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  • Cecile Corral

Suppliers Set Table for Holiday

If it's October, it must be Christmas retailing time.

Now that the witches, ghosts and goblins have bedecked front lawns across the country at least since late September, retailers aren't wasting another minute to remind shoppers the holidays are only just beginning. Every year, it seems, they start their holiday selling season earlier and earlier at the store — eager to take advantage before the merchandise turns into a clearance situation.

Table linens and kitchen textiles are a good place to start getting customers in the mood to sing Jingle Bells — but don't expect any avant-garde adaptations of Santa or the manger this season: tried-and-true traditional is the tone this holiday.

Buyers shopped safely for their holiday 2007 table linens and kitchen textiles assortments, fearing a recurrence of last holiday's results — which in these product categories proved somewhat soft, vendors said.

"The amount of buying the retailers did for this holiday was less than last year," said Bud Frankel, president and ceo of New York-based Arlee Home Fashions. "They were afraid, and approached this holiday cautiously because they didn't want to have to mark down. They take a $3 item and make it $4 because it could become markdown business."

Added Elissa Vogt, vp of marketing for West Conshohocken, Pa.-based John Ritzenthaler Co., "It's true, buyers purchased more narrow and deep for this year than they did last year."

This is not to say vendors don't expect a decent holiday sales turnout. But vendors are struggling increasingly with a smaller buy from retailers as well as an early and limited display at the store level.

"Retailers just don't devote space to these categories anymore. They are so afraid of markdown liability," said Al Whiten, senior vp, Griffin, Ga.-based Fashion Industries. "Christmas is over at the store in October for many of them. They don't devote the space to it that they once did. Christmas used to be a huge part of our business, and now it is not. As far as table linens, it's just barely hanging on for us. If you don't have a solid-colored program with a major brand at one of the big boxes, you get into minimum issues for smaller orders with smaller customers."

Nevertheless, there is optimism for the current holiday season, starting with Fashion Industries, which has a long-running formal Christmas panel print that several of its retail customers have called "a proven winner for several years now," Whiten said.

"I really cannot complain," said Kurt Hamburger, president and managing director of Lintex Linens/Cobra Trading. "I have not suffered. I sold a lot of harvest and Christmas tablecloths this year."

New York-based Lintex Linens is so far experiencing a better holiday this year vs. last, especially for its harvest-themed tablecloths.

Prettily-packaged gift sets in the forms of napkin rings, cocktail napkins, eight-piece placemat-and-napkin sets, four-piece napkin or placemat sets, four-piece placecard holders and kitchen textiles combination sets have been and remain "key" for New York-based Bardwil Linens' branded collections under the Lenox and Liz Claiborne licenses, said Amy Zemser, vp.

"The branded merchandise is what has really set us apart — and then the gift-able items within each brand bring newness and fashion and an easy sale," she said.

Kitchen textiles multi-packs and aprons, particularly silhouette and hostess styles, drive much of the season's business, said Vogt. In the case of John Ritzenthaler Co., last holiday proved "up slightly" in sales, she said, so this year the company followed suit with its holiday assortment.

"So far we've gotten good response at retail on our holiday, and I think we'll do well with holiday again," Vogt said. "Packs are still driving the business — anything gift-able and unique always helps. And they also allow the retailer to get a higher price point out."

Accomplishing higher price points is a rarity in this retail game, especially as the dollar pales to other currencies, like India's rupee, Hamburger said.

"It has become very tough to get increases — as a matter of fact, impossible," he said. "We're being squeezed on margins" on Indian imports, he said. "We're paying more money overseas and we're not able to pass it on to our clients."

Arlee is overcoming this hurdle via its new factory in China, Frankel said. "The tapestry goods we're working on allow us to offer prices so low that it's incredible," he said, referring to sets with a coordinating placemat, chair pad and accent rug.

For holiday 2008, Arlee is already in production of a line of reversible tapestry goods that Frankel said will retail competitively with single-sided tapestry goods.

He quoted $2.99 for placemats, $7.99 for chair pads and $5.99 for accent rugs — "We're doing this because what's driving this business is price," Frankel concluded.

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