Quilt makers look for magic in the middle

Marvin Lazaro, Staff Staff, May 20, 2002

Although it constitutes a relatively small sector in many bedding departments, the approximately $550 million quilt business is evolving rapidly — simultaneously pushing better constructions and hitting new price points at both ends of the retail spectrum.

But with value-enhancing techniques such as embroidery, embellishments and piecework steadily working their way down into more moderate price points — largely thanks to China and India — the challenge for both retailers and suppliers is to begin clearly delineating the quality levels of merchandise they present to consumers.

"What is a $129 quilt? What is a $39 quilt? Our goal really is to translate that to the consumer," said Dan Stengel, vp sales, Keeco. "The issue at retail is lifestyle merchandising. Do they really fit quilts into the store the way the customer shops for the home?"

That view was echoed by Jack McDonnell, vp of sales for Hedaya Home Fashions, who said: "Whereas a consumer may see the difference between a good quilt and a best quilt, she may not see it between a good and a better or between a better and a best. I think the middle-of-the-road price points are suffering somewhat."

The bigger question may be how to define "the middle" for a category that ranges from $29 quilt sets at Wal-Mart to $269 quilts at Pottery Barn. Suppliers interviewed by HTT generally pegged moderate pricing somewhere between $79 to $149 on a queen or all-sizes retail price, although the intended customer skews the perspective considerably.

The $99 price point, for example, often is mentioned as one of the sweet spots on the price parabola, although whether that represents a step-up price or a deflationary one depends upon who's doing the selling.

Generally, however, the dilemma of improving the distinctions across the moderate spectrum is springing from the growth of the category at better price points across a variety of channels.

"The quilt business in general has been very, very good across the board," said Jane Bognacki, vp, Sunham Home Fashions. "Quilts have been stepping into the higher price points. A lot of department stores are experiencing their growth at the $99 to $129 levels."

Although the need for opening-price-point merchandise "is always there," noted Nelson Chow, vp of sales at C&F Enterprises, "the better business is just getting stronger." The veteran quilt company this year sees opportunity beyond the $99 price point. Even within that range, Chow said, quilts are providing "a lot more for the dollar, too. A lot more quality."

Creative Home Fashions, which produces both private label and branded quilts, also sees some potential for upward price expansion, particularly going into 2003. "Whenever you have a big demand for a particular item, the market expands both ways," said president Mukesh Kapoor. "You see more and more value added to the line, but there is always a demand for something new and fresh."

Mara Garaway, national sales manager for the Walnut, CA-based Greenland Trading Co., pointed out that retailers are trying to market quilts in different ways.

"I think they're looking for new options with quilts, like quilt-in-a-bag," she said. "They're trying out new areas because quilts do very well and it gets the customer in the door." Others added that whole quilt ensembles are hitting the market, as some companies are offering not just the quilt and coordinating shams but accessories such as decorative pillows, sheets, dust ruffles and soft window coverings.

Many suppliers see such innovations as a hedge against the sort of devaluation the category experienced in the early 1990s, when pricing became the sole factor on retail buys and many suppliers found they could not compete in what had suddenly become a low-margin business. Up-market linen maker Phoenix International, a relative newcomer to the quilt business, has already seen better quality pricing shift from $250 on queen to the $159 to $199 range, said president Venkat Sampath. "We see pressures, but we try to keep our quality [standards], not sell purely on price."

The category's recent momentum has spun off price points suitable for the promotional and discounter levels. But, according to Towner Lapp, national sales manager for the Newark, NJ-based Tessile, the emphasis lately has been away from the promotional level and price points have stabilized.

"They're probably going to stay where they are about now," Lapp said. "I think for a queen size, the price range is roughly in that $79 to $129 retail range with some higher and some lower than that."

Fashion Industries, a middle- to upper-tier supplier based in Griffin, GA, also has held its price points. It did so, said Al Whiten, senior vp of sales, by shifting production from India to China. "Where we really see the growth is in the better goods," he said.

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