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Breaking down the wall

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, March 11, 2002

While putting together the roundup of fabric retailers in last week's issue, we talked about what was selling, business conditions in general, what they see happening in the market and whose fabrics were on the top of the hit parade.

These are the folks who typically have personal relationships with their customers; few are big-time, multi-unit entrepreneurs. And they truly are a disparate group of personalities — all in the same business, but with very different approaches to the world of decorative fabrics.

What was interesting is that in those conversations a five-letter word was heard over and over.

The word? China.

We all know about the buzz concerning bed and bath stuff coming out of China as well as a host of other countries. And we know that price, for the most part, is the critical issue.

The stuff coming out typically can be termed "knockoff," for better or worse.

We also all know about the American furniture companies that are having product made in China. We know about the American companies that are having fabric produced and covers cut and sewn and shipped here to be applied to a frame. And we know about some of the fabric importers that have focused on "how low is low?" in pricing.

And for the latter group, it is a dog-eat-dog situation. The formerly-lowest-price producer now is being price beset by another company perfectly willing to buy its way into the American market. And quality for some of these players is a sometimes thing.

But what we're hearing now is a new version of the China scenario. It's one that mixes the basic price advantage of low-cost production with what American retailers — not consumers — are calling parity product.

As one retailer said in a private aside, "If it were a dollar or a dollar-and-a-half difference, on a quality-to-quality basis, we would have bought American. What we bought was a quality-to-quality basis and 40 percent less."

Some Americans and Europeans are teaming up with the Chinese to produce high-quality, well-designed goods (and often knocked-off American designs) and they're bringing them in at substantial savings.

This can only further devalue the market in all segments of home furnishings.