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Heimtex: courage fights caution

The mood at last week's annual Heimtexil international home textiles trade fair here was generally upbeat, though it was tempered with caution — caution about the state of the U.S. and global economies, caution about U.S. consumer spending and caution about a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Nonetheless, the majority of those polled by Home Textiles Today said they were doing good business at the show, whether they were exhibitors or vendors walking the show to turn up new sources.

Most of the action was taking place at either the low end or the high end, according to exhibitor Keith Sorgeloos, president of Home Source International, a sourcing company that will launch its first branded line of bedding and bath later this year under the moniker Home and Harmony. He described the level of caution among his customers as "pretty high," keying off a concern about margin depression.

"Companies are trying to find unique, innovative and differentiated products to protect their margins. At the same time, because the economy is tough, they're also looking for value pricing," Sorgeloos said.

U.S. customers were ordering "very carefully," said Stefen Schütz, president, Dante. The German blanket, throw and decorative pillow company has been exporting to the United States for the past three years, and the country now accounts for 70 percent of Dante's export business, he said.

Despite the caution, however, "U.S. customers have more courage to try new things" than do their European counterparts, he said.

For Lanscot-Arlen, also an exhibitor, the business at the show was better than expected, with the greatest strength coming from U.S. jobbers and retailers.

"It's a fair market for us," said ceo Clement Ramdin. "The people who are here are looking to buy."

There were, however, fewer people in attendance than last year, most exhibitors noted, as companies responded to tighter budgets by scaling back the number of representatives they sent to the show. Ryan Jones, partner, Dormisette, noted that, while "the attitude of the buyers is good, the groups are smaller, especially among the Europeans. But all the major players are here."

Several suppliers also pointed to the changing nature of Heimtextil, particular as it reflects the shifting tides of global manufacturing.

CHF sent its full production team to the show as a one-stop opportunity to meet with a broad number of suppliers in an economical way, said president Frank Foley. But CHF's mission as a Heimtextil attendee has altered with the show, he added.

"Now it's more about source management than design management," he said.

Joan Karron, executive vp, CHF, said the company now walks the European halls "as a touchstone to make sure we're on trend." But it devotes much of its time to business meetings with current and potential suppliers.

Those suppliers, particularly from India, Pakistan and China, have evolved quickly as both resources and competitors, several vendors said.

"What's amazing to see is how many towel manufacturers there are from all over the world," said Classic Linens president Jim Fitzgibbons, who walked the halls to size up the global scene among embellished towel manufacturers. "The level of sophistication among the overseas manufacturers has grown tremendously over the past five years."

At the same time, the growing competence in Asia spawns growing concerns among U.S. suppliers about what the future holds. Although a number of sourcing agents told HTT that Pakistan was particularly fertile ground for product at the moment, with "better-than-Chinese pricing" in some cases, it was clear that China stands as the 800-pound gorilla.

"Everyone's tentative," said exhibitor Deborah Newberger, president of Dana Mills Inc. "The economy and the pressure of the Chinese goods are really making everybody wonder where we're all going to be in five years."

U.S. exporters pointed to Europe as a sound market for their goods. Waverly's Arthur Friedman, vp, noted an upswing in demand again from Europeans for prints.

"Our last three lines have been placed with all our major [European] customers, and the Japanese market is also good for us. The weak link has been Central and South America."

In general, the vast majority of suppliers interviewed who discussed the show with HTT said they still found a real value in attending.

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