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Ralph Home: Opportunities Await

While continuing to emphasize its aspirational mantra, the home furnishings business of Polo Ralph Lauren sees major opportunities in accelerated product development, distribution expansion, and merchandise presentation.

Frank Guzzetta, the veteran retail executive who was named to head Ralph Lauren Home in August is looking to adopt different approaches in merchandise development. In an interview with Home Textiles Today, Guzzetta detailed a number of key objectives that he has seen since assuming his new role in August.

In home textiles, as an example, "I see WestPoint Home now in a position to really help us in improving the quality, value and profitability of our home textiles program." One of the major challenges in this regard, he noted, "is that one of the ills in department store home furnishings is the constant changing of product. They're constantly in a liquidation mode which has contributed to the problem. Customers expect to wait for the price reduction."

His goal is for more core businesses. "The Polo towel was a cash cow that lasted for years — merely with a color change." It's critical to get more longevity with a combination of fresh fashion and longevity. The market churns patterns too fast. Profitability becomes a disaster with all the change."

Another potential plus for home textiles is selling sheets in sets. "I never understood why that wasn't done." But he is not proposing sets for top of bed — "there are too many other choices."

Looking at department stores overall — the Lauren Ralph Lauren distribution mainstay — he commented, "This is our challenge. They haven't been growing. To succeed, we have to operate in different channels."

But overall, he said, "We have no mission to expand our distribution. We have a high priority to have our own stores — it is a challenge. Lauren Ralph Lauren is promotional; Polo Ralph Lauren is very high end. Our biggest opportunity lies between the two, but we have not yet talked about it. Ralph (Lauren) would like freestanding home stores and is passionate about it. His challenge to me is to make it happen."

In home textiles, Guzzetta would entertain selling fine specialty stores as the company does in candles and gifts. "This is where people are looking for unique product."

The company is hiring a sales rep for the gift specialty arena "and textiles could be included." He also emphasized that "big-box retailers are not appealing. They're not aspirational."

Guzzetta also sees "great opportunity in growing our trade business, as well as our own stores." The latter is an important part of the distribution in furniture, a product category now undergoing a major change in licensee and approach.

As part of the to the trade segment, Guzzetta commented that "one of our hidden secrets is our fabric collection. It's probably one of the best fabric collections in the world."

The fabric collection is under license to P/Kaufmann's Folia division, which produces Collection for the high end and Classics for the Lauren Ralph Lauren program that is geared to stocking retailers. Fabrics for the furniture line can be sourced outside this program.

Looking at the other home furnishings product areas, Guzzetta noted that "there will be sea change in furniture with a new licensee (as yet unsigned) for the high-end product. "It will be a smaller company that can work more closely and do things that we couldn't do in the past like multiple finishes. They also will react quickly to needs, and we had quality issues. We also are looking for a credible partner for the Lauren Ralph Lauren collection. We're talking with Macy's, and we see the Lauren brand in furniture as a credible part of the furniture business."

Rugs, which are licensed to Karastan "could use a tremendous reenergizing. They got lost when the furniture business started to go away. It will get moving again when we get the other pieces moving."

Tabletop is licensed to Mikas, which now is owned by Lifetime Brands. "No one has been able to crack the merchandises code in this business. It's a sourcing and merchandises issue — we have the design. It's the key to the bridal business — and future business from that point." As part of that development, Guzzetta sees the development of a broader spectrum of giftware.

Lighting is another hidden star for the home business, he said. "It's a big growth opportunity. We've hired a rep firm for the lighting store trade. Until now, the Henredon sales force (the former furniture licensee) repped the lighting.

As a 30-year veteran of the department store community, Guzzetta points to his former environment as one of his new challenges. "There has to be a better job done in retail presentation. We have to sell the dream and wish. We (supplier and retailer) haven't done a good enough job together. We've got to cut through the roadblocks. Getting stores to look better and improve the selling help is a big challenge."

He also sees a big international opportunity. "I hear from retailers around the world — they revere the brand. Home isn't getting its share of the international piece." Guzzetta also sees an enormous opportunity for expansion in the trade area.

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