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A Season for Specialization

Joan Gunin, Jennifer Marks -- Home Textiles Today, September 17, 2007

There's been an idea floating around for some time that the best way to succeed as a supplier is to carry more types of product. But what we've been seeing recently is some retrenchment from that position — whether it's vendors dropping expanded businesses or off-shore manufacturers delaying plans to add production for new categories.

Rug manufacturer Mohawk's recent decision to get out of the dec pillow and throw business is simply one example of the phenomenon. So is WestPoint Home's withdrawal from the bath accessories trade. Ditto Springs' sell-off last year of its area rug division.

Maybe it's not such a good idea to try to be all things to all people. We've seen enough such efforts go down in flames to suggest it's an act that can be pulled off only by very few.

That's the situation for U.S. companies, anyway. Overseas, there are still far too many factories that perform a single function, be it spinning, dyeing and finishing, embroidering or cut-and-sew. Worse, they face the prospect of expanding their plants at a time when the last thing the home textiles universe needs is another loom, vat, or sewing machine. The life expectancy for many of them in the global scenario is not heartening.

While there's certain to be some culling of deadwood over there, over here one gets a sense that the home textiles community has sorted itself out and is settling down into something like stability. I expect a few more "mergers" between U.S. and off-shore companies, but am beginning to think there might not be as many as I previously anticipated.

Price is one factor. Relevance is another. Off-shore manufacturers who pleaded in vain for partnerships with U.S. firms in the run-up to 2005 might now be forgiven a little schadenfreude.

That said, those middlemen that big retailers were so keen to toss overboard — from U.S. importers to foreign trade agencies — have been coming back into favor, if only because it's nice to have someone else around to pay for your mistakes.

Given the worries about housing sales and a possible recession, business is likely to be a bit slack over the coming months. Suppliers that came through the crucible of the global shift intact should weather it all right. After all, they've danced at this sock hop before.

For everybody else, a focus on core competencies and execution should be the order of the day. Walk away from unprofitable business, and aim high.

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