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Jennifer Marks

One man's trash...

A couple of weeks ago I was strolling along West 14th Street in New York, which is a thoroughfare of old-fashioned, down-and-dirty bargain emporiums for a variety of everyday goods such as electronics, luggage and shoes.

And there in the midst of it all was a store devoted to home textiles, a flea-market version of Bed Bath & Beyond — without the beyond. Cluttering the sidewalk out front were tables heaped with towels that looked like foundlings washed up on the textiles equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Lightweight, undersized, thinly looped and sparingly stitched, their tags had been scissored in a final indignity, as if to chide consumers: "Since you wouldn't stoop to buy these goods at their already criminally low prices, we're going to deface them so that everyone knows exactly the sort of relentless penny-pinch you are."

You can't look upon a sight like that without thinking about the journey that must have brought those goods to the bargain table on West 14th Street. Cancelled orders? Over-production? A winning but under-speced auction item that failed to make the grade upon delivery?

It got me to thinking about my new favorite story about auctions. A purveyor of towels was invited to bid on a beach towel program by a certain auction-crazy retailer. The bid invitation stated that the towel was to feature a cabana stripe and a certain dimension. Bidders were invited to best last year's wholesale price of $5.00. The towel-maker called the buyer to get the rest of the specs.

"What are the weight requirements? Do you want trim all around? Trim at the top and bottom? A simple hem?"

"I don't care what you do with it," the buyer told him. "Just as long as it's a cabana stripe in those dimensions."

The bidding period ended up being extended thrice, and the winning bid came in around $2.25 — 122 percent less than the previous wholesale price. On the one hand, you could safely bet that the summer 2003 towel is going to look a bit less beefy than the summer 2002 towel. On the other hand, how can one be accused of de-specing an auction item that has practically no specs to begin with?

The evidence suggests there's plenty more product looking for a home, much of it thanks to the West Coast lockout. In the past month, executives from both Tuesday Morning and TJX have expressed enthusiasm about the bounty that awaits them over the coming two quarters. Meanwhile, retailers that do not deal in closeouts have been quick to reassure the Street that the lockout's impact on their businesses will be minimal. Translation: We ain't gonna eat those goods.

Which is good news for Anna's Linens, Value City and Home Goods. And it's probably good news for West 14th Street, too.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for that cabana stripe beach towel.

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