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Showtime creates vendor optimism

HIGH POINT, NC -Although faced with a marketplace that is seeing suppliers and customers falling by the wayside, decorative fabrics converters and mills are reasonably sanguine about this year's prospects.

As Showtime Winter 2001 opens today, it will be tougher to achieve significant sales gains than in recent years, but most do not expect drops in revenues for the year.

Those companies focusing on the upper end of the market or with specific niches appear to have the more positive attitudes about business conditions.

The fabric companies at the lower end of the price spectrum-where intense competition from emerging country suppliers is growing in importance-are looking at ways to differentiate themselves, both there and abroad.

And export, an important growth engine for American fabric companies over the last decade, has declined as a growth vehicle-due both to the strong dollar vs. the euro and the almost instantaneous knockoffs of designs around the world.

In fact, where Polaroid once was jokingly referred to as the "head designer" of many fabric houses, new technology in the form of digital cameras has made the Polaroid obsolete and the digital camera an on-the-spot reproduction vehicle at exhibitions around the world.

Showtime registration numbers are up, said Bob Patton, president of the International Textile Market, sponsor of Showtime here, "and there is a positive outlook, even with the softening of the economy."

While calling it "hard to say" in terms of predictions for this year's business outlook, Roger Gilmartin, executive vp, Covington Inds., said, "The only area we are rethinking is the mom-and-pop retailer.

"Whatever changes were going to happen in the jobber market happened, and our jobber business is stronger than ever. And we also see more opportunities emerging with non-furniture manufacturers," Gilmartin noted.

Overall, he added, "we see a slowing down. In non-furniture segments we see a very small but good demand continuing in high-end fabrics."

For Mark Aizawa, president of Chris Stone & Associates. "We feel the year will be fairly quiet until March and then pick up. People will be looking for new ideas, and we are moving in that direction."

While Aizawa is showing at Heimtextil, export is at the bottom of the growth opportunity charts for the firm, with bedding and other home textiles areas heading the list.

"While it's slowed a bit since Thanksgiving, it's still very strong," said John Sullivan, president of American Silk Mills, said, "We expect a very good first quarter. The slowdown is not impacting goods going out the door, but more of the backlog is a little smaller-but typical of the time of year."

American Silk, which caters to the upper-middle and above market segment, recorded sales increases of more than 20 percent last year, Sullivan said. But "we don't anticipate the same incremental increase for this year," he said.

Roger Berkley, president of Weave, sees "a very small increase but good demand in high-end fabrics. Overall, we see a slowdown, and the barometer is the furniture industry, which as of now is moving-not booming."

Jobber business, Berkley reported, "remains strong, with more product and more uniqueness the key."

Citing supply chain management as one of its critical assets, Larry Liebenow, president of Quaker, noted, "We have had a string of extremely good markets and growing competitive strength regarding supply chain management. The softening is more significant at the lower price points and mixed at the middle to upper end," Liebenow related.

"We see a more difficult year but anticipate good growth, hopefully in the double digits," said Richard Hanfling, corporate vp, Associated Textile, parent of Swavelle/ Mill Creek. "Our biggest strength is in the jobber and retail trade growth; these will continue to increase."

"We see a very strong first quarter because of our home fashions brand taking off at retail," said Christiane Michaels, president of Waverly. "And we're being very aggressive with our Waverly Place program, especially in fabrics and wallcoverings."

In terms of distribution sectors, Michaels said, "the fourth quarter of 1999 was very healthy, especially with independents and fabric chains."

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