Catalog Merch: Home Furnishings–What’s Hot Now

The success of any merchant depends on being able to forecast a trend and ride with it until it’s ready to breathe its last breath — and never a moment more. Trends arise out of our current economy and lifestyle, and the signs are usually subliminal. ◒ We are still experiencing an unconscious reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and it is in this context that I’m forecasting trends. For instance, entertaining has been and will continue to be a major trend. Our fascination with home and with all that home entails has become more precious since 9/11. Yes, Faith Popcorn spoke about “cocooning” years ago, but that word has assumed more importance than ever.

Color: lots of it!

Gone are the naturals, the timid taupe and the boring beige. Hail to color, and the bolder the better.

Reds are still hot — we have gone from seeing it in fabrics (red toile) to displaying it on walls and upholstery and now accessories. When you choose red leather sofas and bar stools you are being truly courageous. We are seeing now more of a mandarin red than a tomato red…a warm red that exudes a sense of style.

In the old days, when a color became hot in apparel, savvy merchants knew it would hit the home market in about a year or two. Now it’s more like six months! For that reason, you should think pink. We’re seeing it more than ever in apparel. And we’re talking hot pink, not wishy-washy pastel pink. Combine pink with a bit of lavender and throw in a dash of aqua and you’ve got a winning combination. Or you can combine pink with orange and chartreuse.

A recent color combo is chocolate brown and “azurro,” or sky blue, which I have always loved in apparel, and now it’s finally in home decor. But it’s not easy to pull off: You have to choose the right medium for the brown (forget dinnerware — it’s still too new), but the fabrics are thrilling, especially on lampshades. An occasional piece of furniture with these colors is perfect.

Talking about blue in general, three years ago I read that blue was the “color of the millennium,” and I began to see hints of it on the rise this year. But blue is tricky, as it has to the right blue. I have tried blue in mail order for years and have not been too successful with it — glassware being an exception. And while past blues have been primarily in the true blue and cobalt blue families, get ready for ice blue!

Textiles: Is there life after toile?

Toile has been the most successful fabric in mail order since safari fabrics. Now that toile is everywhere at the mass-market level, though, it’s time to move on, especially if you cater to an upscale audience. I sense that the next fabric that could be popular — though never be a big as toile — is gingham. Not the puckered gingham of old but the new, washed-and-worn “funky farmhouse” gingham. Checks in general, large and small, are worth investigating.

Stripes, especially bold stripes, are still popular in the contemporary arena. “Picturesque” fabrics will also be very popular, which is great, because in mail order it is so much fun to use a picturesque fabric to tell the tale.

My fabric vendors are telling me that “English florals” will be coming on strong this year, probably because the English are becoming more popular (we are definitely having a love affair with Tony Blair!). The more sophisticated florals will be tone on tone.

Themes: country chic…but which country?

The safari theme of the late ’90s lasted much longer than anyone imagined — those monkeys just wouldn’t leave! Even now we are seeing those wild animal patterns becoming more geometric, and they will probably maintain their popularity in this form. You can call this combination of animal and geometric patterns “caravan.” It will encompass the still very popular rattan accessories; rattan will always be casually chic, but look for the theme to become a bit more contemporary.

The up-and-coming British Colonial theme is more timeless than the safari or caravan theme. I would integrate that wonderful mahogany with loads of clear glass hurricanes and all those new English florals.

“Country” will always be popular; we just have to decide which country it is today. In recent years it has been French country — all about Provence. This theme will never die, but it will go into hibernation for a while. In its place, once again, will be American Country. Our patriotism has been never as intense as this past year, and the consumer is ready to embrace anything American. The only problem with this is that manufacturers have not produced Americana yet for the better market. This is the challenge of the next few years.

Our vintage Hawaiian/Tommy Bahama has taken on a bright tropical flavor with a new Floridian or Sanibel look. Look for more citrus colors and less vintage in its interpretation, making it a more playful, less sophisticated, but very optimistic style: Pink flamingos, anyone?

The “goddess” theme is transitioning into “Chantilly,” which is more feminine and less strident. The beads and feathers are changing to pearls and vintage roses. Add ruffles and lace, and we are ready to change our “ladies in red” to “Southern belles.”

The ’50s retro look, with chrome and bright colors, has been trying to make a comeback, but the availability of merchandise is still slim to none. It seems that the vendors have been cautious in pursuing this theme, so retailers must be careful in the selection process.

Hot product categories

When it comes to wall decor, unframed anything works. Travel posters are especially hot. I guess since people are flying less they are fantasizing more.

Speaking of hot, the lighting category is definitely on fire these days. We have gone from the beaded shade to the feathered shade to the simple streamlined shade. But the big news is the onslaught of cheap lamps from China. When you can buy a lamp made of resin, metal, or you-name-it for less than $100 retail, it’s time to say goodbye to the unique and fabulous Tyndale upper-end lamp business — at least in the mass-market mail order segment.

Rugs continue to be an important category. In mail order, we speak of themed rugs vs. traditional rugs. Traditional sells in retail; themed sells in catalogs. Themes can mean floral, tropical, vintage, kitchen, “fruity,” lodge, country…while traditional conjures up Asian, Persian, Turkish at high price points. Tribal kilim, however, has been very popular in mail order and continues to thrive.

“Tasting down”

During the past few years, political commentators have spoken about the “dumbing down of America” — look at our favorite television shows and movies for evidence. In home furnishings, I think we can also speak about the “tasting down of Americans.”

Just go to a trade show. The new merchandise appeals to our “lowered expectations,” and that’s a sad commentary. Yes, consumers want value — perceived and otherwise. But do we need to cater to the lowest taste level? Why can’t we offer value with a casual elegance about it? Why is there only one Crate & Barrel? Why is it chic to go to Target?

I appeal to the baby-boomer generation to demand more of our home furnishings manufacturers to raise the bar on today’s taste level. Like every other retailer in America, I am the supreme optimist.

No one has the time or the budget to visit all the merchandise marts and trade shows out there. Happily, Kathy Revello, consulting partner, merchandising for San Raphael, CA-based catalog consulting firm Lenser, is here to help merchants see the “big picture.” Revello will periodically report for Catalog Age on her impressions of upcoming merchandising trends, based on her travels in the field. This month, Revello looks at home decor.

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