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Luxury retailers remain a cut above the rest

NEW YORK -Though price points and quality have generally gone up across all channels of retailing, the stores at the high end feel that they still offer a level of product and service unattainable elsewhere.

So though even discounters now offer 250-count sheets, the impact hasn't trickled up-way up-to the high-end retailers, which are unaffected by these changes, except, perhaps, in the misconceptions consumers have about what constitutes a better-quality product.

"We offer the same high quality we always have," said Sue King, owner of Sue Fisher King, a high-end retailer in San Francisco. Though prices have gone up over the last few years, she said, that is because of inflation and includes all product, not just luxury.

Robert Rosenberg, co-owner, Arrelle Fine Linens, Chicago, also felt no influence from retail channels trending up. "It doesn't affect us. It's a different area of retailing." He drew comparisons to Georgio Armani and The Gap-they both sell clothes, but how and what they sell is dramatically different. And "in our niche of the market-there's no price resistance," he said.

And though the consumer is more aware of features such as thread counts, this has "probably created more confusion in the customer's mind," said Art Bradham, owner, Palmetto Linen, Hilton Head, SC. "People quote a certain thread count and think that's a great sheet-that's not true. I tell my customers to trust their senses."

A 250-count sheet used to mean something, Bradham said, but "now you almost have to hide the count," adding that he has 200-count sheets from Europe that feel better than a domestically made 300-count sheet.

Mark Scheuer, owner, Scheuer Linens, San Francisco, agreed. "You can show a customer a 250-count sheet made in the U.S. and one from Italy and say, 'Feel the difference.'" The better-quality finishing is also evident in the hem stitching and such. "The European sheets are not competing with the U.S.-made sheets," he said, and it's his job to help educate the customer on why.

Most product sold at Scheuer Linens is produced overseas, but the company does sell domestically made bath towels and mattress pads because "Americans do those two things very well." Scheuer also used to carry Wamsutta's Elite Pure sheet but dropped it after "the workmanship worsened," which he said is obvious in the uneven scalloped edges, the packaging and quality.

Rosenberg, who imports all of his product from Europe, primarily from Italy, pointed out that the U.S. mills only got into the thread count game a few years ago; and though the count does matter, the hand, quality and fashion are even more important at the high end.

Imported product is also on the rise for retailers across the board, but again an imported product doesn't necessarily mean a better or appropriate product.

"Retailers are going overseas looking for domestic price points," said Rosenberg. "They want the cache of saying their product is imported. Retailers are looking to maintain profit margins, and that's not the same reason we go over. The retailers looking for high-end product did that 10 years ago as well."

King pointed out that "a limited number of companies overseas make product appropriate for the American market, in either size or color."

King used to buy all of her sheeting from Europe but now has limited most of her sheet offering to Sferra and Anichini, with some from C & C in Milan, Italy. "It got to the point of not being interesting anymore. How many white and ivory sheets can you offer?" With Sferra and Anichini, she covers her bases, and she knows that the product will fit American mattresses and tastes. Such products like Masconi sheets, she said, are beautiful but not made for the American consumer and would end up being marked down. King does buy her top-of-the-bed in Europe, which this spring will include Etro.

The 250-count sheets from discounters, she said, are fine, "but if you want something more glamorous, fancier, with a better hand, you turn to a retailer like us."

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