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WEATHERING HEIGHTS.

Byline: Warren Shoulberg

The unusually mild, snowless winter most of the country has been enjoying this year has not bypassed Chicago either. The City of Big Shoulders (whatever that means) has been strangely pleasant for long periods of time this season and if the landscape hasn't exactly resembled the green the Chicago River will be this Friday, there hasn't been a whole lot of white to speak of either.

This rather surprising turn of climatic events has even extended to the housewares industry, which gathers here this week for its annual frolic of new products, old deals and assorted related meanderings.

The industry finds itself in relatively good shape on Housewares eve. No major customers have gone belly-up since it gathered a year ago, the supplier base (with just a few exceptions) is healthier than it's been for some time and business at retail the past few months has been more good than bad.

A surprisingly strong Ambiente fair last month in Frankfurt should be viewed as a harbinger rather than a hindrance to the Chicago event. Oil prices, while astronomically high compared to only a year or two ago, have not climbed even further into the petro-ionosphere and, believe it or not, companies have learned how to live with $60-a-barrel oil. A few companies have even gotten price increases, for heaven's sake, and the world has not ended.

This is all good news.

But it is not all-good news.

Suppliers setting up their booths even as we speak have a very different landscape in which to try to sell their wares. Any department store supplier suddenly has one very big-make that very, very big-customer to sell and then a whole lot of also-rans. If you were strong with Macy's, you will be stronger still in 2006 and beyond. If you counted May Co. as your big customer, you are in for some tough times for the foreseeable future.

On the mass side, things have clarified as well. You still want to be where Wal-Mart is, but you have to wonder whether it is working to cut you out of the equation and go direct.

At least that's better than at Target, where you know it is absolutely positively trying to cut you out of the equation by going direct.

As bad as that is, you know where you stand. You have no such knowledge at the third mass merchant, Kmart, which zigs and zags and zigs again depending on what side of the balance sheet owner Eddie Lampert woke up on that morning.

Throw in the rest of the players-Kohl's and Costco and the big boxers and the onliners-and you know it's not going to be easy this week in Chicago.

But you have to say it's not going to be as hard as it could be either.

There's always going to be high pressure in the housewares business. But these sunny conditions are certainly a nice change for the better. Enjoy them as long as they last.

Letters to the editor can be to warren.schoulberg@fairchildpub.com or to HFN, 750 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017.
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Title Annotation:housewares industry trends
Author:Shoulberg, Warren
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Mar 13, 2006
Words:520
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