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  • Jennifer Marks

A sense of occasion

Remember when Pier 1 was considered passé?

Sure you do. It was only, like, three hours ago.

And yet, last year, while most retailers were crying in their proverbial beers, Pier 1 was having a pretty decent time of it.

Pier 1, for pity sakes. That old, hippy-dippy, rattan-loving purveyor of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" decor had somehow become hip again.

The company got with it on the merchandise mix, definitely. But it didn't wheel around and do a 180. It did not, for example, entirely give up the rattan. Instead, it cultivated its roots. It came to understand the way its target customer thinks. Most importantly, it gave her an excuse to spend money.

Former "Cheers" star Kirstie Alley was the mouthpiece. But the point of the commercials in which she appeared wasn't that "Kirstie Alley thinks Pier 1 is cool." The message was: "Girlfriend, you've got an event coming up, and Pier 1 is going to help you pull this thing off."

This is a fundamental lesson in Communications 101 — not just for retailers but for suppliers as well. Because everybody and his home textiles-peddling dog these days is sending out the same word: This product is soft. This product is comfortable. This product has quality.

Doesn't matter if it's an ultra-luxury, goose down duvet or an egg-carton foam pad. Whether it's sitting on a shelf at Burdines or holding down an endcap at ShopKo, the message on the packaging (to the extent that it contains one) or the message on the signage (if there is any) reads the same.

The consumer products trade has long divided the world into what a woman wants and what a woman needs. What the trade has not been as quick to recognize is how readily, how eagerly a woman is willing to blur the line between the two.

Example: "The squared-off pillows look great. But I don't really need new pillows. Besides, nobody sees them under the pilowcases — so what's the point?"

Versus: "If my sister-in-law strips down the bed again before she leaves for the airport, I'll die of shame."

Pier 1 understood. Its marketing focused on occasions: throwing a party; guests coming to town. Its message was clear: These events absolutely require that you get new stuff. And, by the way, we've got it.

There are a host of occasions around which the case for buying new textiles can be made. Parties and out-of-town visitors are but two. Others include:

  • Moving: Do you really want to bring those ratty towels, those faded sheets and those yellowed mattress pads to your sparkling new home?

  • Divorce: If television commercials can depict real people hovering over real pregnancy tests (and not always hoping for positive results), surely there's a way to appeal to consumers faced with the painful necessity of setting up a new home.

  • Transitioning Mom to a seniors condo or apartment: It's a reality for literally millions of Baby Boomers.

The whole point is that lifestyle — that much-abused term — isn't defined by thread count, pile or fill. It's defined by life, and life is defined by private moments.

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