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Jennifer Marks

Off to the races

It was just about a year ago that HTT's annual Top 50 report on home textiles retailers broke the news that Wal-Mart had eclipsed JCPenney as the industry's leading seller, toppling the mid-tier chain from a perch it had held for well over a decade.

That change was long in coming. Ten years ago, Wal-Mart's home textiles sales lagged Penney's by $681 million — and even then Wal-Mart stood only two paces behind Penney in the ranking. (Sears in those days was No. 2.) When Wal-Mart finally passed by Penney at the conclusion of 2000, it did so by a relative whisker — $46 million in sales.

We can probably expect that gap to widen — but not phenomenally —when HTT reports the 2001 sales tally in next week's issue. Which helps explain why suppliers remain so deeply attached to Penney and so hopeful that its five-year turnaround strategy will be a success. It also suggests that the chasm is not yet too wide for Penney to regain the leader's spot — if it hustles.

The second dogfight to watch out for next week will be the one between the No. 3 and No. 4 players— Kmart and Target, respectively. A mere $78 million in sales separated the two at the end of 2000.

Okay, so this is an easy one to call given Kmart's calamitous 2001. The more intriguing scenario to consider is Target's. It finished 2000 with $1.76 billion in sales. If it managed to boost sales in the category by 13 percent — and that's not a far-fetched possibility — it will have broken through the $2 billion barrier, putting it into the rarefied $2 billion club with Wal-Mart and Penney.

Bed Bath & Beyond, of course, is riding hard on its heels. The wunderkind of big box retailing boosted total store sales by a heady 34.9 percent in 2001, and it held the No. 5 spot last year. Similar gains in home textiles would put it within striking distance of the $2 billion mark, although it will probably take another 12 months for it to break through.

Next door at spot No. 6, this should be the year that Linens 'N Things pushes past the $1 billion barrier, in the process of which it will likely put even greater distance between itself and Sears, which over the past decade has steadily slid from the No. 2 spot it occupied in 1991 to its current position at No. 7.

Also worth watching: Kohl's, which leapt into the Top 10 last year — at the No. 9 position, no less — with $420 million in sales, just $34 million shy of TJMaxx/Marshall's. Is this the year it hops forward yet again?

Stay tuned.

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