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Fashion Brightens Bath Outlook

Embellishments, Stripes Lift Category

Cecile Corral, Retail Editor 2 -- Home Textiles Today, November 3, 2008

New York —When times are tough, the rule of thumb is “stick to basics.” Not so, say bath towel suppliers.

Even in this most challenging economy, the fundamental white or ivory bath towels that forever dominated perennial bath towel sales are apparently taking a back seat to novel palettes, multi-colored stripes and, in some cases, even fancy, trimming-drenched, decorative, higher-ticket guest bathroom towels your mother would forbid you from using.

Selling well currently in the towel category, from New York-based Loftex USA's vantage point, is “anything with shine,” said Gretchen Dale, coo. An example is a new licensed collection the company is selling at a major discount department store chain.

“This towel program does not have trims. But we've added special touches like viscose on the border and some shiny extras that make this collection a value-added solid that isn't another basic,” she explained.

But for shoppers still stuck on solids, Loftex has noticed a fresh perspective: “Brown is through the roof [at specialty and department stores],” Dale noted. “And equally surprising to me is that we are also seeing a lot of success in orange, from soft oranges to burnt oranges, as coordinate colors to brown. Brown is almost becoming a basic, and the whites and ivories are at bottom of the heap instead of on top.”

On a similar path are brights, but at the opposite retail extreme — single-price discounters.

While it is true that these opening price point channels have lately been reducing their domestics departments to accommodate additional faster-turning consumable goods, New York-based Baltic Linen Co. has seen buyers from single-pricers looking to add more fashion to their store's home textiles basics, said Jo Ann Wanamaker, vp of design.

“Their buyers' standards are as high as any other retailer's, especially now when they are drawing in people who wouldn't normally go to a dollar store,” she said. “So they are looking for more fashion than the typical navy, hunter green and burgundy bath towels.”

In Baltic's case, this means trading to the supplier's new hot pink, hot turquoise and other vivid solid assortments.

Another surprise to Baltic is the recent call by retailers for more stripes, especially varieties that can coordinate back via color to the solid models.

“At the New York market [in September], I was surprised — to have received a lot of retailer response to our stripe story that coordinates to our basics,” she said. “As long as the colors were fun and unusual, they worked.”

Among the top picks was Baltic's new spring season-oriented, “very simple stripe that is on a white ground, with very thin two-tone colored stripes, all in sherbet-y colors that match back to lighter shades,” said Wanamaker.

She added that the coordinating reversible bath rug — striped on one side, solid on the other — was also popular with department and specialty store retail customers.

New York-based Croscill Home Fashions, in the midst of revitalizing its flat bath accessories business, has turned to a rapidly growing embellished towel business to buoy category sales.

Carl Legreca, president and chief merchandising officer, said that while in the past retailers turned to Croscill for towels that coordinated to its bath accessory and shower curtain collections, today more are requesting stand-alone embellished towel programs. To respond, Croscill is adding more embellishments, more trims and more fabrics to these assortments.

“And what we are seeing is that embellished towels are our fastest growing bath category in our business,” he said, adding that the category has grown by 25% in sales over the past four years since Croscill started offering more stand-alone embellished towel designs.

Bardwil Linens, New York, is also looking to bank on the decorative towel trend, but it is doing so at a more moderate pace. The company recently created a small program of stand-alone fingertip guest towels embellished with coastal looks — corals, sea shells, fish and other marine themes — for the Lenox-branded bath line.

“It's an open stock line; each piece is set to retail for $7.99, and retailers have received them very well,” said Linda Kulla, vp of Bardwil's Lenox bath division. “They make great gifts and are also good for coastal retailers year-round.”

Blonder Home, Cleveland, which has continuing success with its core line of novelty bath accessories and bath coordinate collections, entered a new category this fall with the launch of embroidered bath ensembles, upon the request of retail customers, said Jodi Messina, product manager of licensed brands.

“We will be rolling them out for the first time to retail in the new year,” she said. “But we aren't offering them as stand-alone goods. We are coordinating them to our collections.”

New York-based Cobra/Espalma also had a similar “first” this fall — the introduction of a decorative bath ensemble. Rae Ellen Blum, vp, sales and marketing, said the company's new animal skin collection comprises “decorative but functional pieces” that are woven jacquard and feature a woven jacquard cuff border.

“These towels are decorative but can be used,” she said. “They don't have to be dry-cleaned or have that removable tassels-with-Velcro look.”

Another plus, she added: They retail within Cobra/Espalma's “bridge,” or mid-tier, retail bracket — $9.99 to $12.99.

Suppliers agree that the catch to offering embellished towels is the high cost that comes with production and materials.

Croscill is able to justify these higher costs by constantly enhancing designs and patterns. “It's always about who does it best, and I must say ours are among the nicer, more embellished ones out there,” Legreca said.

But companies like Baltic and Abhishek Industries Ltd./The Trident Group (New York) have found other routes to keep production costs and retail price tags competitive while still offering some, albeit limited, fashionable looks — namely stripes.

Working with higher cotton prices and costly dyes, Baltic is “cutting cost corners while not sacrificing design” but being creative with its striped offerings and employing more white into patterns. “The cost of dyeing yarns is high,” she explained. “So instead of maybe 10 colors, we are using four or six and keeping white in the palette. If you are creative you can have a great product at the right price.”

Trident is also seeing retailers turn to stripes “as safe fashionable alternatives to solids,” explained Joanne Krakowski, the company's U.S. sales and marketing manager.

“From my interaction with buyers, solids aren't really moving in this economy. Instead, they want more stripes. Nothing extravagant, but still a trend that offers safe fashion and that can stay around for a while,” she said.

Trident, which produces its goods at headquarters in India, has capabilities to create low- to high-end striped offerings. “It all depends on how you play with the color,” Krakowski said. “A striped towel becomes a yarn dyed towel, so it can be slightly more expensive than a solid. But still, it is less expensive than a jacquard with a lot of work in it. Retailers can offer some fashion at a competitive price point with stripes.”

Ex-Cell Home Fashions' strategy this fall at market was to hone in on free-standing offerings — not just towels but bath accessories and shower curtains, “vs. matchy-matchy looks,” said Courtney Vagliardo, design director of the New York-based company.

“We are now developing products that can sit with multiple goods in multiple looks,” she continued. “And customers are responding to that because they are becoming more involved with their decorating. She is becoming more sophisticated with her tastes.”

Adding another vital point was Ida Moran, vp, fashion bath merchandising: “From a retail perspective, it means bringing in less merchandise.”

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