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Cecile Corral

Chair pads provide boost to bottom-line dollars

NEW YORK -While chairpads still make up a relatively small portion of home textiles sales, this growing niche represents an opportunity for both retailers and manufacturers, alike, to add to their business.

This point was underscored by Arlee ceo and president Bud Frankel. "Chairpads are tremendous," he said. "The chairpad business is tremendous."

At Arlee, a manufacturer of home fashions and accessories based here, chairpads account for 15 percent, or $12 million to $15 million, of the company's entire business.

Chairpads seem to be the red-headed stepsister of its more glamorous siblings; table linens, kitchen textiles and decorative pillows. But as chairpads sit on the sidelines, forgotten and sometimes even discarded by many upscale and mid-tier retailers, a handful of chairpad manufacturers and some retail clients-mainly single-price retailer and extreme value chains and discounters-are reaping the benefits.

And that is due in large part to the growing popularity of the aesthetically pleasing but hard, wooden kitchen chair, said Stacy Toner, director of product development and design, Louisville Bedding. Toner said that after decorative pillows, chairpads are her company's number-two business, staking a 30 percent share of its decorative division.

"[At the mid-tier stores] senior management feels chairpads are more for a lower-end customer-not their customer," Frankel said. "But what they don't realize is that even customers who spend $150 on a single wooden chair also need chairpads."

According to Toner, it's even simpler.

"Basically, it's about functionality," she said. "Now, wooden chairs and the overall country look are what people are using. They like more natural materials like the wooden chairs, which aren't necessarily very comfortable, so they add chairpads."

The two types of chairpads are foam and blown.

Frankel claimed Arlee amasses 85 percent of U.S. market share in foam chairpads. "I only know of one other [major] company that makes some foam but not much-Louisville [Bedding]," Frankel said.

Louisville, based in Louisville, KY, which started making chairpads in the 1980s to expand and coordinate with its table linens line, makes 40 percent foam and 60 percent blown chairpads.

"We do a huge business with Wal-Mart in just foam four-packs," Toner said. One of Louisville Bedding's consistently hot sellers for the past five years is a blown heat-transfer fruit pattern.

"But the solids are always a basic that do very well, also," Toner said.

It took 48 years for Town & Country to begin making coordinating chairpads for its table linens and place mats. But the decision has paid off.

"We started making chairpads 12 years ago as an extension to our table linens and place mats because coordinating products became more important in the industry," chairman David Beyda said. "For us, chairpads is in no way a lost category. Chairpads generate significant dollars for retailers, they are a great coordinate for table linens and place mats, and they are a relatively inexpensive way to update a kitchen. That's what makes chairpads so strong."

Today, the chairpads category makes up 14 percent of Town & Country's sales and is the manufacturers's number-four business, after table, kitchen and bath textiles. Of the company's mix, 90 percent are blown and 10 percent are foam, with most being sold at the discount level. Town & Country makes a significant amount of chairpads in Kmart's Martha Stewart line, and has a strong presence at Wal-Mart. And unlike many chairpad suppliers, Town & Country has opted to sell its chairpads as singles rather than packs of two or four.

"Our business is mostly about coordinates, and we think packs are more promotional," Beyda said.

At Mohawk, Sugar Valley, GA, chairpads make up less than 2 percent, or $10 million to $12 million, of the overall business. Mohawk, originally a rug and carpet manufacturer, began making decorative pillows, throws and chairpads when it acquired American Weavers three years ago.

"It's a pretty good business for us, and I think it will grow more. We have more placement now than we did before, and we're still growing," said Alice Hurst, director of designs for textiles and doormats. "We keep developing more skus and creating more unusual pieces. Being in the novelty business, we add a lot of novelty yarns that add inherent value to pieces."

Half of all the chairpads Mohawk produces are sold as coordinates to tabletop items-runners and place mats. The other half is sold as separate pieces, often in packs of two.

"Florals probably are our number-one style, but we do a lot with novelty-anything selling big at gift typically does big for us," Hurst said.

Mohawk sells its chairpads primarily to Wal-Mart, Kmart and Bed Bath & Beyond but is planning to expand its chairpad offerings to include more high-end product to appeal to upstairs retailers.

"It's a big mass business right now, but with our purchase of Crown Crafts it may be an area we can move into a higher end. Right now, we are developing high-end looks for mass-level distribution," Hurst said.

Relative veterans in the chairpad industry, Louisville Saydah Home Fashions started making chairpads in 1978 soon after it began producing table linens, said Vivian Acerbo, vp of marketing.

"It's becoming very competitive in the promotional end, the less expensive end," said Acerbo, who estimated that chairpads occupy 35 percent of it's total volume.

Louisville Saydah, Eminence, KY, which manufactures the blown variety, sells its chairpads mainly to mass retailers but also does special programs with JCPenney. "We do a nice solid texture with them," she said. "But our strongest reach is with the mass market because of the volume."

Louisville Saydah recently branched out of its popular chairpad business to also produce decorative pillows.

"We actually started out making the chairpads as a coordinate to our table linens, and because we had the right machinery to produce the blown fill for the pillows, we decided to get into the decorative pillow industry as well," Acerbo said. "If you've already got the machinery, it makes sense to expand your offerings."

For decorative pillow manufacturers like Ashford Court and Newport of Layton Home Fashions, it worked out in the reverse.

Like at Ashford Court, Newport doesn't focus very much attention on chairpads, except when a retailer makes a special request. Newport president Corey Faul estimated that the category makes up below 3 percent, or less than $1 million, of his company's sales. "We make a more deluxe chairpad," Faul said.

Newport, Portland, OR, has chairpads which are blown, made with velvet, silk and other more expensive fabrics and typically embellished. Retailers like Bloomingdale's By Mail and other high-end specialty retailers buy Newport's chairpads for an average of $19.99 each.

"If a retailer is interested, we'll make it," Faul said. "But most people aren't interested in a $19.99 chairpad, and we aren't interested in being part of that rat race."

Ashford Court, based here, which opened its doors in April, focuses 80 percent of its business on decorative pillows, 15 percent on bar stool covers and 5 percent on chairpads. President Neil Zuber explained that his company more aggressively produces barstool covers because of its design patent. For the company's first market, which was held in September, only one customer requested chairpads, Zuber said.

"A large percentage of chairpads are sold in matching sets with tablecloths and place mats with the most volume done at the mass level," Zuber said. "We sell our chairpads only at the upper, fashion level."

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