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  • Jennifer Marks

An 800-lb. 'Good Thing'

Ok, Wal-Mart . Again. I hate to harp too much on the subject, but that's the thing about 800-lb. gorillas — they've got a lot of weight to throw around, and when they throw it, hoo boy!

Last week's announcement that Wal-Mart U.S. will launch two major home brands in 2008 will have massive repercussions for the chain's current home textiles suppliers, as well as those lucky few who win pieces of the new programs. Same goes for suppliers now patched into Wal-Mart Canada, which plans to carve out space for the U.K. division's George Home line.

Listening to the discussion about the new programs last week during Wal-Mart's analysts and investors summit, it was good to hear Wal-Mart talking like Wal-Mart again. The private label Canopy and exclusive license Better Homes and Gardens collections will be “better” but not “best” because, as the executive vp for home put it, “We need good and better products, not best.”

As for George Home, Wal-Mart International's cfo last week said that in Britain the collection averages $20 million a month in sales. Not bad.

I may be going a bit “Conspiracy Theory” here, but something tells me The Martha Factor helped tip the scales. When Kmart rolled out Martha Stewart Everyday in bed and bath a decade ago, it raised the bar in domestics for everyone — and drove traffic into the home departments even at competitors' stores, a fact Wal-Mart ceo Lee Scott readily acknowledged at the time.

Today's Second Coming of Martha at both Macy's and Kmart surely is having a similar impact. That Wal-Mart is getting up off the mat to compete is, as Martha would say, “a good thing.”

But the shift is going to land a punch in the gut to some suppliers. As everyone who has ever danced with the gorilla knows, that's par for the course. The annals of U.S. manufacturing are littered with the corpses of suppliers who “grew with” Wal-Mart, then collapsed when the company moved on to other resources.

It's a scenario that has already begun to play out offshore, and one today's bidders on Canopy and Better Homes should bear in mind.

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