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Registries provide retail opportunity on occasion

Andrea Lillo, Staff Staff -- Home Textiles Today, May 21, 2001

NEW YORK — Call it "occasion retailing": the strategy of directing consumers to products appropriate for common gift-giving events. It is also the single sphere in which retailers from all channels seem to have successfully integrated clicks and bricks, the holy grail of modern merchandising. And recent initiatives by both retailers and manufacturers suggest it is an area that offers potential for growth as consumer spending retreats to more sober levels.

Wal-Mart premiered its registry program, available in all 2,600 of its stores, in late April. Previously, a few select stores operated their own bridal registries, the company said. This is the first time the program has been rolled out across the store base. Registry kiosks, located in the jewelry department, allow consumers to register for a variety of occasions, including bridal. Although the fledgling service has not yet been linked to walmart.com, every product in the store is available on the registry.

Target also is in the midst of heightening the profile on one of its registry services, Club Wedd. The retailer has become the exclusive sponsor of the second annual series, "Today Throws a Wedding," on NBC's "Today" show. The series began on April 23 and will conclude with a live, on-air wedding in September. Target also has a baby registry, called Lullaby Club.

Many retailers are making efforts to expand the number of occasions for which registries are used, but bridal registries still account for the biggest share of the business. And over the past five years, the presence of home textiles in the product mix has grown.

Though tabletop products "reign supreme" in bridal registries and cookware, small electronics and such are the first things purchased by brides-to-be, Kathy Kimple, vp, store systems for Clifton, NJ-based Linens 'N Things, said, "We're seeing more textiles appearing and being purchased in registries."

Susan Miller, vp, shopping services, Bloomingdale's, based here, agreed. "Traditionally," she said, "everyone focused on the traditional bridal gifts of china, crystal and silver. But in the last 10 years or so, consumers have become more sophisticated and savvy," by which she meant an interest in product expansion. "Textiles add great value to the registry," she said, especially if the couple chooses quality products. "It could be the longest-lasting purchase they make."

Linens 'N Things renovated and relaunched its online registry this past November, expanding the offerings as well as making the experience on the site and in the stores as close as possible. Since then, LNT has seen "a very healthy amount of registering online, particularly in the last three months," Kimple said.

Home textiles on the registry, which includes fashion bedding and towels, are treated like every other category at the specialty retailer, she said; and though the "lion's share" of registry business at LNT is bridal, the retailer also offers an all-purpose celebration registry, as well as a housewarming one. "We are very pleased with our offering," Kimple said. "We're very competitively priced, and we have great services. And having brick-and-mortar stores in 40 states as well as an online presence is a real selling point."

Bloomingdale's Miller sees an increased level of fashionability in registries now, including the involvement of more apparel designers in bedding, for example, which is "wonderful," she said. "But it also means product has shorter life cycles."

She also sees better-quality products overall being selected for registries. In towels, for example, consumers are choosing upgraded products such as Charisma and Egyptian cotton "because this is something you'll use a lot," she said.

Bedding offers a tremendous opportunity on registries, she added. In the past, consumers have been hesitant to buy someone a product as intimate as bedding, Miller said, but "people don't have those concerns anymore." And bedding offers so many more items, from sheets, duvets, bed skirts, pillows and such.

Table linens are a category that is very underdeveloped on registries, Miller said, but it is the perfect partner for china and silverware. "People are somewhat intimidated by table linens; they don't see that in their lifestyle and tend to register for more practical things like coffeemakers," she said. "But there is a growing appreciation, and people understand that they don't have to have sit-down dinners to own a nice tablecloth." After the big event is over, Bloomingdale's offers couples a discount on the registered items they did not receive as gifts.

Though textiles are a small part of Crate & Barrel's product line, gift registries are a huge part of Crate's business — 22 percent, according to founder Gordon Segal.

And textiles are a natural complement to Crate & Barrel's hard offerings. Crate has offered Marimekko sheets for years, along with more specialty sheets in its furniture stores, which cater to that market.

Crate recently launched its updated online registry, allowing brides to register on the Web, in addition to in the store and by fax. Segal has pointed out in the past that though the site gives the customer the convenience of registering without entering the store, it "cuts down on impulse buying."

Online registry sites are very important, but as of now only as a complement — not a substitute — for the stores, since generally the site offers only a selection of what is in the store. Bloomingdale's Miller also felt that visiting the store is more beneficial, especially for a category that is so touchable. "It has a personal sensibility," she said. "No one needs to touch china or crystal like they do textiles." Another benefit of being in the store is the recommendation of additional product from salespeople, which can not be offered online.

Though manufacturers are somewhat removed from direct contact with brides, some do become more involved with the registry market.

At this past market, WestPoint Stevens introduced bridal packaging for sheet sets to retailers. In light blue, the packaging has a wrap-around image of a bride and outside copy that says, "A gift for your wedding."

"It makes it clear that it's a bridal gift," said Ida Moran, director of product innovation, WestPoint Stevens. "Its attractive packaging gets the consumer's attention, making it an impulse buy that's especially suited to a retailer's website or catalog."

WestPoint also reaches out to the consumer directly, having advertised in such consumer publications as Modern Bride and Brides. It also just signed a contract with www.modernbride.com to work on a bridge site to launch this summer, which will feature its products and encourage brides to register for them with retailers.

At Springs Industries, however, the company strives for a broad audience, rather than designing specifically for the bridal market. In fact, the process is "transparent — you can't tell if you're shipping a regular bedding product or a bridal one," said Susan Carver, director of e-commerce and brand manager, Springs, since all of the procedures are the same. "We design for a lifestyle image; but if a bride buys it, that's fine also," she said.

At Bardwil Linens, however, "everything is custom to each account," said Gretchen Dale, executive vp, marketing, Bardwil Linens. It hasn't been easy since table linens are the "stepchild" of the industry and customers don't always understand the category until they are exposed to it, she said. The manufacturer started marketing its Royal Velvet solid linens to brides two years ago by giving the china salespeople color cards and packaging, and it blossomed from there, she said.

In one case, a salesperson sent 10 brides to the table linen department within hours of getting the color cards.

The program has since expanded with the Royal Velvet damask and mitered damask linens. "Once we get the bride hooked, we have them for life," she said.

A natural progression from the bridal registries are ones for babies. Crown Crafts Infant Products targets this segment with a high-end line and a mass line, said Nanci Freeman, president of the division. Crown Crafts first broke into baby with the purchase of the brand Red Calliope a few years ago, followed by NoJo. Both have been around for years, she said, and are familiar brands in the baby market. Products include bedding, blankets and accessories such as head supports. Licensed product is also a big part, and for the high-end division includes Beatrice Potter, Guess, Classic Looney Tunes and Waverly. The mass division has Baby Blue's Clues, Precious Moments and Disney Pooh.

Freeman works with the same buyers for the registry as for the non-registry, and product can either be special ordered or bulk shipped for stock.

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