• Jennifer Marks

If you build it, will they come?

With April market just under four weeks away, most suppliers are hoping fervently that this market will boost the nascent upturn in business for the industry that now seems under way.

The October market in 2001 had the stuffing knocked out of it by a string of calamitous events: the fear of flying engendered by the Sept. 11 attacks, the discovery of anthrax-tainted letters in New York mailrooms and the federal government's warning just days before market that another terrorist strike could be imminent.

Walking the half-empty corridors of the industry's major showroom buildings last October, it wasn't unusual to hear suppliers fretting that buyers might not ever return. If they can carry on their business without one market, the thinking went, might they not decide they can carry on without any markets?

Just as many suppliers, of course, expressed a contrary view. In their judgement, it was easy for buyers to stay away during what had become a turgid year for retail, and the fact that buyers had been forced to sit out an inning would ensure that they came roaring back even stronger in the spring.

We shall soon see to what degree either of those theories is borne out. But if one glances back just six weeks, one could be tempted to offer a third conclusion: that it is the timing of the markets that is out of whack, not the idea of markets themselves.

To the extent that the February market serves as a barometer, it reinforces this view. Many of the suppliers whose showrooms should have been bustling with activity were instead twiddling their thumbs. The majority of their orders had been locked in already, and once they'd touched base with their regular customers there was little left to occupy the time.

Simultaneously, many suppliers for whom mini-market would traditionally be a minor event — e.g., Croscill, Divatex, WestPoint Stevens, Springs et al. — did a remarkably steady business as buyers used the occasion to get a jump on their Back-to-School and fall programs.

Nobody is arguing that what occurs on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in February serves as a precise gauge of what will take place there in April. Certainly, the fact that fewer retail companies exist today contributes to the declining buyer population.

But other factors resonate just as profoundly. The increasing amount of offshore production being done by suppliers requires far longer lead times than the current April/October schedule can comfortably accommodate. Add to that the burgeoning number of retailer-exclusive programs, with their own peculiarities of schedule and development lead times.

In truth, there are still two heavy product previewing periods in the industry — early winter and late summer. They simply no longer coincide with market dates.

Perhaps it's time for those who have an interest in preserving the validity of market weeks and the beneficial spin-offs that come with them — the supplier heavyweights, the retailer heavyweights, HFPA and GLM — to band together and reconsider the timing of the spring and fall events. It would go a long way toward enhancing the value of market week for all concerned.

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