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Cecile Corral

Table linen sales status quo in '01

Suppliers cited several factors for the table linen category's flat results in 2001 — sales leveled off at $660 million — including the commodity approach by suppliers and the growth of competitive categories.

That and other statistics are based on an annual survey by Home Textiles Today titled "The Facts: Table Linens," which gives category suppliers a statistical analysis and trend forecast for this home textiles segment.

"It's been flat for several years because there is no imagination or initiative in this business," said Kurt Hamburger, president and managing director, New York-based Lintex Linens. "Everybody runs after each other, and everyone knocks off and destroys any good item. They reduce quality and price until there is nothing left, and then everyone drops it."

Distribution of table linens remained strongest at the discount store level, which took 54 percent of the market share, or $356 million total — a 12.5 percent increase over 2000.

Bud Frankel, president, New York-based Arlee, said table linen sales have been flat because of the growth in place mats at the expense of tablecloths.

"The consumer doesn't have time to wash tablecloths," Frankel said. "It's easier for her to use place mats, and it's more of a fashion today." This development is directly related to home specialty chains shifting their distribution, Frankel added. "They used to do a bigger portion of their table linen business in tablecloths, which has higher tickets. But now that they've switched more to place mats, they are seeing lower tickets."

But the large volume of store closings and Chapter 11 filings and retailers' push to lower price points were more to blame for the category's lackluster year, said Eric Vergucht, executive vp and general manager, New York-based Terrisol.

"We gained new customers, but we have lost some old customers because of the changes that occurred at retail and the many store closings," he said. "Also, retailers have become very aggressive in their price structure. They are very sale-oriented in a category that has been battled very strongly at price points."

Longtime industry veteran George Matouk Sr., president of New York-based Matouk, said there is "a lack of customer awareness of table linens."

Strong fourth-quarter holiday business may have been largely responsible for maintaining annual table linens sales. That was the case for many suppliers, including Long Beach, CA-based Foreston Trends.

"We were happy to maintain our standing thanks to the fourth quarter, which even though it was affected by [the terrorist events of] Sept. 11, our harvest business was very strong," said Richard Gould, vp, sales manager, Foreston Trends.

Park B. Smith Ltd., based in New York, also experienced a spike in sales during the fourth quarter for its holiday product.

"We had our largest sell-through in the history of our company last Christmas, which catapulted our sales at February mini-market," said Park B. Smith Jr., president and ceo.

Overall, importing grew by 6 percent from 2000 to 2001, making up 89 percent, or $587 million, vs. domestic manufacturing, which shrunk by 31.3 percent, representing 11 percent of the business.

At Louisville, KY-based Louisville Bedding, importing has been on a steady incline over the past two years, with further growth projected for 2002.

"Importing has driven the sell price down, but we have no choice but to import in order to stay competitive," said Pat Rudavsky, national sales manager, fashion, Louisville Bedding. "For us, 45 percent to 50 percent of our goods are imported."

The role of licensing declined by 33.3 percent to a mere 8 percent share of the business vs. non-licensed goods, which make up 92 percent, or $607 million, of the business.

"It's true that the vendor base has not provided enough innovation, but many buyers have shied away from taking risks," said Frank Scalice, executive vp, Town & County, based in New York. "For example, there are some really good licenses out there that retailers are not taking advantage of and not taking the risks to make them work. Compared to bedding and bath, kitchen and table are both small businesses. Licensing helps with innovation and differentiation."

For New York-based Bardwil Linens, licensing is becoming an increasingly important business.

"We've been very careful with the licenses we've picked. Our Bardwil brand is 80 percent of our business, but I see our licensing and branding definitely growing and taking a bigger piece of that — it has to with our whole Lenox launch," said Nancy Kristoff, president, Bardwil. "Now everyone is sort of realizing it makes sense to marry up with the tabletop china companies — Wedgwood, Villeroy & Boch, Waterford and Lenox. These patterns obviously don't change day in and day out. These are repeat customers who buy 12 place settings of china and, given the option to add textiles that have the same look, will buy the whole set."

But Windham Weavers, which recently became a table linen licensee of Gear, doesn't place a heavy emphasis on licensed product offerings.

"If you think about it, licensing is not really that important," said Howie Mallow, executive vp. "If it looks good and price is right, it will sell well."

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