• Andrea Lillo

250-and counting at discounters

NEW YORK -Wal-Mart has just added a second 250-count sheet program to its mix. ShopKo and Kmart unveiled 250-count programs in the past month. Target's 250-count program will soon celebrate its first anniversary.

All of which begs the question: Now that high-count sheets are available at discount prices, and customers everywhere are being trained to respond to thread counts, what is the potential impact on non-discounters?

At JCPenney, "our 250 count, all combed Egyptian cotton continues to be a tremendous sheet for us-and it's still growing," said Steve Jebbia, dmm for bed and bath at the Plano, TX-based department store/catalog retailer.

While Penney plans to become more aggressive in pricing, where $7.99 twin has been a periodic low twin price, "we see an ability to differentiate ourselves with prints and other avenues in treatments that will be coming up. But solids are still the guts of the business, and we offer 12 colors in catalog, fewer at retail."

Another competitive advantage, Jebbia explained, "is that we have a balanced assortments and are in stock. We will become more aggressive in marketing to expand traffic."

The paradox is that while discounter 250-count programs potentially force pricing down in other channels, they allow mass market retailers to expand their own price points. Wal-Mart's new Metro Living line, manufactured by Keeco, South San Francisco, CA, offers 100 percent cotton embroidered sheets at $49.96 for a queen set. The program includes comforters, quilts and dec pillows and targets a younger, suburban customer interested in more contemporary looks. It joins a Springmaid 250-count cotton/polyester sheet program (a queen sheet retails for $14.94), which also includes luxury Bed in a Bags (queen set, $79.96) that debuted at Wal-Mart starting at the first of the year.

ShopKo, Green Bay, WI, introduced its first 250 count program-under its Willow Bay label-a little over a month ago, and it's doing very well so far, said Doug Wurl, vp, dmm. "We differentiate with a branding strategy." The program, which offers both a 250-count blend and an all Egyptian cotton sheet and a deeper-fitting bottom sheet, "features comfort and convenience vs. construction."

Kmart's Martha Stewart Everyday program recently expanded with 250 count 100 percent pima cotton sheets (queen sheet, $32.99). And Target can take credit for kicking off 250-count era at discount with its rollout in May 2000 of Royal Legacy by Martex, 250-count cotton/ polyester sheet program (queen sheet, $22.99).

But outside the discount channel, retailers emphasize that a high-quality sheet is much more than the number of threads it holds per inch, and only complements other essential features.

"We try to avoid playing the thread count game," said Farley Nachemin, brand president, Domestications, Weehawken, NJ. "We try to appeal to the customer with style and fashion rather than just count. It's included in the catalog copy because it's information the customer wants to know, but it's not a critical selling point."

Domestications has several proprietary programs of various texture stories to offer the consumer, he said, including an exclusive Egyptian cotton solid program, an exclusive jersey program, Soft-Essence, a 200-count brushed cotton program ($44.99 sale price for a queen set), and Cashmina, a cotton/polyester brushed textured program ($24.99 queen sheet).

The fact that the discounters are now in the 250 count arena "doesn't mean we're going to abandon that business," Joe Laneve, senior vp, Bloomingdale's, New York, emphasized. "These are just one component of our assortment, most of which is in better and luxury goods."

Just as they would in any product's competitive situation, Laneve added, citing Calvin Klein underwear that is sold through several retail channels, "we just have to keep looking for more better goods, more fashion and encourage our resources to keep moving up. We're not running for the hills."

Thread count alone is not as important as the finishing, the hand, the prints and the colors, said Harvey Kanter, managing director of Eddie Bauer Home, the Redmond, WA-based retailer. "Our Signature Eddie Bauer solid-color sateen is a 250-count but we go up to 340-count," he explained. "The core of our business is in 90/10s at 200-count, but then we layer on 220s and 250s."

Additional differentiators, Kanter said, "are tear strength and wearability that is better than the rest of the market."

Tom Fraser, Gottschalks, Fresno, CA, agreed. "There are different ways to call out quality; you have to draw attention to it and stay competitive with prices." A higher count, perhaps, he said, or having all cotton sheets, instead of a blend, and maybe with a sateen finish. Branded product also makes them stand out, which at Gottschalks includes Royal Velvet and Wamsutta.

Specialty retailers, on the other hand, develop their own niche. "If everyone is chasing around thread counts, you have to look for something different," said Alan Laytner, co-owner, Laytner's Linens, New York, which has a broad assortment including embellished sheets, and licensed product such as Wamsutta, Laura Ashley and Nick & Nora, at "pretty sharp prices."

Though Laytner's is not affected by the discount prices, it has upgraded its basic sheeting, which has hemstitching, to 330-count. Laytner's wholesale import company, called Melange Home, is also in the store with 250-count 100 percent cotton jacquard wovens (queen set $89.95). Customers are also able to touch several of the sheets offered in the store so they can feel the difference themselves.

In what has become more conventional bedding-in part thanks to the arrival of better quality programs at discount-Laytner's offers Wamsutta Egyptian cotton queen flats at $29.99-not that far off the mark from Target's $22.99 queen flat in the Royal Legacy by Martex program.

For Steve Klug, vp, gmm, home store for Value City, an off-priced retailer based in Columbus, OH, the upgrading of the discounters means that he will be getting more high-count sheets himself.

"There are now more in production, which will mean more closeouts later on."

Value City offers a mix covering muslin to 300-count sheets, he said, though in the future the scale will slide toward higher counts.

(With contributions from Carole Sloan)

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