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Jennifer Marks

Suppliers Poised to Aid Retailers

The fourth-quarter and fiscal year reports that have come out in recent weeks were, as expected, not so hot. A batch of first-quarter reports is on its way next month. Those, too, are likely to reflect the uncertain times.

In an environment like this, it's hard to know where to point the finger. The economy? Certainly. Pressured consumers? Absolutely. But the new brands? The old brands? Was the store too promotional or not promotional enough? Those questions are harder to answer.

If new launches, such as Martha at Macy's, Canopy at Wal-Mart and American Living at JCPenney, underperform the expectations set for them at conception a year ago, will it be because the brands “missed” or because no one could have foreseen the nerve-wracking economic scenario during which they would debut?

At a time when families are focused on paying for food, gas, housing, school and medical bills that all keep rising, I'm betting Kmart's rollout of $1 over-the-counter medicines will attract more notice than its $9.99 sheet sets. (I hope I'm wrong.)

Adding to the anxiety for retailers are the ersatz Carl Icahns swirling around their enterprises. Earlier this month, Duckwall-Alco's ceo was ousted and its board cut to five directors, four of them new appointees presumably in line with the views of Strongbow Capital Ltd., holder of some 14.3% of regional discounter's shares.

Last week, an affiliate of hedge fund Barington Capital Group announced it will nominate four people for seats on Dillard's 12-member board of directors. Target Stores announced it is looking to sell about half of its credit-card receivables, a move advocated for several months by Pershing Square Capital Management, which acquired 9.6% of Target common stock last summer.

Suppliers have done an admirable job in sharpening their prices despite universally rising raw material costs and the growing inflation scenario in China. They've also concocted a plethora of technologically enhanced products that can lend some real differentiation to the home textiles field.

They may be just the thing stressed-out consumers need to help them sleep at night.

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