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No guts, no glory

One of the most difficult things about market preview time is seeing so many wonderful designs that will not make it into stores. Almost without fail, the most eye-catching item in a showroom will be the one that will get sent back to the studio to be toned down (if it's lucky) or packed off to archives to wait "until our market catches up with the trend."

Which rather implies that nobody wants to be caught dead actually establishing a trend.

Now, I'll confess that achieving maximum turns on corporately mandated planograms is not a responsibility that I have to bear. Nonetheless, I'm fairly certain that good retailing consists of both satisfying consumers' expectations and, in addition, delighting, surprising and enticing them with stuff they had absolutely no idea they wanted-until they saw it.

A case in point: I've got a Martha By Mail catalog sitting on my desk right now folded back to a page advertising cat-shaped cookie cutters. By nearly anyone's measure, a cat-shaped cookie cutter has got to be one of the most useless inventions around. Worse, at $46 for a set of five, they're criminally over-priced. And yet, they're just so darned cute I've spent half the afternoon warring with my conscience about them.

That's great merchandising.

Another case in point: I had a call the other night from an old acquaintance in Chicago who had spent the weekend looking for new bedding. She tried the specialty boxes first, then the department stores, but couldn't find anything that caught her fancy. Finally, she ended up in a boutique called Bedside Manor, where she was sufficiently impressed by the freshness of the patterns to consider bumping up her budget significantly. Here's the punch line: She was looking for something in beige.

Which goes to show you, just because a shopper is looking for beige doesn't mean she'll settle for boring.

The home textiles industry has a plentiful supply of talented people who create unique designs. What the industry needs are more retail companies willing to have a go at something out of the ordinary. By the same token, retail buyers need corporate structures that not only allow but actively encourage a bit of entrepreneurship on the floor.

Too often it seems this fashion-oriented industry is quick to damn anything remotely cutting edge, which is coming to mean anything that's much different from what's out there already. In the current economic environment, there's a great danger of more stick-with-what-works thinking. In showroom after showroom, we're seeing pared-back presentations and more tightly edited assortments, a sign vendors believe retailers will be looking for easy-to-grasp concepts this time around.

That would be a shame. If sales truly begin to slow, it will be uniqueness that wins the day. This is the time to take a chance or two, to seek out product that is dazzlingly different and to showcase it in such a way that nobody walking the floor will miss it.

That would be a trend everybody could get behind.

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