Tabletop in '12: Holding Steady
By Allison Zisko
With three-quarters of the year under their belts but the all-important fourth quarter just ahead, a handful of key tabletop vendors are considering 2012 a good year.
Good these days means flat, of course. "The tabletop business has seen its highs and lows this year as it has for a number of years," noted Patrick J. Kelly, vice president, chief marketing officer for Mikasa.
The same rough spots still exist--formal dinnerware sales are weak, in particular--and the poor economy keeps expectations low, but there are bright spots.
Casual dinnerware has performed well, vendors said. According to Sal Gabbay, president of Gibson USA, most of the growth is coming from the whiteware business as the consumer shifts "from want to need."
There are fewer spontaneous purchases, and functional dinnerware takes precedence over fashion, he said. Whiteware is basic, simple and goes with anything. Plus, it's featured on home improvement and cooking shows. Solid-color dinnerware sales follow those of whiteware, for the same reasons. "Growth is coming in price-sensitive and basic dinnerware," Gabbay said. The highly promotional business has declined, however, due to the number of Chinese factories that have either closed or raised their prices.
Set prices have gone up, and retailers have adjusted to them, according to Gabbay. But set configurations are also evolving to 12-piece sets. The removal of the mug--which consumers have the least interest in--leaves a set with four place settings comprised of a dinner plate, desert plate and bowl. Conversely, the item mug business, particularly the travel mug business, has grown.
The serveware business has also expanded, Gabbay said, but it's a stand-alone business, not a pattern accessory business. However, at Lifetime Brands, giftware as well as accessories and serveware that coordinate with dinnerware are "gaining in importance," according to Gwen Opfell, vice president, chief marketing officer for housewares tabletop.
Casual dinnerware is driving sales at Lenox, which has had success with new collections like French Perle. Fine dinnerware sales are up slightly, but casual is driving huge growth, said Sherri Crisenbery, vice president of Lenox Brands. China giftware, such as vases, bowls and figurines, has tailed off as a category, she said, influenced, perhaps, by consumers' desire to simplify their life and their decor, a mantra repeated on lifestyle television shows.
"At Mikasa, we have strengthened our core casual dinnerware patterns--Italian Countryside (celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2013), Antique White and French Countryside--with well-priced accessories, and have added glass and metal coordinates as well as other mixed material accessories," Kelly said. "In glass we saw a void in serveware and have placed multiple new collections in the area that round out our strong vase and bowl statements already in the market. Formal dinnerware is a continual challenge but at the end of the day brides continue to register for formal goods that are well designed so it remains an important part of the product mix for Mikasa."
Michael Craig, group vice president for the Americas for WWRD, which includes the Waterford, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton brands, has also reported more success with casual goods than fine. "As a retail trend, formal dinnerware continues to be a challenge, casual dinnerware is on the upside and it has been for the last few years, stemware has made a terrific resurgence for us and flatware has remained stable."
Waterford's stemware sales have gotten a boost from the Lismore Diamond collection and the original Lismore's 60th anniversary, Craig said. It has also given more consideration to selling stemware in pairs, which is how the consumer wants to buy them, rather than individually.
Lenox has had success with its stemware program, a bonus Crisenbery attributed to the resizing of a few popular longstanding patterns. Consumers are looking for bigger bowl sizes, she said. "That's a big win because it's getting even more bridal registrations and has reinvented the business of stems."
Stephanie Streeter, CEO of Libbey, has a positive outlook about the glassware business through the remainder of this year and into the next. "We're cautiously optimistic in North America and we would remain that way in 2013," she said. The company continues to invest in its business and build its brand, she added.
One of the biggest challenges in the industry is floor space, according to Mikasa's Kelly. "We are in a tactile business and having our wares in brick and mortar venues for consumers to touch and feel is still very important to continued growth," he said. "The Internet arms of our major partners provide the ability to test patterns or add accessories where space is not available, so this does help give the consumers more choice and is only getting bigger as more consumers make their decisions online."
Vendors' estimations of tabletop retail market share on the Internet vary widely, but they range from 10 percent to almost 50 percent. "It has quickly become one of their largest doors," Craig said of brick-and-mortar retailers' Internet arms. Some department store and specialty store retailers are still in the fledgling stage of their Internet business when it comes to tabletop, while others, such as Macy's, have a highly evolved and sophisticated business, some vendors said. Nonetheless, retailers cannot afford to ignore their in-store assortments in favor of Internet sales, vendors cautioned. "You can't focus on one and neglect the other," Craig said. "They do go hand-in-hand."