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  • Andrea Lillo

Retailers study hot fashions with Back-to-School programs

With the arrival of the critical Back-to-School selling season, more retailers are appealing to an increasing sense of fashion among consumers through the use of collections from well-known apparel designers making the transition to home fashions.

A recent visit to stores on Long Island, NY, revealed that most retailers are still transitioning out of the summer/ outdoor living season, though Back-to-School appears to extend beyond providing extra-long sheets. Retailers continue to court this younger segment, which has disposable income and brand loyalty, with fashionable looks across many categories.

Young adults have several familiar names to choose from, as Todd Oldham, Joe Boxer and Nautica all include Back-to-School merchandise this year.

At the Target Greatland location in Westbury, NY, Todd Oldham's Dorm Room debut commanded a strong floor presence, displayed on 14 of 16 front endcaps in domestics, as well as separate exposures in the housewares and pictures and frames sections. Designer Todd Oldham has transferred his bold, bright look to home fashions, spanning rugs (3' 10' x 5' 5" rug from Beaulieu, $24.99), 180-count cotton/poly sheet sets ($15.99 for twin, extra-long twin or full) and bath towels ($4.99 for bath towel). In several simple yet bold patterns, such as stars and stripes, the products all coordinate and are in collegiate-oriented colors such as Gym Blue, Pom Pom Purple and Cheerleader Red.

At the Linens 'n Things location in Westbury, Destination Dorm confronts the consumer as soon as she walks into the store, with domestics on her right and the harder stuff to her left. Nautica dominates the section as the lead brand, with Back-to-School signage highlighting the University Plaid bedding pattern ($129.99 twin or extra-long twin bed set), which was above a dressed bed in that design. The Nautica program continues to expand, and two new patterns will be highlighted during the Back-to-School season, Steve Silverstein, president, recently said. Several of the other Nautica patterns, including Blackwatch ($24.99 for extra-long twin fitted sheet), had noted on their price charts that coordinating shower curtains could be found in the bath area. The store also displayed a sign that spelled out the products needed to dress an extra-long twin bed.

The next most prominent brand was LNT Attitude, found along the wall. It offered solid-color sheets in black, khaki, hunter green, cream, white, blue, red and denim with reversible comforters ($29.99, twin). Flannel and jersey knit sheets were found in bins in the section and the aisle, as were 220-count Wamsutta cotton sheets (twin extra long, $19.99)

Bedding ensemble patterns, including the bright graphic Pop Daisy and Chelsea, constructed of 200-count cotton/poly, were also displayed ($19.99, extra-long sheet set; $39.99, twin comforter). Springs' Graffiti 250-count pattern was also highlighted ($19.99, extra long twin sheet set; $39.99, twin comforter). Other products included Sleep Innovations' one-piece sheet set called Sleep Sack ($19.99), Berkshire Blanket's ball fringe throw ($19.99), and, elsewhere in the store, room-size rugs from Natco and robes from Teka.

Kmart plans to generate excitement for its Back-to-School season with its Joe Boxer collection, which is set to debut in several weeks. At the Big Kmart location in Westbury, several Joe Boxer products were already positioned on endcaps in the domestics section, though they were not labeled as Back-to-School. They included a bedding ensemble called a Snooze Kit (twin sheet set with comforter, $39.99) as well as "security blankets" and sleep pillows ($2.99 each) called "rest nests." The rest of the seasonal merchandise consisted mostly of stationary products, though several boxes, labeled Back-to-School and holding 5' x 7' rolled rugs, were found in the center of an aisle near domestics.

Bed Bath & Beyond's Westbury location placed Back-to-School merchandise in two areas, with the hard products, which also included bed rests and floor pillows, in the front of the store and linens near the back. Under banners touting "College and Beyond," the linens section showcased several brands, including Nautica, Wamsutta, American Pacific and Laura Ashley. Nautica ran up one section of the wall and included the patterns Tropical Punch (twin and twin extra-long bedding set, $129.99), Colorblock, Blackwatch, Gray Matters and Cambridge. Also in this section were styles from American Pacific's Match and Wamsutta.

Bed Bath's department also had bins of comforters (including a Laura Ashley twin comforter, $74.99), featherbeds and down comforters. Sheet sets were displayed on standalone fixtures and held Wamsutta ($19.99, extra long twin), American Pacific prints ($34.99, extra long twin), Springmaid no-iron sheets ($14.99, extra long twin) and heavyweight flannel (extra long twin, $29.99), among others. Aisle bins held body pillows from Wamsutta and Expand-a-Grip mattress pads from Louisville Bedding. Facing the Back-to-School section, the bath area highlighted the Wave bath stand, which held a toothbrush holder, soap dish, tumbler and lotion pump on a stand ($19.99).

At the Sears location here, the Back-to-School section, positioned right before the domestics department, was still being assembled. Branded as Campus Life, the available products included twin bed sets, solid-color sheet sets, mattress pads, Vellux blankets, flokati bed rests and pillows, and Aerobeds. One pattern was available as a bed set, in a dragonfly style (twin set, $59.99, extra long twin, $49.99). A twin extra-long mattress pad from Louisville Bedding was $9.99. Twin extra-long sheet sets were also available in several solid colors ($29.99). Inside the domestics area itself, more extra-long twin sheet sets were found with other sheets, though they were not identified as Back-to-School. Also branded as Campus Life, these sheet sets came in striped or solid 180-count sets (extra-long twin, $19.98) and solid-color jersey knit ($14.99).

JCPenney's signage for ClassPicks '02 faced consumers as soon as they stepped off the escalator at its location here, though its Back-to-School assortment is still a work in progress. Novel Tees, the extra-long twin jersey knit sheet sets from Franco Mfg., were placed in the middle of the aisle in domestics, on sale at $19.99 from $29.99 and in periwinkle, mauve, white and black. A dressed bed in front of the department displayed denim bedding, and bed rests in several colors were nearby. Highlighted as Class Picks in its weekly flyer, several bath towels were also on sale, including the Natural Affinity bath towel.

In Wal-Mart's Uniondale store, items tagged as Back-to-School were found only in the juvenile bed and bath aisle, as several extra-long sheets ($12.77, cotton/poly) were placed on the top shelf, next to a few king-size waterbed sheets. The juvenile products in this section were primarily Wal-Mart's No Boundaries line.

Analyst Joan Bogucki, Wedbush Morgan, Los Angeles, felt that the Back-to-School season has been increasingly important over the last few years. "The specialty stores are more focused on Back-to-School than they used to be," and discounters have been adding brands to "try to be differentiated." Cost Plus is another retailer that is expanding its Back-to-School assortment, she said, with a middle-of-the-store shop, part of its direction to increase its exposure in different holiday seasons. Bogucki said that it would be hard to predict how the season would perform, with the possibility of market volatility impacting consumer spending, but she also noted that retailers are up against easier comparisons.

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