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Sneak peeks in market mix

New York — Spring has sprung — or so it might seem in many corners of the home textiles market.

The winter mini-market — historically a venue for holiday table linens and decorative pillow launches, among others — appears to be getting another bump in spring product previews, according to retailers and their suppliers. It's a market oddity that reappears every few years, particularly when spring market falls early — this year, very early, just seven weeks after this week's showings.

Everyone knows selected goods are always shopped around early, commonly in December. And this year, November showings also seemed to be more common. Yet the current market timings have resulted in a renewed chorus of complaints from some companies feeling the pressure to get their entire lines ready before their time.

Spring merchandise lines are part of the winter focus for Dallas-based Tuesday Morning, according to Kathleen Mason, president and ceo.

"We want to see what is out there, get a sense of the trends and get caught up with them. We're trying to be as positive as possible," she said.

"We pay attention to everything all the time out there — that's the way you've got to be to stay competitive these days," Mason added.

Carolyn Winderbaum, vp of design, Griffin, GA-based Fashion Industries, was among those noting a lighter schedule compared to last year. And New York-based Town and Country Living has only four of its top 15 customers attending its mini-market presentation, prompting Frank Scalice, executive vp, to term the overall market a "non-event."

Added Peter McCabe, executive vp, Biederlack of America: "People [retailers] are watching their pennies and travel budgets have been reduced. The markets are only six weeks apart, so one thing just plays into the hands of the other."

Bud Frankel, ceo and president, New York-based Arlee, said that while he plans to see 35 customers during this market, he's not expecting many to be in an upbeat mood given some of their fourth quarter results. No one wants to get stuck with markdowns, he predicted.

Regardless, it's a tough marketplace — for any number of reasons, as some noted.

"I didn't think the earlier March market date would have much of an affect on mini-market, but it really has. Our appointments are way down," offered Dave Fraser, vp, sales, Charles D. Owen Mfg. "We've got about six or seven on the books, where as we usually have double that. Maybe it's something else, maybe the economy. But we're down."

He added later, "No one is really jubilant. I sense a lot of trepidation about what lies ahead."

Yet in some respects retail merchants appear, at least, to be trying to focus on driving their businesses.

Miami-based Burdines noted it won't be able to visit its private label suppliers or new prospects until the week after mini-market for its holiday wares. But having had a "rather upbeat" fall/Christmas season, the retailer expects to do some "conservatively aggressive" shopping, said Michael Binenstock, vp, gmm.

Jacksonville, FL-based Stein Mart is also shopping the market with an optimistic eye — simply a necessary part of managing the business well, said Pat Stagner, vp, gmm, home.

"We're looking at it intelligently, of course, but customers are still interested in fashion and they're still interested in things that make them excited," she explained. "The [businesses that] do that well will win."

For City of Industry, CA-based Strouds, the principal focus remains holiday products; there's less attention paid to spring previews. The chain's buyers will be looking for table linens in holiday colors, flannel items, coordinate decorative pillows and throws donning holiday themes, along with novelty runners and place mats, said Anne Fahey, director of merchandising.

"We're are going to try to find more unusual things for holiday," she added. "The more unique items we had for holiday last year sold best for us. So we'll try to do the same again for this year."

Others, like Santa Ana, CA-based Anna's Linens, which doesn't normally make an appearance this week, will be looking for deals.

"We think there are going to be terrific opportunities to buy, and we want to get in front of suppliers instead of waiting for them to come here," Alan Gladstone, president, said. "With the difficult retail environment, we think there will be some opportunistic purchases available."

But Barry Leonard, ceo, New York-based Glenoit Corp., cautioned that if buyers are coming to the mini-market strictly for promotional opportunities, "it might not be worth their while." He indicated that if it's fashion and innovation for both holiday and spring that buyers are looking for, there will be plenty to find.

Carson, CA-based Brentwood Originals is using mini-market as a venue to preview a line of heavy-weight chenille throws, according to Loren Sweet, president.

"If you wait two, three or four months to get your new product out in front of customers, you miss out on opportunities," he said. "The concept of launching your new products in New York is over. Nowadays suppliers need to get out their new products as frequently as possible to their customers."

New York's Bardwil Linens, too, has already shopped its new holiday wares around to major customers over the past couple of months, said Nancy Kristoff, president, sales and marketing.

"Mini-market is just a formality now, and it's really too bad, she said."

Also unhappy about the shifting role of mini-market is Kurt Hamburger, president and managing director of New York-based Cobra/Lintex Linens, who expressed concern about the impact spring previewing will have on the role of the March market, as well as in the future.

"The impetus of mini-market was supposed to be for showcasing Christmas product. But if buyers are also starting to see spring merchandise previews, what is the point of the spring market?" he said.

But Bob Dale, president of the bed and bath division, WestPoint Stevens, is hopeful mini-market can still be an important venue for the industry.

"While I don't think [mini-market] is as important as it used to be, I do think it's not as important as it can be. With product innovation, creativity and newness, it can become a lot more relevant to a wider cross-section of the industry than it is right now."

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