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  • Jennifer Marks

Coveting Thy Neighbor

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Especially in retailing.

The latest: Whole Foods Market — an emporium of organic and natural foods — has opened a non-food store in Los Angeles stocked with organic apparel, accessories and some home textiles. According to The New York Times, organic cotton sheets and towels have also found a berth in traditional Whole Foods units in Austin, Texas, and Columbus Circle/New York.

Grocers have dabbled in home textiles before, more often on an opportunistic basis with the odd carton of bed-in-a-bag offerings at outrageously low prices (check that — is there any pricing but outrageous for bed-in-a-bag these days?) or the occasional stack of solid color towels.

Sporting goods stores here and there have trafficked in throws, blankets and decorative pillows, usually heavy on lodge themes. Some of the mega drugstores have taken on memory foam pillows and a few kitchen textiles. Hardware stores, mostly in rural counties, stock some basic home textiles items such as seasonal flannel sheets.

The crossover takes place in the home furnishings universe as well, particularly online. Linens 'n Things is selling scooters, bikes, toys, interactive games and puzzles during the holiday season. Bed Bath & Beyond's assortment is even more diverse, covering toys, games and rooms sets for kids aged infant to tweener.

In the mass market, Target is making a concerted run at the furniture business. The effort, which began in January with a broad offering of dining sets and accent pieces, has since expanded into upholstered furniture, headboards and electric fireplaces. A consumer who knew Wal-Mart only through its Web site might conclude the retailer's primary business was consumer electronics.

Everywhere you look, one retailer's core business seems to be another's add-on business. Maybe that's because retailers have steadily pounded the margin out of their core offerings.

In addition, the Internet frees all retailers from the limitations of shelf space and the onus of maintaining sales per square foot targets while testing new merchandise categories.

Finally, suppliers in all product categories — from toys to tools to textiles — are desperately searching for new outlets in a densely consolidated retail universe. That's one reason so many retail-oriented home textiles companies are chasing the hospitality segment right now.

Consumers, as always, will vote with their dollars.

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