Window Suppliers Find Rays of Light in Marketplace

Jill Rowen, December 3, 2010

The ParasolThe Parasol collection from Ellery Homestyles
NEW YORK - A relatively upbeat New York Home Fashions Market last month put a positive spin on the windows category, despite the lingering list of critical issues: rising cost of raw materials, packaging and transportation; pricing pressures from retailers; the impact of volatile Chinese financial policies; a still-stuck economy; and a fickle consumer.
     For most vendors it is a reality check for how they do business and what they can do going forward.
     The category is actually one that has weathered the recession better than most, with many suppliers reporting that sales are fl at or slightly up. The silver lining is that retailers are still looking for "what's new" to lure consumers. In addition, the burgeoning internet is offering new opportunities to vendors. Trends taking shape include a new emphasis on grommet details and more products in the indoor/outdoor arena.
     "In a recession, people stay home and redecorate. The cheapest way to do that is with window coverings," noted Carl Goldstein, senior vp, S. Lichtenberg. "Though business has been flat, we've experienced increases in the last three years."
     "We've had a strong year and market was very positive," said Barry Goodman, vp, Commonwealth. "Retailers were in a buying mood - some because inventories had gotten so low."
     Goodman acknowledged the new business reality of longer lead times, which have gone from 90 days to a new standard of 120 to 130 days. In addition, vendors have had to contend with new minimums at the factory level. "You've been basing your pricing on one set of criteria, but that criterion is now changing - almost daily," he noted.
     "Market was stronger than expected," agreed Jason Carr, Softline Home Fashions. "Retailers were cautious but upbeat."
     According to Carr, Softline Home is building on its existing customer base with more programs and increasing doors. His new reality: "Customers are now inclined to do much more testing than ever before, and it's one of the ways to not end up with dead inventory on their hands," he said.
     "We're doing a much better job of getting a good read from our customers, so we can really work on what's going on further down the road," he added. Carr noted that prices of goods from China have been so volatile that it's been hard to get a good barometer on future pricing, making it essential to lock in orders when you can.
Firefend BatisteFirefend Batiste semi-sheer with toga valance.
     The always sticky issue of pricing is even more troubling today with manufacturing costs unpredictably rising, while consumers are still stinging from a weak economy.
     "We're feeling price resistance from our customers, so it is eating away at our margins," said Carr. "It's hard to take a $19.99 product and go to $24.99; it puts you in a different tier. Often, we find we're working backward from what retailers are looking to pay. Everyone wants the fashionable look at the discounted price."
     Goldstein at S. Lichtenberg looks at the rising prices more philosophically. "The prices are certainly up, but that's because they got too cheap and there had been so much deflation in the previous years," he said. "We try to buy the best goods at the best prices and give the best services. You factor in price with new product lines. Retailers don't want to raise prices."
     "The market is desperate for innovation and petrified of the price increases coming out of China and the devaluation of the dollar," noted Louis Hornick II, ceo, Louis Hornick & Co.
     One of things that Hornick said sets his company apart is the Made in USA label on its Firefend brand. "Every lot is certified and tested. We offer many skus on a quick ship bases and if I want to check quality, I just go next door," said Hornick. According to the company, the fi re-resistant fabric is being expanded into decorative pillows and slip covers.
     For Ellery Homestyles, online outlets are proving to be a bright spot. "Inventories are still rather tight in stores," said Angela Boswell, vp, product development. "But we saw more and more retailers interested in broadening their assortments online."
     According to Boswell, a new glow-in-the-dark collection for kids has been well-received, as has its outdoor collection called Parasol. "It is a continuing trend on the high end and now more retailers are really into the concept," she said. Ellery also makes the performance enhanced Eclipse brand.
Louis Hornick & CoLouis Hornick & Co.’s animal park from its Firefend kids line.
     Hornick also sees retailing changing even more due the influence of the Internet. "Over the next 10 years, the internet, fueled by social media, will change the landscape. There's a compression of relationships between wholesalers, retailers and consumers and the dynamic will be much more fluid," he noted.
     One of the trend stories for window coverings continues to be the indoor/outdoor phenomenon. Goldman noted that it is focusing on its "fi fth room" concept as well as its energy saving performance products using Thermologic technology. Grommets are also making a comeback a number of suppliers adding it as a style point.
     "Innovation is critical, source of supply is critical and quality is critical as is finding the untapped and unfilled niche in the market," said Hornick. In other words, it is business as usual for window suppliers.

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