By Nancy Meyer
NEW YORK--While India has a long tradition of supplying fine textiles to the U.S. market, the country is a significant untapped resource for decorative accessories and lighting products.
To put India into the context of the overall industry, one need only look at the figures for imports of portable lamps and lighting fixtures.
India's lamp exports to the United States have been increasing over the years--by double digits annually since 2002--and the trend is continuing this year. Lighting fixtures, on the other hand, have not fared as well. Indian exports to the United States have grown by double digits since 2001, except for 2003. Then in 2006, fixture exports dropped notably, by 11.8 percent. Again, so far this year, exports are down by even more at 12.5 percent.
Overall, the nation doesn't figure prominently in the import picture for these categories. India represents just 1 percent of the total lamp imports into the United States, and less than that for fixtures.
And while statistics for decorative accessories from India are elusive, industry sources estimate that it accounts for less than 10 percent of all accessory imports to the United States, and growth continues at a modest pace. Those estimates exclude any textiles products.
One thing is for sure: There's still a lot of opportunity for India in decorative home categories.
"India has the design ability, the creative aesthetic and the quality," said Lyn McNeil, vice president of merchandising for John-Richard, a full-line home decor resource that does business there.
Compared to China, "the soft goods are superior in India in terms of quality and detail, as are the brass and silver goods," McNeil said.
India is strong in higher-end, high-quality, handcrafted goods, several industry executives noted.
In terms of materials, India's strengths include iron, cast metal, carved and inlaid wood, specialty glass and silver, among others.
"The artistic value of the iron that comes from India is just beautiful," said David Gebhart, president of Global Views. "We have not been able to locate a factory anywhere in the world that puts the artistic quality into it. Other strengths are in cast metal, from brass to nickel-plated finishes to pewter and copper. They really always have been the experts," he said.
But some accessories importers said they just haven't found the diversity of goods in India that they have elsewhere.
John Scott, president of Sterling Industries, has chosen not to do business there.
"When I see their products, it seems to be very limited in terms of medium--metal and wood, for instance. They seem to be very staid in what they do, like Mexico was when Mexico was a bigger player in home decor," Scott said. "They're not on the cutting edge and they're not quick to react to new trends as the Chinese are." Further, "their packaging isn't as good as it is in China," he added.
Scott said Indian vendors tend to show the same goods at overseas trade shows--glass and metal candleholders, beaded and embroidered pillows. "It's pretty repetitious," he said. And on price, "to me, India isn't that great compared to China. China's not cheap, but India can't seem to compete," he added.
Price and delivery issues were the two factors most often mentioned as stumbling blocks to importing from India.
Another decorative accessories importer, who declined to be named, said his company used to do a lot of business in India, but that has dwindled to a small portion of overall sales.
"The difficulty is that in India, they're still not strong with product development and in terms of product categories, there's a lot that just aren't available anymore because of price hikes and delivery problems," the vendor said.
"Prices shot up so high that it's not feasible, and then you have the falling dollar, and scarcity of raw materials. We're still doing business there, but not as much. China has taken a lot of business away from India and a lot of other places," the vendor said.
Delivery issues are another well-known hurdle, but Gebhart said that's part of getting quality goods. "It takes time, and you have to build that into your production cycle. It's handcrafted product--you can't push that through a production line any faster," Gebhart said.
The artisans who make Global Views' Sunray cocktail table, for instance, can only make two of them in a day. "So you have to just know that. It can catch you when an item catches fire, but because it's made by hand, it's going to take time," Gebhart said.