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  • Warren Shoulberg

Of Shoes and Sheets

Warren Shoulberg Publisher/Editorial DirectorWarren Shoulberg Publisher/Editorial Director
There's a fascinating dynamic going on in general merchandise retailing that may have some real relevance to the home textiles business. It's all about shoes.
     Over the past year or so, a number of department store operations - Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, Nordstrom - have relaunched their shoe departments within flagship and larger locations, aiming to make them destinations for shoppers.
     We're talking major investments in real estate, fixturing and store personnel, not to mention inventory for what has historically been one of the most sku intensive classifications on the modern retail-selling floor.
     This is not a coincidence that these three big stores have all come to the same conclusion at the same time. First off, shoe departments have always been a core category for general merchandise stores and each of these three retailers were not exactly slouches in their assortments before.
     In fact, Nordstrom really began in the shoe business and it has always been the cornerstone of its business.
    That has also been the case at other retail operations of years gone by. The old Sears and Penney stores used to have big kids shoe departments as a way to establish themselves as the place where newly formed family units did their shopping. More recently Kohl's adapted the same strategy.
     So, shoe departments as a merchandising strategy is nothing new. But what is new is that retailers see footwear as a classification more impervious to inroads from online retailers. It's a purchase where personal interaction with a salesperson is critical and one where direct contact with the product is key, given variations in sizing, materials and colors.
     Zappos notwithstanding, it's a tough category for Internet operations to get right.
     Which brings us back to home textiles and more specifically sheet departments. Certainly shopping for sheets has many of the same characteristics as shopping for shoes. It's a purchase where seeing the color and feeling the fabric in person is integral with buying decision. It's also one where selection and inventory are essential elements.
     Yes, you don't have all the sizes and heel heights and widths of shoes, but that aside, sheets could serve the same role in home textiles departments as footwear does in apparel.
     Could a store position itself as the headquarters for sheets, the place with the largest in-person assortment and a guaranteed in-stock position (even if it is backed up with a drop ship component from a central warehouse)? A department with trained sales people who know the difference between percale and pima and can actually explain what thread count means?
     If in-store retailers are looking for a way to combat showrooming, go up against online competitors and build a real traffic-building foundation in their stores, they could do a lot worse than doing it with sheets.
     I'm just waiting for someone to try it on for size.

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