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  • Cecile Corral

Soft Kitchen and Tabletop Scramble for Gains

It was not so long ago that the kitchen textiles and table linens businesses were a field of "ditzy prints," recalled Bryan Siegel, president and third-generation owner of family-run Elrene Home Fashions.

"If you look at the business today vs. five years ago, you can easily see the difference — now there's better product, better design, better quality," he said. Elrene has long been a top-five table linens category player but also joined the top-five ranks of kitchen textiles players about two years ago through new opportunities in the marketplace created by the exit of three major companies (Cecil Saydah, Barth & Dreyfuss, and Charles Craft) from the category in 2004.

"Before the major kitchen players worked with discounters, doing ditzy prints. But today, the top players are doing great stuff and bringing attention to the area," he continued. "There were [consumers] who in past that only bought kitchen towels. But because now they are seeing great looking oven mitts and pot holders, for example, they are spending more on these items, too. They're buying more sets."

That newfound attention to these categories has translated to a satisfying 4.6% gain year-over-year in total sales for the industry in 2006. Compounding a healthy 7% growth to $610 million in total sales for kitchen textiles, with a decent 3% rise to $855 million in total table linens sales, the sister categories rang in $1.465 billion together last year.

HTT typically breaks out the kitchen textiles and table linens businesses separately by total sales, distribution and product mix. But because these categories constantly cross-pollinate, particularly on coordinates in kitchen textiles with placemats and napkins, this year's report consolidates the two into one larger category for a more meaningful presentation. Distribution and merchandise mixes are still presented separately, however, to demonstrate growth and sales per product offering.

Sales continue to be largely driven at the discount department store levels for both kitchen textiles and table linens — 58% and 32%, respectively. In the case of table linens, the figure represents a one-percentage-point decrease in market share. By contrast, home textile specialty chains gained a percentage point to 25% — or $213.7 million — of the total category market share.

Some shifts also took place in the table linens category's merchandise mix. Tablecloths continued on their downward spiral, while placemats remained most relevant, suppliers agreed.

This is due to the persisting trend for casual table looks, noted David North, Ex-Cell Home Fashions.

Siegel agreed, explaining, "The placemat category for us has grown to about 42% of our [table linens] business and tablecloths were 28% last year. Tablecloths have been dropping over the past few years."

He added that this shift doesn't pose a point-of-sale issue because, while tablecloths carry a considerably higher price point in the $15 to $25 vs. placemats, which sell typically for $3 to $5 each, shoppers always buy multiple placemats. "It balances out," he said, "and the turn is much quicker."

Tablecloths have also moved from day-to-day to more seasonally-oriented products, particularly for the fourth-quarter holidays. On that note, seasonal table linens and kitchen textiles are increasingly becoming directly imported by many retailers.

Direct importing has increased about 5% to 10%, suppliers estimated. "But, again, more on the seasonal side of the business," said North, "on par with several other categories we're involved with, like bath."

David Beyda, chairman of Town and Country Living, said retailers buying direct focus those purchases more on seasonal staples.

"There are certain basics that retailers have direct imported for years," he said, "like a solid red tablecloth for Christmas. But we're not seeing them buy more direct that usual. We operate more in the fashion goods and they aren't doing that as much."

To remain relevant in these businesses, suppliers stuck to brands, design and product development. The approach is paying off with more shelf space and better retails at the stores, some suppliers observed.

"When I walk stores and see space allocated to these sets, it is tremendous," Siegel said. "I've seen kitchen at [one major discount department store] go from eight feet to 12 feet."

Frank Petronzio, president and owner of Anchor Home, said new technologies are driving innovation in kitchen textiles, in particular, and it is "finding a place at retail." He pointed out microfiber as an example, as well as silicone and neoprene.

Beyda added that his kitchen towel business has been "very strong," as has the industry from his vantage point, because of the "many great things happening, such as microfiber, heat transfer, silicon … the whole kitchen business [industry-wide] is very strong right now."

From a brand standpoint, he added, "it's got to be the right brands." Town and Country is the licensee for Ralph Lauren, Laura Ashley, and some others.

Major brands also play a role in both Bardwil's kitchen business, via its existing branded table programs. Upon continued success with its Liz Claiborne table linens line for several seasons, Bardwil earlier this year extended the program to include kitchen pieces, "that feature stepped-up fashion looks," said Nancy Kristoff, president of sales and marketing. On that same note, in February the company also added Lenox-branded kitchen textiles and gift-able sets to coordinate with some of its key tablecloth collections.

Bardwil is another longtime top-five table linens supplier that tacked on kitchen textiles to its offerings over the past couple of years. It recently expanded the utility portion of the kitchen towel business with microfiber and terry pique varieties. These items represent new fibers for Bardwil, and are "important to our business," explained Kristoff. "Terry is still driving this category of our business."

Multi-pack sets have also boosted the business for suppliers. Where shoppers once spent $2 or $3 on a kitchen towels, Siegel said, "Today we're selling $10 sets. It's the same number of units but the values are going up. The sets are really flying, and they've lifted the retail."

But somewhat negatively impacting suppliers were increases in costs for fibers — both cotton and synthetic — which, noted Avonhome president George Kouri, "affected gross margin, but not retail price levels."

With so many kitchen textiles and table linens goods made of synthetic, oil-based raw materials, suppliers have had to work around cost increases for these supplies.

Town and Country, Beyda said, is doing "our best not to pass along these cost increases to our customers."

On that same page is Ex-Cell, which would not comment on exact percentage increases, only to say they are "right now absorbing those increases," North said.

But Siegel argued that raw material prices "weren't as bad in 2006 as they were in 2005 — prices stabilized a bit last year."

What is more concerning is the devaluation of the dollar, especially compared to India's rupee. "We're off about 15%, and India is going to start raising its prices this year," he said. "It's an issue suppliers like us will be tackling this year and next. India is getting bigger and bigger and they are building more mills. A lot of towels are coming from there and it is going to see big growth in the kitchen category, where China was a main force."

Distribution Channels ($millions)
2006 kitchen textiles retail sales: $609.9 millionup 7% from $570 million in 2005

% of total 2006 sales
* Other includes home improvement centers, military exchanges and gift/home accent stores.
Discount department stores 58% $353.74
Home textiles specialty chains 15 $91.49
Mid-price chains 15 $91.49
Off-price chains 3 $18.30
Variety/closeout 3 $18.30
Warehouse clubs 2 $12.20
Single unit specialty stores 1 $6.10
Department stores 1 $6.10
Direct-to-consumer 1 $6.10
Other* 1 $6.10


Merchandise Mix ($millions)
kitchen textiles sales, by product type

2005 sales 2006 sales % change
Kitchen towels $285.0 $317.15 11.3%
Potholders/mitts 125.4 $134.18 7.0
Dishcloths 102.6 $109.78 7.0
Chair pads 51.3 $42.69 -16.8
Other 5.7 $6.10 7.0


Distribution Channels ($millions)
2006 table linens retail sales: $854.9 millionup 3% from $830 million in 2005

% of total 2006 sales
* Other includes home improvement centers, military exchanges and gift/home accent stores.
Discount department stores 32% $273.57
Home textiles specialty chains 25% $213.73
Mid-price chains 20% $170.98
Off-price chains 7% $59.84
Department stores 6% $51.29
Direct-to-consumer 4% $34.20
Single unit specialty stores 2% $17.10
Variety/closeout 2% $17.10
Warehouse clubs 1% $8.55
Other* 1% $8.55


Merchandise Mix ($millions)
table linens sales, by product type

2005 sales 2006 sales % change
Placemats $315.4 $359.06 13.8%
Tablecloths 249.0 230.82 -7.3
Napkins 174.3 179.53 3.0
Runners 66.4 59.84 -9.9
Napkin rings 24.9 25.65 3.0


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