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Niche strategies evident at Rug Market

Rug suppliers are assiduously pursuing new niches in an effort to expand their business —whether through independent retailers, large retail chains or highly specialized classes of trade, such as golf course developments. And although traffic was noticeably light at the recent Atlanta Rug Market here, many vendors sounded a note of optimism.

The relatively steady pace of housing starts and the continuing preference among home-builders for hard-surface flooring have rug makers seeing promise ahead.

"The customer is starting to understand that a rug is the biggest and most impactful thing they can put in a room," said Carpet Art Deco executive vp, sales and marketing Paul Kershaw. "And you can do it for 200 or 400 bucks."

In the meantime, suppliers small and large are covering their bases by moving into or expanding their businesses in new directions.

One of the more out-of-the-box strategies came from Shaw Industries, which unveiled its Jack Nicklaus Collection of area rugs. Designed with significant input from the legendary golfer's wife, Barbara, the line is tailored for a highly receptive customer — Nicklaus' 260 golf courses and the homes developed around them — as well as for retail sale.

"I think they go in a lot of homes — in any home," Barbara Nicklaus said of the collection, which includes a woven wool line of more traditional designs and a more promotional line of memorabilia rugs made in polypropylene.

The Nicklaus addition takes the Shaw portfolio of licenses in a new direction, according to division vp Jeff Meadows. The company's Kathy Ireland line targets the value-oriented customer. The Martha Stewart Signature line of rugs, broadloom and hard flooring, which begins shipping this month to the first of 600 dealers, pegs the middle market. And the Tommy Bahama line aims at the high end. Now, said Meadows, "We're going to do some niche-type agreements, probably another sports license."

Among Mohawk Home's myriad new offerings was a potential new niche for the company: multi-functional, anti-fatigue mats of the type that are typically found in restaurant kitchens and behind service counters. Available in a variety of foot-soothing thicknesses, Mohawk believes they could constitute a new type of product for the laundry room, the exercise room or the children's playroom.

"If you look at the new kitchens, they're very commercial in design — the professional ranges, the commercial appliances," said Jerry Brooks, general manager, floor mats. "The anti-fatigue mats are already very big in Europe. We're looking at how they can be adapted for the U.S. market."

Natco is pursuing growth through acquisition. The purchase of Rainbow Rugs this past April included a manufacturing facility in Maine, allowing Rainbow to add six new products to its assortment during market, including the value-oriented, fashion-forward Canyon, priced at $99 for a 5' x 8', and the double-pointed Rain Forrest at $149. Both are machine-made.

"We have some pretty aggressive growth plans this year," said Steve Roan, vp of sales for the company's Central Oriental division. "We have added four or five people to the sales team in the past two month, and we'll add another four or five this year."

The Rug Market also has added to its sales team as it prepares to expand into bath and kitchen rugs with an eye toward the mid-tier and specialty retailer channels. To that end, the company plans to debut more than 100 designs at the New York Home Textiles Market in October.

"We don't see a lot of fashion in bath, so we want to be the ones to introduce it," said president Michael Shabtai. "We consider ourselves Rugs 'R' Us."

At Milliken, the push is on to expand special-order business, primarily through a new series of POP tags that offer 49 alternatives (10 sizes and five colors) for every rug sku that hangs on a display arm. The company also has created brochures for its traditionally designed Signature Collection and its more contemporary Innovations Collection to help retailers sell more than one piece in a transaction.

"We're trying to supplement the story," said market manager Robby Burch. "Business is up 25 percent to 35 percent because of the program. Where a retailer would have been carrying a rug in four sizes, one arm [with two rugs featuring the POP tags] now offers 100 skus, so the chances of catching a consumer are greater."

Customization is also the driving factor behind Karastan's new Custom Border collection, which allows consumers to have broadloom patterns cut to order in standard area rug sizes and finished off with one of three borders — cotton twill, leather or jute — in a variety of colors and widths.

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