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CHANNEL LOCK.

Textiles, unlike perhaps any other home furnishings product classification, finds itself in a rather strange position: boxed in playing retail Russian roulette.

Coming off the April market cycle, business seemingly appears to be picking up all across the furnishings funway, which is, of course, good news for the industry.

But it doesn't hide the fact that the textiles component of the home business is suffering from a fatal flaw that just won't go away -- a highly concentrated distribution pattern that allows no broad-based outlet for better specialty goods.

Think about it: The housewares industry has a whole range of specialty operations, from local appliance independents to gourmet shops to national chains like Williams-Sonoma, that offer a channel for better goods, outside of traditional department stores and big-box operations.

The furniture industry goes that one better with a vast network of regionally based independent specialty stores, each wanting unique products in their trading areas. Tabletop, rugs -- the story is the same. Lots and lots of independent retail operations, many catering to the better trade and all of them viable alternatives to the usual retail behemoth suspects.

And then there's textiles. Between them, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Sears, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens 'n Things control about half of all retail sales in the wonderful world of sheets and towels. Throw in Federated and May, and you are looking at concentration levels that would make freeze-dried instant coffee jealous.

No one's ever quite worked up the math, but the specialty store component of the home textiles market -- the real mom-and-pops with one or two stores -- probably amounts to no more than 2 or 3 percent of industry sales. That's it.

It gets worse. There is no Williams-Sonoma in textiles. No Robb & Stuckey. No Sur La Table. No regional or mall-based national retailer who caters to an upscale customer. Yes, there's Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware, but textiles remains a relatively small (albeit growing) segment of these stores' merchandise mixes, and in terms of sheer volume, they just don't amount to much compared to what the big boys do each and every day.

All of this became painfully evident when you walked around the home textiles market this month, around the aisles of the Javits Center and the market buildings up and down Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There are some absolutely outstanding products being introduced. Check that: There are lots and lots of outstanding products being introduced. Fine fabrics. Exquisite sewing details. Great trims and color stories.

But there's no place for all of these products to go. The department stores might run two beds that aren't affiliated with a major designer brand. A cataloger like Chambers develops much of its product mix directly. And ABC Carpet & Home in New York is only one store, no matter how many upscale products it buys.

So you have lots of little resources -- some big ones, too -- competing for very limited placement slots. And lots and lots of great products ending up nowhere because there's nowhere to go in home textiles.

This is what makes the textiles industry different from the rest of the home business (there are other reasons, of course, but years of analysis have cured me of the memory of most of them). It's a fundamental reason why this segment struggles more than most, why its vendor base is the shakiest of any home classification and why the big retailers have more leverage here than anyplace else.

People will always buy sheets and towels, so there will always be an industry to serve that need. But it remains an industry all dressed up with no place to go.
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Article Details
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Author:Shoulberg, Warren
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 29, 2002
Words:610
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