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  • Jennifer Marks

Trading up

I don't know if it's just coincidence, but in the past couple of weeks three industry folks have pointed to the lack of spark in home textiles product development as one of the key factors that has rendered textiles vulnerable to commoditization.

The consumer electronics industry is a favorite point of comparison, and there's no denying that industry does a bang-up job of churning out new stuff that becomes gotta-have: camera phones, iPods, digital video recorders, plasma TVs and the like. It's not that the forerunners of these products didn't work perfectly well. It's not that the innovations necessarily enhance the core function of the products. They're just so cool that they're worth the price of trading up.

Even setting aside the subject of innovation, there also seems to be a disconnect between what a consumer would consider "trading up" in textiles and what the industry considers to be the pricing parameters of the term.

That was a point brought home last week during a lunch meeting with a textiles veteran during a discussion of this very subject. Our server, a woman in her early 20s, stopped by the table to check on the coffee. She apologized for interrupting the conversation. Not to worry, said my companion, we were just talking about towels.

"Towels!" she said, and I swear her eyes glowed. "I love towels."

The next words out of her mouth were "soft," "fluffy" and "absorbent."

But, she told us sadly, she doesn't have the money for good towels. "And good towels are like good skin products — you get what you pay for."

How much, we asked, does she expect to pay for a towel?

"For a nice towel — $12."

Mind you, this is a budget shopper.

"But if it was a really, really good towel — one that cost like $22 — I'd buy it if they put it on sale for $15."

Please note, she did not mention seeking out $7 towels, $5 towels or $2 towels. She's looking for good towels, and she's willing to pay for them.

The exchange prompted my companion to observe that in the industry, "We're not talking to the customer, we're just talking to each other."

There's a lot of truth to that. The order of the day too often becomes "what can I stick into the product to prevent my retail customer from lowering the price point" rather than "what can I whip up that will be so cool it will be irresistible?"

In short, we need more iPod-style thinking.

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