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Cecile Corral

Retailers Tepid in Trade-up to Green

Stores Gingerly Test Pricey Eco-Friendly Products

Environmentally friendly home textiles are not easy to find.

But shoppers aren't really clamoring for them, at least not yet, say some retailers.

While No. 1 home textiles retailer Wal-Mart is on a crusade to be Earth-friendly with its products, packaging and infrastructure, other stores are taking a wait-and-see approach before they follow suit.

To blame, they say, are the higher price points demanded by these specialized products, which must meet tough and costly requirements at both the material and manufacturing levels to earn the environmentally sound stamp of approval.

"We've found that even though it is a good feature for the product, the customer doesn't want to pay extra for it," said Arnold Stevens, vp, Scottsboro, Ala.-based Maples, a domestic manufacturer of bath and accent rugs. "It's not a big difference, but it is an additional cost."

Maples is just one of countless manufacturers and suppliers that have recently — and in many cases, reluctantly — adopted this cautious attitude — a stark change from last year when so many eagerly launched organic and environmentally sound product offerings, only to reduce these assortments this year because of lukewarm retailer response.

Those who showed eco-friendly product in February during the New York Home Fashions Market were few, including: Park B. Smith, which has for years offered its organic "Eco" line in bedding, bath and soft window; Glenoit/Ex-Cell, which positioned its Re-Source bath, table linens, and rug presentation front and center in its showroom; and Mohawk Home, which made a "going green" statement with its new natural fiber bath rugs.

In addition, upstairs area rug company Company C, based in Concord, N.H., has recently created the Natural Grounds collection that answers to two causes: pro-environment and anti child labor and poor working conditions, said Kristi Lefebvre, marketing manager.

"All of these rugs have natural grounds of 100% untreated natural wool," she said, adding, "Designs using natural grounds greatly reduce the amount of dyes used in the manufacturing of a rug."

And Polo Ralph Lauren Home will join the movement later this year when it rolls out Lauren Spa, its new luxury organic program. This solid color program, which is Skal-certified and employs vegetable dyes, is set to launch in October at Lauren's top retail doors.

In February during the market, Bart Hill, general manager of bath for Sugar Valley, Ga.-based Mohawk, told HTT that retailers are showing interest in these types of products, which is why Mohawk expanded its handmade tufted natural fiber bath rug line this year to include new fibers — silk, corn, organic cotton, linen, milkweed, and soy.

At retailer Nebraska Furniture Mart, shoppers of soft flooring are in search of "products such as bamboo, wool, and rubber," explained Gary Cissell, director of flooring. "Interest continues to build with other products that provide a green story … from the design, architect and consumer communities."

But many retailers are hesitant to give shelf space to these "green" goods because of the higher cost, some told HTT.

"The surcharge for these politically correct items does not justify itself, I am assuming, in our customers' eyes," explained Carie Doll, svp, merchandising and marketing, Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Anna's Linens.

Doll said she knew of "no apparent quality, durability or differing fashion attribute" that makes these items worth the additional cost to the shopper. "In fact, as far as I can see," she continued, "the non-dyed product and cottons are not to our customers' likings, anyway. They are much more responsive to the color of our product."

Tuesday Morning's vp of textiles, Bill Kendall, told HTT he has not seen a green trend through the chain's scouting of closeouts. But he reassured that if closeouts "of these products become available and a trend evolves, sure, we will include it in our assortment."

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Stein Mart is also not currently pursuing an eco-friendly trend in its soft home area, which is dominated by fashion bedding and bath goods, the company said.

Prohibitive price points are also keeping Hayward, Calif.-based Mervyn's customers away from joining this green trend "aggressively," said Mike Rotar, dmm, home.

"It's not a huge growth opportunity for us, at least at this point in time," he said. Mervyn's "continues to test" it, he continued, with the focus predominantly on pillows and mattress pads and less in fashion bedding and bath. The retailer has also tried offering natural fibers like bamboo, which "didn't get a great response either."

Overall, Rotar said, the eco-friendly product "actually has not performed terribly well for us, typically because some of the price points are more expensive, so the customer has not necessarily responded to it. But to me that makes sense."

Looking to overcome this price barrier is New York-based Ex-Cell Home Fashions, which created its own renewable resource collection, "within the economic parameters that are available to us," explained David North, vp, marketing development. "We understand the importance of sustainability and we are developing both product and packaging that will be available at retail in 2008."

Also giving hope to the trend is Pottery Barn, which recently introduced its Natural Home collection of natural fiber textiles that are "designed to celebrate the unadorned beauty of the outside world," the retailer boasts on its website and catalog presentation.

Committed to the cause is Meredith Crowell, owner and president of Carmel-by-the-Sea -based Linens & Such, a one-unit California specialty store. She said that while she has yet to receive requests from her customers for any eco-friendly linens, she offers them, "and I push them."

Also dedicated is Nebraska Furniture Mart: "We see this movement continuing to gain strength, particularly as more attention is drawn to the effects of global warming," Cissell said. "Since we have a responsibility to our staff, community, suppliers, customers and the environment, we will ultimately pursue strategies that are in the best interests of all concerned."

Added Maples' Stevens: "I believe the door is not totally closed yet. It just hasn't become the type of thing everyone thought it would be. A few years ago, everyone thought it would be a big trend. But we're just not there yet. We haven't proven that we can pass along the added cost yet. The customer hasn't yet seen the true added value. But it can happen."

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