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Back-to-School Slow to Start

New York — As retailers come off an uneven holiday season, many are dragging their feet on back-to-school commitments for 2005, according to home textiles suppliers.

Last year’s $40.6 billion in total spending on all back-to-school categories made it the second largest sales event of the year, contributing about 4 percent of total retail sales for the year, according to the National Retail Federation.

However, according to suppliers, retailers are still making up their minds about ’05 orders.

“We have made presentations but we do not have any firm commitments yet on back-to-school,” said Merle Johnson, vice president, marketing, Mohawk Home, Sugar Valley, Ga.

Newport/Layton, Portland, Ore., started showing collections targeting back-to-school and younger customers during the October 2004 New York Home Textiles Market, but is still waiting to wrap up the season’s orders, according to Corey Faul, president.

“There is no question that retailers are waiting longer and longer to make decisions and make commitments to us, which makes it more challenging since such a high percentage of this business will come from product sources offshore,” he said. “We really need to get our commitments soon because our focus is now shifting to holiday and that third- and fourth-quarter business.”

Creative Bath Products, Central Islip, N.Y., has been asked to sample a number of projects, said Rick Lipton, national sales manager. However, “like with most things today, (we get) lots of talk and requests for samples and prices, but no definite decisions as of yet.”

Glenoit Universal, New York, has also been on the road making presentations and expects to have a better handle on the season by late January, according to Barry Leonard, president and CEO.

“We don’t have a lot of information yet,” he said. “But we are definitely pursuing the back-to-school business.”

The company created several coordinate collection across its multiple categories — bath, rugs, decorative pillows, table linens and kitchen textiles — for back-to-school 2005.

Phoenix Down, Totowa, N.J., also is pursuing back-to-school after an encouraging foray into the season in 2004. In particular, the company is working to expand the business with national bed and bath chains and regional accounts on items such as twin extra-long featherbeds, down comforters, and down and feather comforters, said Bob Hahn, senior vice president of sales.

“We feel that unique packaging is what makes the products in this category sell,” he added. “This year was our first major year in back-to-school, and it was very successful. Our bookings for 2005 already greatly exceed 2004.”

CHF Industries, New York, also is anticipating strong growth in back-to-school for 2005, according to Joan Karron, executive vice president.

“I think in many cases the orders are coming in strong and that we’re seeing most of the activity in the bedding sets area. Retailers are looking for one bag, carry-and-go items and no broken stock,” she said. “The enthusiasm and attitude of retailers toward back-to-school has been very positive.”

What’s hot? Karron points to fun fashion, clean-cut classics, canopies, backrests, fun pillows, floor cushions and other dorm gear.

“There’s a sporty influence from Abercrombie and The Gap, and the palette features vivid colors, not halogen brights,” she added. “There also seems to be a link between color palettes in other departments now, whereby retailers are creating unified presentations. I think back-to-school is a very favorable thing, and there’s a lot of experience in the market. Price points are still sharp.”

Bob Gehm, president of Sheridan USA, New York, also sees retailers focusing more on set business and being more aggressive on price points.

“Bedding sets are easier for retailers to sell,” he noted. “The new looks are very colorful, with stripes, circles and dots still doing well. We’re seeing brights and lots of fun colors. Prices are getting a little sharper.”

Arlee, New York, sees back-to-school 2005 as bigger than ever, despite a slump in its BTS business in 2004, said Bud Frankel, president and CEO.

“We have more fabrications and more new product offerings than before,” he said. “Our orders are way up over last year, and we’re not even finished booking business. So far, customer by customer, we are up 20 percent.”

And although Creative Bath’s Lipton would like to see the orders buttoned up sooner, he, too, is optimistic about this year’s season.

“With the pendulum swinging back to short-ship windows and smaller initial buys, we feel that a domestic manufacturer may have the visible and viable advantage,” he said. “But it’s a tough business to predict. The season seems to have extended itself from June through the end of August and early September. But based on the past several years, it is not the type of selling season nor does it have the stimulus that it used to.”

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