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NEW YORK-There was a time, many years ago, when during meetings with vendors, tabletop buyers would spin a dinner plate made in China on the conference room table and watch to see whether it would wobble.

Wobbly plates, the mark of inferior quality, were the domain of low-end store buyers and what was expected from a Chinese factory. But that was a long time ago. A wide variety of commodity-type product has been coming in from China for years, but more often than not, today's goods made there are of superior quality and are attracting attention from high-end retailers.

Chinese factories, fueled by foreign investment, are now comprised of highly technical, state-of-the-art machinery capable of turning out the finest dinnerware and glassware. Hand-painted capability in China has also vastly improved.

"The hand-painting and the sculpting are excellent," said Bernie Mandel, national sales manager for Jay Import, which started to develop a business in China five years ago and now imports most of its product from the

country. "Customers think merchandise that comes out of China is from Portugal or Italy. The glazes and molds are fantastic."

"China is the number-one option, without a doubt," said Sal Gabbay, executive vice president of Gibson Overseas, a company that has long worked in China and featured many Chinese-made goods at the recent International Housewares Show in Chicago. "It is an unbelievable marriage: the best dinnerware at the lowest cost."

China's entry into the world market will guarantee the continued manufacture of top-quality tabletop, said vendors, and may ultimately step up competition.

In the next few years, as quotas in Europe are lessened or removed, many tabletop companies there, following the example of the Americans and the Japanese, will start doing more business in China. That, combined with heavier European and Asian investment in China, will force price points down.

"In many European countries, they have quotas on how much ceramics can come in from China," explained Chuck Gallagher, senior vice president of sales and marketing for PTS America, which imports some of its product from China. "If they [China] get into the World Trade Organization, it will have an impact that could be devastating for Europe," he said, adding that European "consumers will benefit; manufacturers will not."

Much of the production going on in other countries, including Japan, is now filtering into China. "China is like a magnet," said Gabbay. "Everyone is convinced. China takes a leadership position."

The removal of trade barriers can further help American tabletop companies doing business with China. "Duties are not substantial now," said Paul Baughman, president of B.I.A. Cordon Bleu. "If lessened, it would be beneficial to us."

In addition to modernizing their factories, the Chinese have become experts in certain manufacturing techniques, such as glazing. They are also trying to better understand the American market.

One of the challenges of doing business in China, said Matt Haley, marketing manager for Corelle, is ensuring consistent quality. "That's where strides need to be made," he said. The Chinese are developing resources to understand why Americans demand certain standards. "It's an educational process. They're definitely coming up the curve in understanding the American market."

Another area where vendors see some improvement is turnaround time. "Because of the newness of doing business there, things didn't happen very quickly," said Jay Import's Mandel. "I see that improving."

Corelle, a division of World Kitchen and one of the leading tabletop brands in the United States, has its ceramic accessories -- Corelle Coordinates -- made in China, and Haley said he expects the country to play a more important role in tabletop in the future.

Corelle always looks to the Far East for business opportunities, Haley said. "Whenever we look at new programs, there is typically a Chinese component."
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Author:Zisko, Allison; story, Carla Webb contributed to this
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Feb 19, 2001
Previous Article:FURNITURE BRIEFS.

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