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More Independents Offering "Affordable" Options for High-End Customers

Jill Rowen, Staff Staff -- Home Textiles Today, October 21, 2011

NEW YORK - For the past few years, economic woes that prevailed on mid- and lower-tier markets seemed to escape luxury customers, who were still spending, according to many industry pundits. That has changed.
     Retailers told HTT that, while still optimistic, they are making changes: cutting spending at shows and markets, paring down holiday offerings and looking to infuse a more democratic price mix in their stores. Independent retailers across the country are looking for more affordable offerings to showcase alongside the more traditional high-end styles some have always featured.
     "It's all relative," said Caroline Reyes-Dorson, owner of the Birdcage in Solana Beach, Calif. "We're in one of the highest demographic groups in the country, but the specialty home furnishings market has been particularly hard hit in California. Those that had $20 million now have $10 million and they are running scared."
     Reyes-Dorson noted this was the first year she didn't attend any shows (usually New York and Las Vegas) and cut back, buying late for holiday. "I bought about one-third of what I would usually buy. If I was late in the past, everything would be gone. Not this time. I got everything I wanted," she said.
     Though most retailers contacted by HTT said they did find time to attend markets and trade shows over the summer, many went with a smaller checkbook, or at least kept an eye out for lower price tags.
     Joan Miller, owner of Early to Bed in Omaha, Neb., attended the New York International Gift Fair. "It was a good market for me, and I accomplished what I set out to do, but I did not spend a lot of money, which was my goal," she said. "In this economy, I did not want to be carrying too much inventory."
     Of her recent buying ventures, Vicki Blanchard, co-owner of Fraiche on the Avenues in Richmond, Va., noted "We've become pillow happy. It's a quick fix in this difficult economy; putting colorful throw pillows on a neutral couch can change the whole look of a home."
     In fact, the store has dedicated a whole room to its array of pillows. "Textiles have been good for us all year," said said, with the Matouk brand one of the brands she calls a "real workhorse."
     Blanchard has also opted to include new vendors in more moderate prices. The store now offers Linen Way, a Russian line of table top goods. The difference? The store's best-selling Le Jacquard Francais line sells for $30 for one napkin while Linen Way is $68 for four napkins. "They're all beautiful, but we needed another price point," she said.
     According to Jeff Mulert, owner of Feathers in Pittsburgh, vendors at the Atlanta Inernational Gift Market were ready for price-sensitive buyers. "I spent less money," he said. "But a lot of vendors were offering a greater range of prices for their products." Mulert said Feathers' business continued to be steady.
     "Instead of buying three sets of luxury customized bedding, our customers may now buy one," said Meg Carroll, owner, Bedside Manor, a four-store chain based in Chicago. "They are mixing it up with a basic and a less expensive bedding option." Carroll said the company is trending ahead of last year in sales, but she is keeping her approach "conservative."
     "Our clientele is doing well and better than some other parts of the country," noted Sylvia Dorsey, owner, Longoria Collection, Houston. "We are usually a very-understated store, but we've brought in some less expensive, fun items that I think will do well." Among the newer brands, Pine Cone Hill bedding that has "young and very affordable looks."
     "I'm trying to find value in better-priced goods," said Phoebe Howard, owner Ms. Howard, a four-unit upscale specialty chain headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. Howard says business is booming. "Our ace-in-the-hole is that we sell off the floor, so people don't have to order things and wait for them to arrive."
     Whatever the quantity, virtually every retailer named color as an overwhelming sales driver. From grays, plums and mauves at Feathers to rich dark shades at Early to Bed and batik styles for the coastal customer at Fraiche on the Avenues, many are using color as antidotes to the economy blues.
     Going forward, the retail outlook for holiday is optimistic.
     "We're in Florida, so our business is very seasonal, and right around Thanksgiving people start getting their houses in order," said Penny Murphy, president, Pioneer Linens, West Palm Beach. The company is celebrating its 100th year in business in February 2012. Murphy anticipates duplicating the great holiday season it had last year.
     "We're looking forward to a great holiday," agreed Blanchard. "I think people have a pent up spending desire and we're going to feed right into it."
     Noted Carroll, "We want to be confident and feel good about business for holiday; at the same time we don't want to be frivolous and add new categories too far out of the box than what we are known for."
     Howard does not mince words. "It's going to be an entertaining and exciting Christmas for us."

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