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Plugging away

Jennifer Negley -- Home Textiles Today, February 12, 2001

Given what's taken place over the past several weeks in the home textiles and retail industries, one would have expected last week's run through winter market to be the occasion of dour conversations about the present state of business and sour prognostication for the future.

For the most part, that wasn't so. Several vendors reported that they had a pretty healthy year in 2000, thank you very much. And if they aren't expecting to yield gains of the same size in 2001, they see themselves growing sales nonetheless.

There was a surprising amount of energy in the air, even at some of the smaller firms one might imagine to be the most embattled. Sure, these are challenging times, but an awful lot of companies appear to be primed to use the shifting market dynamics to their advantage. In a very real sense, the challenging nature of the market is acting as a spur to innovation.

In some quarters, vendors are departing from the norm, entering merchandise categories outside what have been their traditional product boundaries.

Elsewhere, vendors are expanding the scope of their brands-either creating sub-brands to enter new channels of distribution or extending existing brands into related sub-categories.

There's also a lot of movement toward more aggressive brand-building and stepped up marketing, whether through consumer advertising or at point of sale.

Most interesting of all, there seems to be a growing sense that in certain respects, retailers may need the vendors more than the vendors need some of the retailers. More than one vendor talked about retail companies that aren't worth the trouble of entering business with-a nearly heretical idea not so long ago.

Those feelings were amplified at a roundtable breakfast held by the IFDA during the market. A few sample remarks made clear not only the level of frustration some vendors feel, but also the factors that are prompting several of them to become more choosy about retail avenues:

"Some of these retailers are more concerned with the art of the deal than with the actual product."

"When you're being asked for 20 percent to 25 percent opening order discounts and dollar-for-dollar take-backs, you can't afford to get into business with them."

"First, they make price demands that ultimately lead to the devaluation of the merchandise; then they put less sales help on the floor so there's no one there to help the customer. They're only thinking about short-term dollars, not long-term relationships."

"Fashion is coming out of the business for the sake of safety. The customers are the ones who are being hurt the most by it."

"We're only as good as they let us be."

All of that said, many execs throughout the winter market contended that the perception of the health of retailing seems worse than the reality, and several expect the open-to-buy constraints to begin to loosen around mid-year.

In the meantime, they're out there pushing the envelope.

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