Can the Internet Save the Home Textiles Industry?

table cloth5At first it was just a random comment or two, and then the topic started to show up more frequently and by the end of the week, it was the single most mentioned theme of all the conversations I was involved in during the New York home textiles market two weeks ago.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about how the Internet was in the process of totally changing the business model of the American home textiles industry.

Anyone who’s been folding sheets and towels for any period of time knows all about the dead-end corner this industry has painted itself into: Extremely concentrated distribution in the hands of a dozen or so ginormous retailers, total dependence on proprietary and dedicated product to the near-fatal elimination of national brands and a singular focus on low pricing to the exclusion of virtually any other purchasing trigger.

Just when it seemed as if this situation would never change – indeed, would continue to deteriorate – along comes the Internet to change everything. All of a sudden, there are not just 10 customers who control distribution with an iron pencil. All of a sudden, there are the kinds of choices in places to sell product that haven’t existed in a generation. All of sudden, the deck is not quite so stacked.

Consider this scenario, which was played out all over market week: The brick-and-mortar buyer comes into a showroom and says she has one open-to-buy slot and she wants a green floral bed-in-a-bag on 250-thread-count with poly blend comforter and her store branding. And by the way, 52 vendors are bidding for this program and she will give it to the supplier who offers to buy out the existing inventory of the previous program in this space and then will put up the most markdown money.

The next appointment is from the online buyer for the same store. She’ll take everything in the showroom.

It’s an amazing dynamic and if this particular example is exaggerated a bit for effect, it’s not by much. It’s as if the floodgates have been opened and there are now hundreds, maybe even thousands, of outlets to place home textiles products rather than just 10. The equation that has been the foundation of this business for the past two decades has been turned totally upside down.

Mind you, it’s not quite that easy. Minimum manufacturing orders are still a huge factor, and no supplier is going to commit to a container load of product just because some website is going to post a picture of an item on their bedding page.

But the stranglehold the big stores have held this industry hostage with is starting to loosen up a bit and that’s hugely good news for those in the business and ultimately for the people who use these products, too.

Contrary to popular belief, there may even be a future for this industry after all.

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