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Solid color introductions reflect market's caution

NEW YORK -As a barometer of the market's self-confidence, the bread-and-butter solid color sheeting business toggles at fluctuations in optimism with great sensitivity.

Despite slowing retail sales and concerns about fattening inventories prior to the last market, key players in the sheeting business raised the bar on their luxury offerings, expanded brand tiering and larded on embellishments to enrich the price/value equation on basic goods.

The industry is proceeding with a good deal more caution this time out. At most of the major firms, assortments are being more scrupulously edited and the number of introductions culled back. Expansion is yesterday's story; "focus" is the defining theme of spring market-whether in design direction, the parameter of price points or the number of skus being readied for introduction.

The situation is no different where solid color launches are concerned. Last market's aggressive thrust into luxury-oriented constructions has been succeeded by more prudent uses of existing lines. Solid color introductions for the market are becoming more flexible-limber enough to coordinate back to several top-of-bed constructions or to rotate into a sister sheeting program to extend its life at retail.

The biggest movement is at Springs, which once again is pushing the quality envelope with its Wamsutta brand. This market it will launch a 400-count sateen sheet featuring a piping of cotton and rayon with a matte shine. The open-stock program will be produced in queen and king sizes only and will be available in six colors: white, ivory, pearl, dove, feather and shadow. Springs is importing the gray fabric, and then dyeing and finishing the goods domestically. The price point is $59.99 for queen; $69.99 for king.

"We felt this was the next logical step," said vp, creative development Nancy Webster. "We feel we have a real luxury story to tell."

The 400-count program one-ups the fall market introduction of a 320 supima solid program. There are no new color additions this market to the nine shades in that palette. Instead, Springs is launching a complementary program of 320 supima striped sheeting in more saturated colors that coordinate back to the original collection: white, ivory, suede, Nile, honey and amethyst. Price points match those of the supima solid program, with twins at $19.99; fulls at $39.99; queens at $49.99; and kings at $59.99.

In a similar manner, the Fort Mill, SC, mill has added richer monotone colors to its 250 Sateen program that key off existing colors in the palette. Taking a cue from the strong performance of the collection's crimson and ebony hues, the mill is adding sterling, willow, midnight and peacock to the program.

The 250 Sensuous brushed cotton program has also added strong color, with espresso and eclipse joining the program, which starts at $12.99 for a twin sheet.

In 250 Egyptian cotton, it is not only the tones that are becoming richer; price points are increasing as well. While pricing on the twin sheet will hold steady at $9.99, it has bumped up to $21.99 on fulls; $32.99 on queen and $42.99 on king. New colors include brandy, maize, mocha and black.

In its 250 blends Soft & Easy program, Springs is adding mid-bright tones to the palette. The addition of lavender, kiwi, sorbet, dandelion, cobalt and velvet brings the number of color offerings in the program to 20-a selection matched only by Springs' 250 Egyptian cotton program, which also is offered in 20 colors. Prices start at $5.99 for a twin set.

But Springs is proving to be the exception this market, rather than the rule. Elsewhere, the approach to solid color expansions is more deliberate.

Case in point: number-one U.S. manufacturer WestPoint Stevens will add no new sheeting constructions to its stable this market. That stands in contrast to fall, when it debuted 5 Star Hotel bedding with a 340-count hemstitched sheet, expanded the 310-count Grand Patrician program into a dobby stripe, expanded the color selection on its open stock Martex 250 blend solid sheeting and brought out coordinating 250-count prints.

WestPoint's new color introductions respond to trend direction, but the mill's focus this market is executing its big licensed programs, Disney Home and Ralph Lauren Home. The Grand Patrician jacquard scroll will add two shades: orchid and spa. The Utica 250 cotton also is adding a pair of shades: smoke and straw. The Pipeline solid 180 blend sheeting will add fuchsia, sunshine, blue lagoon & lilac, shell and balsam.

And that's expansive compared to Dan River, which is not debuting any new colors in its Alexander Julian color sheeting this market. Instead, the company is concentrating on top-of-the-bed introductions that work with existing sheeting and adding two new designs to the designer's 120-count yarn-dye top of the bed.

New colors will be added next market, according to John Hall, senior vp, sales. "We're emphasizing some of the brighter shades," he said. "But rather than cycling through, we're going to ride on the existing palette because we think it's valid."

At the restructuring Pillowtex, the direction for Royal Velvet sheeting revolved around prints associated with the brand's new Decor bed-in-the-bag program. In its higher-end Charisma line, it will add an embroidered hem on a solid body, a variation on last market's introduction of fine detailing on solid sheets. Charisma will add one new color-champagne-and the 360-count Charisma Select will add three: skylight, dove and shell.

"It's pretty quiet on the sheet side of the line this market," said David Williams, director of department and specialty store design.

Crown Crafts, like Pillowtex, has scaled back the size of its operation. It continues to pursue an upstairs strategy after exiting the mass-oriented Studio line business last year.

The business has been growing in the 310-count Candlelight program, according to Glen Giordano, director of corporate sales and merchandising.

"We have a very focused, narrow niche that we're executing," Giordano said.

This market the company is expanding Candlelight Constantine-previously available only in ecru-by adding citrine and lacquer, a deep red. The Candlelights floral jacquard will move from four to six colors, adding lemon grass, a new neutral green, and smoke.

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