By David Gill
Thanks to the lifting of the recession, the market for upper-end table linens is no longer starving.
The economic downturn brought a halt to spending on luxury table linens even by consumers in the higher-income demographic. Now, however, vendors say these shoppers are coming back to the table.
Consumers are clearly at the stores looking for luxury products in all categories. These customers clearly feel more confident about their circumstances, according to Pam Danzinger, president of Unity Marketing, which researches luxury spending. The company's luxury consumption index rose four points in the first quarter, to 76.1, revealing "a more positive outlook among affluent consumers" about the economy and their personal situation, Danzinger said.
So upbeat has the market become that Matouk, a vendor, did something last year that it hadn't done since early in the last decade--introduce a new collection of table linens. George Matouk, the company's president, explained, "We had gone through a period of de-emphasis in table linens beginning in the late '90s, because the luxury business was declining every year," Matouk said. "Then retailers began begging for table linens. When the recession lifted, consumers were quite happy to indulge in holiday entertaining, so we built a line around the idea of the holidays."
Luxury linens were among the leaders in product categories in pulling out of the recessionary trough. "High-end goods bounced back more quickly than others," said Kurt Hamburger, president of Lintex. The company responded by introducing several new tablecloths in the upper-end category at last month's New York Home Fashions Market. "I think they're going to do very well," Hamburger said. "There's a hunger, a thirst for that kind of thing."
Some luxury vendors, such as Sferra, said the downturn didn't hurt the business too much. "Sferra fared quite well," said the company's president, Paul Hooker. "Our table-linen business remained relatively constant, and we experienced some nice growth toward the tail end of 2010."
Neil Mandell, chief merchandising officer for Town & Country Living, characterized the company's luxury-linen business as "very stable, not growing much but not diminishing." The recession's end has brought consumers back to the category with a purpose. "Consumers are now looking for higher-end table linens for gifts and bridal registries," Mandell said. "Our table linens got a lot of interest during market."
The attention this segment has received is extending beyond the traditional retail channels for luxury products, department stores and specialty stores. "Off-price retailers now carry a lot of influential brands at higher prices," Mandell said.
Along with new channels of distribution, luxury linens are also benefiting from an expansion in the shopper demographic. "There has been an emergence of new luxury consumers who focus on value, not necessarily only the price," Hooker said. "Although price is still a factor, they are looking for the quality, the story and the experience connected with the product."
The vendors feel that the luxury end of table linens will continue to grow through the rest of this year, but acknowledge that there could be roadblocks. One concern is where they are retailed. The category "takes a little romancing," Hamburger said. "It takes individuals answering the questions and department stores, where these products still do well, don't have this kind of personnel."
Another potential problem comes from cotton prices, which are continuing their inexorable climb. "The rising price of cotton could hurt this segment," Mandell said. "The consumer may say, 'Do I really need another tablecloth or napkin?' We've seen consumers prioritizing all their purchases."
Nevertheless, the vendors are pushing ahead with plans to expand this end of their business. Hooker said Sferra will mark its 120th anniversary at the summer New York International Gift Fair with an expanded table-linens lineup. "Many of the experts are forecasting increased sales in the luxury sector in 2011, and that is very encouraging," he said.
Matouk has similar plans. "For the fourth quarter, we'll be expanding our formal table collection for holiday entertaining," Matouk said.
This grouping will enlarge not only the company's offerings, but will stretch into new designs. "People see high-end tablecloths as white and fussy, but they also want them to look exciting," Matouk said. "I think people like splashes of color, something that's fresh and new. We'll complement the fourth-quarter holiday collection with something that's whimsical, focusing on novelty. The design in this category has expanded in terms of what's possible."