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Vendors take retail tightening in stride

Industry execs looking ahead despite slowdown

NEW YORK — Just how tight is the retail environment for home textiles right now? Not as restrictive as one might assume from the current volley of store closings and lower-than-projected year-end financial results.

Yes, there has been a slackening in open-to-buy. But by and large, a random sample of home textiles manufacturers suggests many players in the industry are taking the restrictions in stride.

"Typically, everyone is trying to run as tight a ship as possible, so the fact that retailers are trying to slow things down is not unusual," explained Lorraine Ragland Maberry, vp of sales and merchandising, Trendex Home Designs, New York. "No one has been shy about admitting that last Christmas was slow. Everyone is being more careful so they don't make the same mistake again, and that mentality applies to both manufacturers and retailers."

In fact, several manufacturers noted that retailers are working hard to improve their performance in 2001.

"Business is tough, but okay," said Pete McCabe, executive vp, Biederlack of America, Cumberland, MD. "One encouraging sign is that we have six major customers that are further along in putting their programs together than they were at this same time a year ago. They seem to be eager to put it behind them and get on with business."

Several retail chains doing business with Braintree, MA-based AvonHome are pushing order schedules up, not back, said president George Kouri. "Retail chains are actually trying to get us to improve delivery. They want our merchandise earlier than originally planned," he said.

And the impression that the retail business is universally suffering is not accurate, according to Jim Cox, president of sales and marketing at TexStyle, Cincinnati, OH.

"Personally, I don't think retail is 'turned off.' For our company, it's still an item business, and we still have products breaking at stores or in catalogs that are significantly above plan."

Which is not to say that buying hasn't remained tighter in first quarter 2001 compared to the year-ago quarter. Just exactly which channel of trade has been proceeding most cautiously appears to vary by vendor.

"We only deal with the top three discounters and they may be slower in placing more orders, but we aren't experiencing any slowness," said Arthur Greenspan, vp of Town and Country Living, New York. "I think it may be occurring more in bedding because the retail ticket is so much bigger. In decorative pillows, you aren't talking about major investments."

"The biggest squeeze is mass," said Dan Harris, vp of marketing and product development, Revere Mills, New York. "The specialty stores are rocking and rolling."

"I would say specialty stores are probably hurting more — because they have a specific customer," said Bob Altbaier, senior vp, Down Lite International, Cincinnati, OH. "I would think they experience a slight decrease in ability to sell product because of the limited customer base."

Many vendors still see pockets of opportunity for themselves and for the industry. In some cases, those opportunities are tied to specific product categories. More often, however, their approach to the matter is more philosophical.

"The home textile industry in itself tends to be 'recession-proof,'" said Deborah Powell,

director of marketing for Design Network, an affiliate of the Cecil Saydah Company, Los Angeles, CA. "As people begin to conserve money, they spend more time in their home and in turn purchase items for their home and home dŽcor. Generally these items can provide a new look or feel to the home with little investment. There will, however, be increased pressure for value for every dollar spent."

The magic formula for growing the business in an unsettled retail market is easy to sum up, said Reinaldo Chaves, director of New Brunswick, NJ-based Bianca. "It's new products. New ideas. New innovation. Period. Exclamation point."

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