website can sometimes require a lot of back and forth e-mails.”

Another new player in the pure-play field is LNT.com. Resurrecting the nameplate of the now-defunct Linens ’n Things retail chain, the new web-only site is a joint venture between Gordon Brothers Group and Hilco Consumer Capital. They acquired the intellectual property for the brand, including email lists that are being used to market the site. What they didn’t acquire is the old business model.

“One of the advantages of e-commerce is our ability to react in real time. Every day the home page changes completely to reflect what is selling and offering new promotions,” said Tim Shilling, director, Gordon Brothers. Carlyle Coutinho, vp, Hillco, noted there was some apprehension among some vendors who suffered under the collapse of the stores. “Most vendors, however, are very supportive of us and our business model,” he said. “And they are looking to regain sales. We’re looking forward to working with new vendors.”

With all its advantages, the Internet has not been immune to the economic fallout of 2008. “We’ve definitely felt the effects of the economy,” noted Taliken, manager, classicduvets.com. “It’s very competitive and you’re seeing a lot of price chopping going on.”

In addition to price cutting, shipping costs are becoming a promotional tool for many e-retailers. Many sites will offer free shipping with minimum purchases and in this economy many shoppers have come to expect it.

Marketing an e-commerce site continues to be a challenge and one of the more important expenditures for a successful retail site. In addition to “organic” listings, i.e., where Yahoo or other search engines places a site in their search results, banner ads on various sites and premium placement throughout the web are typical ways of getting a business’s name out there.

For greenandmore.com and allegery.com and others, a newsletter to customers is also an important tool. According to Gary McEldowny, spokesperson for Allergybuyersclub.com, the next frontier is the social networking world. “Obviously, people don’t want ads on places like Facebook or Twitter, but those are very powerful networking tools and I’m sure there’s going to be a concerted effort in finding a way to tap into the world of social networks.”

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