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Gribetz: Communication Key

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, June 8, 2009

Home furnishings retailers must use every means of communications they can to maintain and build their links with today's consumers.

Department stores especially must become more aware of how people are living today with major changes in lifestyles "and swing with the changes." This is the view of Lester Gribetz, recently named president of Lenox.

Gribetz, a 60-year veteran of home furnishings as well as other endeavors, mostly at Bloomingdale's, sees retailing overall "as stuck in a malaise. They're struggling to get customers into the stores."

The current focus on cheap as a driving force to bring people into the stores will not succeed, he contends, saying that "the fact that people are entertaining and living in a more casual style doesn't mean they are not buying quality or fashion."

From his most recent experience as executive vp for product development for Waterford/Wedgwood and now heading the venerable Lenox China business, he asserted, "We know that there is a whole cultural change."

As an example, he cites the fine dinnerware category. "Today it's dishwasher- and microwave-safe with more durability and versatility than in the past. Brides are using fine china as affordable luxury with good quality for everyday. And they're mixing it with casual at the same time."

Gribetz will be honored June 11 by the National Home Furnishings division of the Anti-Defamation League with the organization's Lifetime Achievement award.

He joined Bloomingdale's in 1954 as a member of the executive training program and rose to vice chairman in 1989. He left the store in 1992 to become a marketing consultant and returned to the store in 2001 as vp, home furnishings fashion direction. He left to join parent company Macy's, where he was head of creative home merchandising. He left Macy's in 2004 to become a consultant.

In an exclusive interview with Home Textiles Today, he noted "Kids today are sophisticated, [they] learn, get background and knowledge. They're very sensitive to things like overpriced stores, which have a limited future."

These consumer changes are taking place at every level of home furnishings, he contends. In home textiles, he said, "The industry missed an opportunity to define quality and instead focused on thread counts. It created a lot of confusion rather than giving a definition of what is quality." Instead, he said, the emphasis should be on comfort, design, finish and texture.

"The home textiles industry really hasn't been able to tell its story. It needs to be more aggressive about developing and marketing new merchandise. It's the most affordable piece of redecorating."

An example of excitement and product development in the home textiles world, Gribetz noted, "was the [Bardwil] introduction of the pearl and cotton towel a few years back that was an unbelievable success." The key, he added, was that it was "thirsty." Also attractive to consumer in towels, he added, are silk/cotton and bamboo/cotton.

Department stores, in particular among retailers, are especially challenged. "They must give more forward design plus service." In addition to offering exciting new merchandise on a regular basis, "they must be technologically and service-oriented. Retailing is theater. Customers must get an emotional rush. It's the same challenge as a Broadway show."

In addition, retailers must better educate their sales people. "They have a following and they are the personification of the stores."

While retailers have their challenges for the future, the same holds true for suppliers. "They have to be the catalysts to provide newness in product with margin-rich pricing, quality and a program for educating sales people. Suppliers will become reciprocal partners to stores."

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