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Sheet Makers Add Color, Address Eco-concerns

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, November 12, 2007

New York —The static rows of solid-colored sheets in many home furnishings stores and departments belie a more unpredictable, colorful and even schizophrenic atmosphere in the marketplace. While retailers cry that consumers are spending less and demanding more promotional pricing, vendors are blaming buyers for not offering consumers enough variety or innovation in their product mix. Suppliers are, however, reporting bright spots in the better assortments — with even greater potential in more fashionable, high-quality goods.

The challenges for the sheet market are familiar to the entire home textiles industry: the weakening dollar around the world translates into higher production costs; a U.S. housing slump that has retailers worried about consumer spending; and the precarious “green” tightrope that manufacturers are walking as they decide which eco-friendly initiatives make sense, without losing money.

“What matters most is the consumer,” said Bob Hamilton, marketing director, Welspun USA, who believes that buyers have focused more on value and pricing rather than offering a selection of goods that consumers really want.

“Retailers got away from broader color stories and consumers are not getting the breadth of selection they want,” Hamilton noted. For Welspun, he sees an expansion of color across the board, as well as an opportunity for sheets in the true luxury arena, where consumers are willing to spend more.

“Promotions can bring consumers into the store, but innovation and better quality products are what will keep the relationship going,” said Avi Gross, president, Divatex Home Fashions. “We find that consumers are looking for better all-around quality and performance products. They want a sheet that is wrinkle-free and will not pill, for instance, so we have been focusing on our finishing.”

“Overall, the market does not seem to be showing many new designs — as solids and dobby stripes continue to dominate,” agreed Tom Ferrisi, president of marketing and sales for High Country Linens. “We have attempted to exploit this lack of innovation by offering our customers more design options, including continuous-weave engineered damask patterns which are quite distinctive. We are also attempting to take a leadership position in the development of innovative hem embellishments.”

Jeffrey Tauber, president, Royal Heritage Home, noted that embellishments, hemstitching and decorative trim are gaining some ground for his company, but those design elements may come at a price.

“The duty rate on embellished sheets is high, about 20%, compared to 7% for plain sheets. Ironically, that is not the case in towels, and is one area that should be addressed in this market,” he said. According to Tauber, the company is having a strong flannel season, and is also finding success with added value offerings such as fitted sheets with an 18-inch pocket; and bonus pillow cases.

Ferrisi pointed to the value-add for High Country Linens: using longer staple fibers for better laundering performance and, in higher thread count sheet sets, using finer yarns and focusing on improving the hand of the product.

Thomas Chen, general manager of China-based Yantai North Home Textiles, said more creative designs are starting to impact his business as well, right down to the packaging: “The design for sheets are more artistic, and even the packaging is more beautiful and portable.”

Though thread counts still matter — a lot — in sheets, the sport of continually increasing thread counts has subsided. The new sport has vendors scrambling for a piece of the eco-friendly pie, with “green” the color of the moment. With Wal-Mart now actively working the green circuit, suppliers have taken notice.

For sheet-makers that has translated into more focus on organic cotton, more new constructions with materials such as bamboo, and efforts overall to make production more eco-friendly. But how far along is this trend?

“Our parent company [Yunus] is working on some eco-friendly fabrications and showcased a bed using 'green” products for market,” noted David Kaliski, president, Royale Linens. “Although Wal-Mart is pushing the green envelope and beginning to ask for environmentally friendly and sustainable products, [this trend] has not yet reached the promotional level of goods.”

“It's politically correct to talk about it but, at least for now, producing an eco-friendly product actually uses more energy than its worth,” asserted Tauber of Royal Heritage Home. He said focusing on good practices at the manufacturing site, with emphasis on recycling and proper waste disposal, as meaningful steps in the right direction.

“Bamboo sheets have come down in price to where they are getting some placement,” said Ferrisi. “Green products can be sold as long as the premium requested for green is a reasonable step.”

Chen said his company has also seen an increase in organic cotton, bamboo and other natural fibers used in production.

And the green products themselves are improving. “There's been a vast improvement in organic cotton offerings and it will continue to make an impact as will new constructions such as cotton/bamboo,” said Hamilton. The improvements include better drape and a much softer hand than in the fiber's early infancy.

“Until buyers start thinking about products like organic cotton differently, it will continue to be a niche business,” observed Gross. “They think organic cotton is safe and good for the skin; but what they should think is that it is good for the Earth. When it is produced and used in mass and hits the mainstream, when the products look and feel like the products we are used to, and when factories begin to be certified as having safer, more green practices, it will be good for everyone.”

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