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Jennifer Marks

A not-so-brand new day

What does it mean when no one steps up to buy the home textiles brands that the industry universally acknowledges have far and away the highest profile among consumers?

As the Pillowtex situation winds toward its conclusion, the fates of Royal Velvet, Canon, Fieldcrest and Charisma hang in suspension.

Once the foundation of an enterprise that churned more than $1 billion a year in revenues, the labels as of last week appeared to be languishing. That in itself raised two questions. Were buyers shrewdly waiting for a liquidation — assuming that the price could only get cheaper?

Maybe so. But considering that retailers have already begun shifting some chunks of the business previously supplied by Pillowtex to other vendors, you have to pose the second question: What will be left to buy once the bulk of the shelf space has already been committed elsewhere?

Talking with suppliers large and small over the past several weeks as the saga has unfolded, it became clear that all sorts of companies have taken a hard look at the prospect of picking off a Pillowtex label or two.

Even companies that haven't poured through the Pillowtex books have gone through the "should-we or shouldn't-we" exercise.

The Pillowtex brands have been considered by companies with wide assortments of product that compete directly with Pillowtex, companies that compete in only a handful of categories and even companies that sell none of Pillowtex's product categories.

A niche supplier said his company had long, involved strategic talks about whether to pursue the brands. The company's chairman was gung-ho.

But the company ultimately had to ask itself what would result from diverting its energies and resources away from building its own brand to re-vivifying the acquired brands.

An importer said his banks were enthusiastic to fund an acquisition (no surprise there), he had overseas manufacturers willing to take the equipment off his hands, and he knew exactly how he would salvage the brands. He felt supremely confident that he could pocket a lot of money in the course of just three years.

But he saw three problems. First, the process wouldn't be very enjoyable. Second, he would be viewed in the South as the man who threw 7,800 mill workers out of their jobs — even if Pillowtex liquidated first and the shutdowns were already a fait accompli. And finally, supposing he didn't manage to salvage the brands? He'd also be known as the man who flushed the most valuable brands in the industry down the toilet.

And maybe it's not just the Pillowtex brands alone that are threatened here. Maybe the question is whether, in a world increasingly populated by Julibee, Charter Club and Beyond brands, one needs any brand at all to do the business.

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