For most of its existence, the home textiles business—sheets, comforters, towels, et cetera—has been all about more. That took the form of everything from ever-higher thread counts (defying any known weaving technology) to bed-in-a-bag put-ups that approached the triple digits in their number of pieces, and towels that outweighed some bantam-weight boxers. More was better.
But recently, as evidenced by the wares on display at September’s New York Home Fashions Market, the industry has started to go in the opposite direction. After decades of excess, the business is finally discovering that less is, in fact, often more.
The twice-yearly trade show, held mostly in closed showrooms along Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue, is where big-box stores like Walmart, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and their retail brethren start buying next season’s goods. While shows in traditional market centers in Atlanta, High Point, Dallas and Las Vegas all feature higher-end soft home resources and bedding products, it is in New York where the bulk of the business in this $25 billion market segment is done.
Over the past few seasons, this sector has been in transition—working to bring to market products that appeal to the new generation of shoppers more concerned with attributes like sustainability, transparency and naturally sourced materials. It’s been an ongoing evolution, but the fall show made it apparent that the industry is heavily drinking this new Kool-Aid. In market introductions from suppliers large and small, several themes prevailed, reflecting these new sensibilities in core bed and bath products.
Sustainability and circularity: Bed and bath products have always gotten a bad rap for using too many natural resources in their production—water and land primarily—but the industry is making a concerted effort to move to a more sustainable model that emphasizes both recycled final products and individual components. Circularity, based on renewable resources as well as recycling, was a buzzword heard often in many showrooms, even if not everyone clearly understood what it meant.
Traceability: With the vast majority of home textiles products—at least 90 percent by most estimates—coming from the Asian production powerhouses of China, India and Pakistan, understanding the manufacturing chain for home textiles has often been a challenge. Using DNA marking, RFID tagging and other new technologies, vendors are now able to trace the raw materials in their products back to the growing fields, giving retailers and consumers alike a look into the entire production process.
Certification: Because there are no real regulatory or safety standards governing most soft home products, it’s always been a free-for-all on certifying products. Now, some international third-party organizations like Oeko-Tex and Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) are gaining traction, often at the urging of retailers who want to offer a point of differentiation for their products. None of these labels are as well-known as established ones like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or consumer electronics certifications, but they are rising in market prominence and placement.
Natural fibers and fabrics: Even though synthetic materials like polyester and memory foam are industry staples (suppliers and retailers have been wildly successful selling “micro-fiber” bedding even though it is essentially a descendent of polyester double-knit fabrics from the disco era), the raw material spectrum has dramatically increased recently, with tree-derived cellulose, linen, bamboo and other natural fibers. Cotton still maintains its overwhelming market share—but there, too, differentiators like Supima, Egyptian and Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) offerings are gaining in importance.
CBD: As part of a broader effort to jump on the health-and-wellness bandwagon, several companies introduced bedding products containing CBD extracts, either applied topically to the fabric or infused into the fibers. Without making explicit health claims—still very much illegal under U.S. laws, even as CBD itself is legal throughout the country—companies certainly implied that these products were good for you. The first wave will hit the market possibly as early as this holiday season, giving the industry a better read on consumer acceptance.
All of this attention to technology, innovation and product performance stands in stark contrast to earlier eras. Yes, there was fashion and, yes, there were plenty of designer names, but today the industry clearly is taking a different tack—one that strips products down to their essential elements, prioritizing origin and ethics over thread count or frills.
In fact, the only real exception to the less-is-more dictum came in the form of a novelty fad product, the weighted blanket. Countless companies showed heavy-weight blankets and comforters that supposedly promote better sleep. In that case, more is more. But nearly everywhere else, the less the better.
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. He was also a guest on the BOH podcast, and his Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.
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