• Cecile Corral

China Stuns Bath Accessories Makers

Sudden Plant Shutdowns Spark Scramble

The rash of factory closings in China over the past several months — whether for environmental, economic or bureaucratic purposes — has dealt a blow to some members of the U.S.-based home furnishings industry.

This escalating trend has bath accessory suppliers, in particular, worried about the future of the category's production there.

China is deemed the best manufacturing source for ceramic, resin and hand-painted bath accessories in the world, with major bath accessory players heavily reliant on the country's factories to produce these labor-intensive goods at low costs.

But a heap of still-mounting problems — including the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, high raw material prices, emerging Chinese governmental labor restrictions, and air pollution clean-up efforts related to the Olympics — is forcing many factories to shut down operations in mid-stride, suddenly and permanently in some cases. Bath accessory suppliers are rushing to find replacements to take over and provide the goods on time to demanding retailers.

The southern region of China, where in recent years many Taiwanese investors set up shop, is said to have been hit particularly hard by the sudden closings.

"They came and taught the business and technique to many laborers in southern China, and now they are finding it difficult to stay in business with the devaluation of the dollar and stricter labor-related requirements from the Chinese government," explained Carl Legreca, president, New York-based Croscill Home. "This tough economy is forcing them to shut down and go away."

Croscill experienced its first factory shut-down eight to 12 months ago, LeGreca said. Since then, three others have abruptly closed down in the middle of production on a Croscill program.

"They'll shut down whenever they want to — the Chinese government then seizes the factory, and you aren't allowed to take your goods out, even if they've been paid for," Legreca said.

From that point, it's a "scramble," said Jodi Messina, product manager of licensed brands, Blonder Home Fashions (Cleveland). Suppliers say what ensues is a frantic run to locate another factory to create that lost program from scratch and get it to retailers. "Once, [a factory closing] caused us to be a good six weeks late on shipping to a customer," Messina said, referring to one of two times Blonder had a Chinese factory abruptly end production. "Our customers have been pretty understanding, but in one instance we had to have a program sent by air to meet a deadline."

Central Islip, N.Y.-based Creative Bath Products said the reasons were "ambiguous" in July when a southern China factory shut its doors in the middle of an ongoing program. "They were making this ceramic bath accessories program for us, and it has been ongoing for a few seasons now with a major customer of ours," said Bob Weiss, director of sales and marketing. "But then, out of blue, they stopped and don't want to make it anymore."

Creative Bath is seeking a replacement factory to restart production, but "we're having a tough time because this collection uses a special glaze on it that only our [former] partner factory could do."

A solution to this problem hasn't been found yet. "Unfortunately, most countries can't touch China on its bath accessories manufacturing capabilities on certain goods, like ceramic and resin and hand-painted items that are very labor intensive," Messina said.

"We are always looking but we haven't been able to find anyone outside of China who can make these bath accessories," agreed Dale Talbert, svp, of Panorama City, Calif.-based Veratex. "Who can compete with China on accessories?"

Boonton, N.J.-based Allure Home Creation, the category sales leader at $83 million in 2007, hasn't suffered a factory shutdown to date. "We are protected in that respect because of our strategic alliances with several major factories in China," explained Gabrielle Colquitt, vp design and marketing. Still, Allure has "definitely been affected" by the issues plaguing the defunct factories. "There is a lot of change going on," she said.

Cecile CorralCecile Corral | Senior Product Editor, Home & Textiles Today

Cecile B. Corral has been a product editor with Home Textiles Today since late 2000. She covers the area and accent rug, kitchen textiles, table linens, beach towels, decorative bath and decorative pillow categories, as well as some retail subjects.

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