retail watch | Sep 22, 2022 |
Cotton was in short supply at New York textile market

Way down South may be the land of cotton, but up North this week at the home textiles market in New York, vendors and retailers were clearly looking away from the Fabric of Our Lives.

As the industry gathered for its semiannual trade show—the first in nearly three years with pre-pandemic conditions—the high price of cotton along with limited access combined to drive business to fiber and fabric alternatives. This was accelerated by the widespread introduction of products using recycled components, performance fabrics often made of synthetic materials, and the continued acceptance of linen and cellulose-based fibers such as modal for sheets and towels.

All of these dynamics played out against a market segment that has been hit hard by the post-pandemic consumer shift away from home furnishings to travel and entertainment purchases—not to mention a wholesale marketplace upended by the 2020 closure of its key showroom building in Manhattan and the relocation of as many as two-thirds of the showrooms to new addresses.

But it was the building cotton crisis that seemed to be the prime topic during the show, which is primarily for national retailers buying big programs, rather than independent specialty retailers. Cotton prices have spiked as much as 200 percent over year-ago levels and are even worse for premium fibers such as Supima, which now sells for more than $3 a pound.

The prime driver of these price hikes has been the basic law of supply and demand. Drought conditions in the U.S., which is the third-largest grower of cotton in the world, have hit crop levels as much as 25 percent in some areas, causing one of the smallest fall harvests of cotton in a century. Elsewhere around the world, droughts have similarly decimated cotton levels—while in Pakistan and India, it’s been the opposite, with flooding wiping out vast amounts of the 2022 crop. Then there’s the situation with the Chinese crop, which is more man-made: an American ban on cotton from the Xinjiang region due to alleged political persecution of the local population there by the Chinese government.

The last time cotton spiked this high was in 2010 and 2011—a time when many companies turned to polyester as an alternative, bringing about the rise of microfiber products that have remained strong sellers (in sheets, particularly, but also in bedding overall and some towels). This time around, many vendors are trying blended constructions that still use some cotton, but mixed with polyester, cellulose fibers and even hemp.

With the appetite for new home textiles products diminishing and inflation driving up average selling prices, products that used less cotton drew interest from buyers. This dovetailed nicely with introductions touting recycled materials, be they natural or synthetic, as well as treatments promising performance attributes such as temperature control and wellness properties.

For the home textiles sector, it was yet one more twist in the road back to normalcy. With natural and political challenges, a disjointed marketplace and a customer base that may have all the sheets and towels they’ll need for right now, the fall market week proved that the journey is going to take a while.

Homepage image: ©Phillip Minnis/Adobe Stock


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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