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Jennifer Marks

Coming to terms

At one point during the New York winter market last week, I was sitting in a showroom surrounded by throws and decorative pillows. The conversation turned to Heimtextil 2003, and the trade show's interest in making the United States its spotlight country — an attempt to bulk up the deeply depleted pool of U.S. suppliers that exhibit at the international event.

The owner of the throw company said that he might exhibit at next year's show, that in fact he was already considering such a move before the "spotlight country" business had been announced. But if he indeed decides to go ahead with it, he said, he would probably exhibit as a Chinese company — even though his operation is based in Texas.

Why? The majority of his goods are imported from China, and by mid-year, he will probably be importing all of his goods from there.

"I don't think they'd consider us a U.S. company," he said. "And when you think about it, are we really? I don't know."

The U.S. Department of Commerce is experiencing a similar difficulty. Until five months ago, it considered a U.S. supplier to be any company that produced 100 percent of its product in the United States — that was Commerce's standard for participation in the U.S. Pavilion at Heimtextil, at least. Last September, it knocked back the standard to 51 percent. There has been some speculation that if Commerce wants to make a beefy U.S. showing as a spotlight country at Heimtextil, it might need to scale back even further.

If it's difficult to define what constitutes a U.S. supplier these days, it's equally difficult to come up with a pure definition for importers in the current marketplace. One could argue that a true importer would be a company such as Bombay Dyeing & Manufacturing that develops product to customer specs and ships it into the United States but that maintains no U.S. sales and marketing office.

If that's a real import company, then what label do we apply to Divatex and Keeco? Each develops product in conjunction with their customers, and all of it is imported. Both have offices in the United States. Are they U.S. suppliers or are they really importers?

The increasingly polyglot nature of the home textiles industry is chafing against terminology that was shaped by a traditional manufacturing structure that is itself moving to some degree of importing. We know that structure is changing, but we seem to be having a tough time deciding how to get our arms around what it is that the industry is becoming.

It could be that the day is fast approaching when we stop talking about "U.S. suppliers" and start referring to companies as "suppliers to the United States," regardless of where they plant their flags.

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