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Capitalizing On The Gift Market

Michele SanFilippo -- Home Textiles Today, August 22, 2005

With companies like Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel and Target turning up the creative volume in retail these days, independent boutiques and small upscale chains have had to get more innovative with product assortment and merchandise presentation in order to differentiate themselves from higher-volume competitors.

It therefore came as no surprise that last week's New York International Gift Fair was abuzz with nearly 43,000 attendees at the Piers and Javits Center, attracting retailers from various distribution channels, particularly the small chains and independent boutiques.

“You see 10 to 20 times more customers than you do during textile markets, because gift shows cover all areas of the home and generate much more traffic,” described Nelson Chow, vice president of sales at C&F Enterprises. “It can give you a true market read of what's selling and bring you closer to the trends because you have hundreds of appointments with smaller retailers and independents at each major show.”

Chow said that the gift business can be a lot steadier than home textiles alone if companies build up a base of customers, but this can take many years. However, “It does require a lot more patience, effort and time,” he added. “There's also more ownership when dealing with independents because you are mainly working with the principals.”

Craig Benepe, executive vice president of sourcing at Home Source International, said that the business is based on personal relationships. Said Benepe: “You're talking with principals; you're dealing with more flexibility in terms of schedules, buying, and willingness to try new things. But it is more time-consuming and involves handholding.”

He also sees the gift business as a growing category.

“There's a segment of the population that wants to buy goods not in national chains but from individual boutiques and regional stores,” said Benepe. Therefore, independents are looking to differentiate themselves from the big guys.

“They are much more concerned about the quality of the product and how they are going to be serviced than price. Their orders are much smaller, typically 'pick and pack' business, but they expect that the merchandise they buy will not also appear in larger retail stores like the big boxes and department stores,” said Benepe.

Anna Duran, corporate sales manager for Santa Monica, Calif.-based House, an exhibitor at the New York gift show since 1999, said that since House doesn't have many sales reps, the event gives retailers a chance to see its new products first hand.

“This forum puts us in touch with the specialty boutiques that would retail our products, and our mix-and-match customization allows them to offer more options in the stores,” added Duran.

According to Marie Ruiz in corporate sales at House, “good quality and quantity orders” are typically written at the New York gift show. “We always get new accounts at the gift show, which attracts high-end boutique customers.”

Susan Firestone, president of SiwThaiSilk, based in Yardley, Pa., said she started coming to the New York gift show this year because, “We need to be in New York where all the retailers are shopping. Traffic is usually very good at both (the January and August) shows.”

She continued that her company “loves the upscale boutiques” because it sells into the upper mid to high end. “We also sell to upper-end department stores, furniture boutiques and interior designers,” said Firestone.

“A lot of really great buyers attend the gift show,” remarked Nicole Linton, founder and designer of E Bella in Boulder, Colo. “This market in particular attracts a high-end clientele, and they understand the value of fine-quality, handmade goods,” she added.

According to Becky Bay, a sales rep for Novato, Calif.-based Bella Notte Linens, who has been participating in the New York gift show for about eight years, “Traffic is the big reason to be at this show.” She added, “Most of our clients are independent specialty boutiques, so this is the perfect venue.”

Between New York and Atlanta is where Bella Notte Linens has its best markets, said Bay. “This is where we need to be because all our customers are here at the Piers; the buzz and trends are all here.”

“There's a lot of traffic, and retailers are shopping all areas of the home,” said Riga Sadeq, assistant sales manager for SDH, who has participated in the show since 1999. “Almost every high-end manufacturer of linens is showing at either the Piers or Javits.”

She added that with this type of upscale merchandise, companies need one-on-one contact with customers and, “This is something you get in independent boutiques.”

Lois Keiner, vice president of Matouk, added, “It's a strong business for us. Gift retailers have shorter windows for buying and can be much more flexible. Retailers get to see us that would not be at the textiles show. A lot of seasonal orders are placed at this show.”

“Volume is what we get out of the show — a larger quantity of new buyers and gift buyers,” said Katha Diddel, president and creative director of the Katha Diddel Home Collection. “We are very busy at this show. It's constant traffic. We pick up a large percentage of customers at the show and see people we haven't seen in a while.”

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