MERCHANDISING: Luxe rewards

Next year look for comfort…in pink?

This holiday season, give your customers what they really want: comfort – and make it pink. Lounging on velvet sofas, in cashmere sweaters, all in warm colors will be in vogue, according to industry pundits.

“After the ’80s, when we spent so much time focusing on ourselves, the ’90s were a time to look outward and worry more about other people’s needs. But now it’s okay to take care of ourselves again,” says Andrea Lawson Gray, president of San Francisco-based catalog consultancy Aesthetics Marketing. She points to the continuing growth of home and personal care catalogs (such as Pottery Barn Kids and Soft Surroundings) to demonstrate Americans’ growing interest in cocooning ourselves in luxury and comfort.

“We’ve earned it,” says Robin Sheldon, president of St. Louis-based Soft Surroundings, a catalog of soft-textured apparel and accessories. Parent company Knight’s Ltd. launched the catalog in July 1999 because “a lot of women are trying to do it all – career and family – and they put themselves last. Now there is a movement afoot for people to reward themselves,” Sheldon explains.

Consumers will also reward themselves by making their homes more luxurious, Gray believes. “At the end of the decade we began staying home to entertain – look at the influence of Martha Stewart. Major houseware vendors are selling items such as indoor fountains that once were specialty items. I think we’ll see fountains everywhere this year.”

“For two years I’ve seen more and more fountains,” agrees Michelle Lamb, president of Minneapolis-based trend tracker Marketing Directions. “They were part of the growing interest in spas and spirituality, but lately it’s more than that. Instead of being hidden away like home spas, they’re out in the open. People have stopped hiding their luxury.”

Feeling flush again

The origin of this intensified focus on luxury is hardly mysterious, according to Carole D’Arconte, president of New York-based consultancy The Color Portfolio. The economy is booming, and people are feeling flush, and D’Arconte says this will be evident in the colors we choose. “Everything is bright, bright, bright. Anything in the pink family is important right now. Also corals. The consumer is optimistic, and these are the colors of optimism.” D’Arconte predicts that aqua, turquoise, and other “sea colors” will prevail, along with purple. “The last time purple was strong was the early ’60s. Purple is the color of renaissance. It emerges when art, technology, and multicultural backgrounds intermingle to create a new art form.”

Gray believes apparel in particular will reflect D’Arconte’s theory. “Apparel tends to be outwardly focused. Multiculturalism remains a major influence in fashion. Look for Indian, African, Asian, and other influences this year,” she says.

Looking for country

Cheri Woodard, president of Sperryville, VA-based Faith Mountain Co., also sees a global influence in colors and styles of apparel and home furnishings, as well as intensified interest in luxury and comfort among her customers. But a more significant trend for the Faith Mountain catalog is consumers’ shift away from urban lifestyle offerings toward a simpler, country esthetic – something her catalog of country apparel and furnishings is ideally positioned for.

“Our customers are comforted by the traditional American country designs, like colonial,” she says. “But country isn’t limited to the U.S. Country French, wi th its bright blues and yellows, is strongly influencing interior design.”

Lamb also notes the return of country themes, adding English countryside to the pastoral influences she observes. “Those French and English country designs are why we see more floral patterns. Motif has taken a backseat to texture over the last few years, but pattern is coming back.”

In terms of color, Lamb foresees a cool blend of pink and purple, and she believes the two colors will be paired in coming fashions.

Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of New York, also predicts the coming of purples and brighter colors. “The palette is definitely warming. We’re shifting out of even the blues – the ones hanging around are periwinkles or distinct water blues, warm blues that end up in purple. The new palette has a reddish tonality,” she says.

Walch expects that even khaki and beige will be tinted with color this year, and that men’s fashions will “take more of a risk” by eschewing monochromatic themes and adopting bright colors once considered part of the female spectrum. She also forecasts renewed interest in “key autumnal colors: oranges, olives, and brown.”

Andrea Lawson Gray, president of San Francisco-based catalog consultancy Aesthetics Marketing, warns that success this holiday season may not come easily, even to catalogers that market exactly what consumers want. Trends are cycling faster than ever before, and hot new merchandise now shows up on the shelves of discount retailers within weeks of being introduced – a process Gray calls “downtrending.” This discounting is occurring so fast, “it could totally change the way catalogs do business,” she says. “For example, when you see a $125 Chinese shirt at Saks, you now see the same item for $40 at a discounter almost immediately. Retailers have the flexibility to get markdowns from their vendors when they see others selling their merchandise for less. But because catalogers print their prices, they can’t change them as quickly,” she says. Gray believes downtrending stems in part from Internet consumers who can quickly compare many vendors to get items at the lowest price.

“If you’re inventing a mail order business right now, you have to ask yourself, `How vulnerable is this business to downtrending [discounting]?'” Gray says. She suggests that catalogers spend more energy coming up with their own products – unique, proprietary products, not merely modifications of existing merchandise – and searching for product lines that require buyers to have high disposable incomes. “It’s why you see Pottery Barn moving into children’s furnishings. The Pottery Barn Kids catalog, because it features relatively expensive products for children’s rooms, may not attract other marketers into that product area. They may be essentially invulnerable to downtrending.”

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