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Accent rugs covering new ground.

NEW YORK--These days, there seems to be no ceiling to floor decor. From imported dhurries to longloop chenilles, printed olefins to fabric-bordered Berbers, accent rugs of every description are occupying more space in more retail venues.

When it comes to merchandising the category, regional discounters and specialty linen chains get the highest marks from vendors interviewed, while department stores are generally considered to be doing the poorest job. New venues include Home Depot, Crate & Barrel and furniture stores.

And the product has been upscaled. "Consumers are willing to pay a higher price for higher quality," said John Azzolino, vice president of merchandising and product development for American Rug Craftsmen. "Up until seven years ago, accent rugs were, to a large extent, synonymous with bath. But the category extends far beyond it at this point to include sisal looks, woven looks, coordinated products and heat-transfer designs."

But while the accent rug business is larger than that of bath rugs, confusion still reigns as to what's included in the category (is 4 by 6 accent or area?), where to put them (in the bath department or elsewhere?) and how best to display them.

There's not even consensus on what they should be called. While "accent" is the most common handle, "decorator," "throw," "occasional" and "scatter" are frequent modifiers.

Sally Ann Jacobs, design director of Hayim, objects only to the use of the term "scatter," which she said has a "derogatory connotation, like using rag instead of chindi. Anyway, accent is more descriptive of its function."

Which leads to another debate: Are accent rugs primarily functional or decorative? Whatever side you take, the answer is good for the category, because just as consumers are finding myriad uses for scatter rugs--in foyers, hallways, laundry rooms, proches, sitting areas, bedrooms, great rooms and kitchens--even where there's no functional reason to put down a rug, there's always a decorative one.

With all the beige and white walls nowadays, accent rugs can provide a welcome splash of color, design or texture. As testament to their decorative appeal, many consumers put them over wall-to-wall carpeting.

The key size is 30 by 50 inches. "It used to be a 3-by-5-foot, but like everything, things have been downsized," said Dave Graham, vice president of sales for Georgia Tufted. One reason for the appeal of this size: "It doesn't look like a bath rug," he said.

While there's general agreement on the importance of 30 by 50s, there's a debate over what other sizes belong in an accent rug program.

Azzolino of American Rug Craftsmen said accent rugs are "anything 4 by 6 and under."

But Jeff Cohen, vice president of sales for Homemaker, includes in the category only rugs measuring 2 by 3 or 3 by 5. "A 4 by 6 becomes no man's land," he said, noting they are sometimes referred to as coffee table rugs or entrance way rugs.

Jacobs of Hayim said accent rugs should not include size 4 by 6 because they bring too much pattern or color to a room. "It's an area rug because it makes a considerable difference in a room," she said.

That's not the view of Glenoit Mills, which includes 5 by 8 rugs in the category, according to Bob Dale, executive vice president. Glenoit, a major player in kitchen rugs and welcome mats, is making a push in the decorator rug category.

But the bottom line, size-wise, is what retailers think, and they seem eager to add bigger sizes to their accent rug assortments.

The success of Park B. Smith's Eco-ordinates scatter rugs has prompted the company to introduce larger sizes at next month's market here. "We found the 4 by 6 was so strong that we're going to add 5 by 8 and 6 by 9," said owner Park B. Smith.

The trick for retailers will be making room for them. "The specialty stores want to carry the larger ones, but they don't know how to house them," Smith said.

Jim Gravalis, president of Burlington House Rugs, the industry leader in accent rugs, agreed that big rugs need breathing room. "There are problems with display when you get over 4 by 6. We put a lot of capital expenditure into making great designs in great colorways. You can't turn around and fold them up. Large rugs have to be displayed."

While most retailers consider the accent rug category separate from bath, and house them accordingly, there is still a blurring of the lines between the two.

Many department stores continue to sell accent rugs in their bath department; many bath buyers are also the accent rug buyers; and more and more consumers are putting accent rugs in their bathrooms/dressing rooms, as these rooms grow larger.

Most vendors interviewed say department stores are making a mistake merchandising accent rugs in the bath department.

"It's ludicrous that department stores lump everything together," said one vendor.

If department stores don't "get it" yet, that's because the channel is just starting to get back into a high-margin, highturn category it had ceded, along with area rugs, to discounters.

Arnie Stevens, vice president of sales and marketing for Maples, cites department stores' rediscovery of the category as offering growth opportunities.

Maples launched the Roomers line last year to address a void in the upstairs market for washable accent rugs. "The issue of easy care is very important to the upstairs consumer," said Stevens. "But department stores abdicated the category when chains and mass merchants began offering washable rugs. Now with accent rugs growing faster than bath rugs, upstairs retailers are interested in getting back into them."

Maples has differentiated its Roomers line from the mass market product by innovative design achieved with intricate tufting and better-dyed yarns combined with a unique, jute-like backing it calls Dura-Luxe, which gives the machine-made rug the upstairs look of a tabletop construction.

When department stores walked away from decorator rugs, they were left with rows of solid-color bath rugs that looked no different from those of their competitors, noted Paul Belo, vice president of marketing for Bacova Guild, a division of Burlington House.

"We're returning the category to a decorating statement," Belo said. "We have a number of very upscale rugs, especially our printed cottons and Berbers with 2 1/2-half inch fabric border."

Bacova's forte, printed accent rugs, provides retailers an easy way to differentiate themselves. Bacova also offers a range of fibers, including cotton, olefin, Berber and natural jute. In addition to prints, it recently introduced a foambacked woven jacquard collection.

But style, design and color have boosted the category in all channels.

"We not only silk-screen print on cotton, we also heat-transfer on polyester base," said Azzolino. "Transitioning from a welcome mat to an accent rug is our four-color heat-transfer line called Art-Works; the most popular style is a 30 by 20 designed to retail at $9.99 and below."

Major area rug companies such as Shaw Industries, Couristan and Milliken are seeking to increase their businesses by entering the accent rug fray with printeds and wovens. Shaw's woven patterns, for example, include animal, botanical, celestial, neoclassical and seasonal designs, to name just a few.

Industry experts put total retail sales for 1995 at $550 million to $600 million and say the category has grown annually at a rate of 10 to 15 percent for the past five years.

It's "absolutely a growth category," said Gravalis.

Newmark's accent rug business has "more than tripled in the last year," said Merle Johnson, vice president.

Hayim's annual sales have "gone from $17 million to $42 million in the last six years--all on the strength of accent rugs," said Jacobs.

And accent rugs have come to represent half of Antigua Mills' business, according to Tony Benson, vice president of sales and marketing.

What's driving demand? Many things.

Cohen of Homemaker said the category has been hot "because it's the least expensive way to make an impact in the room."

He also cited an increase in multiple sales. "Consumers often buy an accent rug or runner to go with an area rug," he said. "That's why we're transcending traditional accent/area rug definitions and running everything from a 2 by 3 to a 9 by 12. We also try to merchandise solids along with patterns to utilize the same palette. Rugs become a way to dress the home, almost a mix-and-match approach."

While accent rugs "don't have a season per se," Cohen adds, "When the weather gets crummy, consumers look at them from a utility standpoint as well as a decorative one, as something to help keep the house clean and warm."

Cohen also sees an increase in accent rugs in the bath. "The average consumer may see an `accent' rug and say, `Why can't I use that in my bathroom?' "

Burlington's Gravalis said accent rugs allow consumers to "express their individuality. In wall-to-wall carpeting, everything is solid; in accent rugs, you have a multitude of aesthetics from which to choose, a cornucopia of styling that's available, both in imports and domestics."

Also fueling the growth: an increase of wood and tile flooring. Accent rugs protect hard flooring from dirt and scuff marks; complement it with color, pattern and texture, and dampen sound.

Another reason for the popularity of accent rugs is a transient population. "You can pick them up, so they're good for urban dwellers," Gravalis said. "How many people who live in a city carpet their floors?"

The category has grown because the product has improved, said Hayim's Jacobs. "Dhurries used to be thin and lightweight," she said. "Now they're heavy, thick and densely woven. There's a certain value people didn't find previously in handmades."

Accent rugs are sold both as stand-alones and in coordinate stories. American Rug Craftsmen does a line of cotton rugs that match Crown Crafts comforter ensembles. They are fully bound using fabric from the bedspread that is placed on the outside edge all the way around the rug.

Said Newmark's Johnson: "Most stores have gone with things that are geared to coordinated ensembles because it's easier to show and easier for the consumer to understand. We have coordinates that go with Martex bedding, but we also have many designs that stand on their own."

Hayim's Jacobs said if a customer has an item that's selling very well "they will sometimes ask for a rug to complement it. It's not a license situation; they give me an idea of what the look is. But generally I try to appeal to broad trends, such as denim or khaki."

Although many fibers are thriving, there are some key trends. One is the increasing importance of cotton.

"For accent rugs, cotton has become a stronger fiber," said Georgia Tufted's Graham, citing its dyeing capability, the fact that it can be made flame retardant and its tactile quality.

"I see cotton to be a growing share of the accent rug market, representing 20 to 25 percent of the total business," added Michael Castillo, vice president of sales and marketing for Lacey Rug Mills.

On the synthetic side, polypropylene is growing in importance. For example, all of American Rug Craftsmen's woven and sisal-look rugs are made of polypropylene.

Explained Georgia Tufters' Graham: "First, it's inexpensive. Second, because it's a plastic, it's stain-resistant and doesn't fade. And third, it's no longer thought of as a harsh, industrial-type of fiber; it has a softer hand."

As for new channels, Cohen of Homemaker said, "Home centers are becoming more and more involved in decorative floor products."

While some see furniture stores as a promising venue, others say their emphasis is in area rugs because furniture salespeople tend to be on commission, and don't push small-ticket items.

"Furniture stores do use accent rugs as props to dress up a room," Cohen said. "This reenforces the consumer image of where and how to use an accent rug."
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Author:Adler, Sam
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Mar 4, 1996
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