Setting a new standard

Jennifer Negley, March 5, 2001

The velocity of change taking place in the industry makes an impact at the product level as well as in the halls of corporate headquarters, and perhaps the best example of the phenomenon is to be found in this issue's Color Report.

The idea behind the long-running annual Color Report is to trace color trends by comparing a single branded item's five best-selling colors on a year-to-year basis. This assumes that there is such a thing as a perennially best-selling branded item within a certain product category, and for many years, that assumption held.

But by the time HTT was putting together its best-selling Color Report last year, the changes in the market were already challenging that assumption. In the 2000 report, Mohawk replaced Aladdin/Townhouse as the standard for rugs; chenille replaced chintz as the standard fabric for dec pillows; and the Royal Velvet Brand replaced Satin Elegance for the standard among table linens.

This year's prickly matter turned out to be the designation of a branded sheet standard for the mass market. That spot has been held by Pillowtex's venerable Cannon Classic sheet. The trouble is, when one considers the nature of the sheet business at the mass market today, the idea of a universal standard becomes hard to establish.

Wal-Mart gives shelf prominence to Springmaid and its own Jubilee brand. At Kmart, it's Martha Stewart Everyday everywhere. Target's got the captive Indulgence by Martex. And so on and so forth across the channel.

Worse, that consideration of house brands does nothing to attack the central question of what the best-selling colors in the mass market might be. Kmart's signature MSE sheets track the waspy palette established by the color doyennes at Martha Stewart Omnimedia. ShopKo's palette tends toward earthy, lodgey hues. And Wal-Mart's bread-and-butter Jubilee palette-although it follows broad color trends-is not likely to be mistaken for Target's far more trés moderne tones.

Finally, there is the question of sheer volume. How many units of a particular sheet sub-brand need to ring through the registers each year before it is considered the industry standard for the mass market? Arguably, Wal-Mart would win that contest if the matter were determined by total volume alone. But it would be more difficult to claim that the Jubilee sheet program outstrips Martha Stewart Everyday when it comes to setting the bar for the mass market-not to mention consistently raising it.

The truth is that the players in the mass market have so successfully worked to differentiate themselves from one another that each has created its own standard. That's tough news for anybody seeking a benchmark to measure their product against. But for the retailers themselves, as Ms. Stewart would point out, that's a good thing.

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