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The why of what works where.

New York--Why can some home textile retailers successfully sell product categories that other merchants fail with? Why can some types of stores sell certain important home fashion lines that others stores find their customers won't buy? These are timely questions because all retailers are considering new lines of merchandise to add.

What's the next sheet to bring into stock? Which new towel? How to sustain interest on Bed-in-a-Bag after so many years of constant promotional emphasis? Which retail trade will take the major share of electric blanket and automatic mattress pad sales, and of flannel sheets, now in their prime selling season?

One category I felt chain discounters could add to their selections was the "naturals," mainly bath towels sold without the dyes and chemicals generally applied Here are items the finest department end specially stores sell for up to $15, in established brands like Fieldcrest Royal Velvet. There's a market for these cottons. How could they not also do well in discount outlets at lower prices that bring them within the reach of more consumers?

Cannon made a fine value line in the naturals, in 27 by 50 solids and wovens a little smaller. They were put on sale by some discounters from $3.99, and represented an outstanding choice when such sizes and weights were in fine catalogs at three times the price. Cannon recently discontinued this natural group because of lagging sales and interest. Did these naturals fail or did the merchants handling them fail? I feel strongly that what does business at higher prices in such basics can also be sold elsewhere. The difference is how they are presented, described. They require a touch more amplification than conventional towels at such prices.

It would seem that Egyptian cotton towels, the premium royalty of all towel fibers, would be harder for chain discounters to sell successfully than the naturals. But this has not been the case. Egyptian cotton towels are products most Americans saw before only in the finest linen stores and catalogs, mainly imports from England that retailed near $20.

Yet when discounters added them, they sold favorably, mostly near the same lower prices that were put on the naturals. The reason, said merchants, is that Egyptian cotton is superior and favored. And when such attributes are coupled with interesting pricing--from $6.99 to $7.99--the results are good. The fact is, such Egyptian cotton towels are now priced near quality combed solids and near pima blends. Today, more Egyptian cotton towels are sold, in units, in national chains like Sears and Penney's and in discount outlets like Target than in all other department and specialty stores combined--a feat that can still be achieved in naturals, in solids and textured effects.

Another product line I had high hopes for in 1996 that failed was kitchen towels developed for the Royal Velvet program and bearing that highly regarded name; it was discontinued for lack of support by the department specialty stores it was directed to.

First, retails were not realistic, climbing to $5.99, far above practical levels. Second flat weaves were made in a quality cotton, but wrinkled so badly after washing they were unsightly. I felt the goal should be terries near $4, and frequently asked Fieldcrest to include the let the kitchen towels with regular Royal Velvet bath sizes in the half-off end stock-up sales held throughout the year to give them exposure. It wasn't done.

I also suggested Fieldcrest merchandise kitchen with bath, sharing a retail page that said, "Now, the same reliable Royal Velvet towels you have come to enjoy and depend on are available in the same reliable quality for kitchen use." There was a time when mill advertising departments were useful in suggesting such ad layouts to accounts. That would have been helpful here. Retailers not used to handling kitchen with bath made no exception even for Royal Velvet, and the results were disappointing.

Egyptian cotton towels, with their unique premium status, have a counterpart in bed sheets in lustrous sateen cottons. When Penney's brought such sateens into its stores, it was not much of a surprise to the trade; such big merchants can make their customers feel finer home linens are appropriate in their outlets.

But it's another story for discounters to try sateen and make it work. That's more unexpected, these sheets generally have been confined to the nation's top department specialty stores at prices that range up to 10 times above the average retail of a Type 180 blend in solid colors.

Target, I feet proves sateen can be sold in the discount class. The chain brought 230-count cottons into stock in some two dozen of its stores, using an import supplied by West-Point Stevens. I look for all Target stores to carry sateen next year, and I think their volume with top-of-the-bed accessories will exceed the dollars that would have been achieved on a wrinkle free cotton, which Target did not add to assortments.

Since around April Springs has been free to sell the US.-made, 230-count sateen it supplied to Penney's to other merchants. I feel more chains should have taken the Springs sateen.

Generally, $12.99 has been the starting twin sale price for these solid-color sateens, and it's likely promotions near $10.99 are planned. Some chains held off on sateen, feeling the 200-count wrinkle-free cottons they could sell from $6.88 were a more timely choice. For the start of 1997, sateen should be in their programs, with retails starting from $9.99.

There is a separation among the retail trades for Bed-in-a-Bag market share. Chains and discounters generally concentrate on muslin-grade sheets and Type 180 blends to pack with comforters, shams and bed ruffles. Department specialty stores this past year were primarily the place to find these sets with 200-blend and all-cotton sheets. This is not to imply 200-blend and cotton sheet sets cannot be sold in discount outlets.

But it's pricing that does this. Most discounters favor Bed-in-a-Bag from $59.99 in all sizes, and feel 200-blend and cotton sheets would have to sell beyond their best prices. But both these higher-grade sheets move to lower prices on open stock, and that should be reflected in sets. The discount chain that promotes the 200-blends and cottons in sets for less than $ 100 in all sizes, like at $79.99, will have favorable results, in my view.
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Author:Seidman, Seymour
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 7, 1996
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