retail watch | Mar 21, 2024 |
Market week inefficiencies underscore the difference between housewares and home textiles

This week, the housewares and home textiles sectors held their big markets for retailers. Aside from the timing, that was about the only thing the two industry events had in common.

The Inspired Home Show (just about everyone calls it the housewares show) was held in Chicago, while the New York Home Fashions Market (just about everyone calls it the home textiles market) took place in Manhattan. Both reported some glimmers of optimism for what has been a long-running post-pandemic pall, but it was the formats and features of each event that drew a decided contrast in the way these industries work.

After furniture, housewares and home textiles are the largest pieces of the broader home furnishings pie, and it’s fair to say that their retail customer bases have a great deal of overlap. The sale of products like coffee makers and frying pans is, like sheets and towels, highly concentrated in perhaps a dozen big-box retailers, from Walmart and Target to Costco and HomeGoods. Lesser-sized players also play a role, including Kohl’s, Macy’s and Dillard’s—as do dollar stores. There are exceptions; namely, some housewares are sold through gourmet cookware shops. But as much as 75 percent of the business in both categories is done through the same big chains.

Given that, it’s remarkable how each industry has evolved its wholesale go-to-market models, presenting a dramatic contrast this week. (Full disclosure: Since I attended the textiles market, I was unable to be at housewares, something that must have also impacted many retailers, who were forced to try to be in two places at the same time.)

The housewares show is held for three days at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, a world-class facility that sports modern trade show amenities. The market featured a full program of seminars, workshops and keynote speakers, including one from the new management at Beyond, the company that now owns the Bed Bath & Beyond banner.

Show attendees could go from one booth to another without stepping out into the Windy City’s unpredictable weather. Buyers could see their vendors in an efficient manner without wasting time, and even with the show’s open floor plan, there were plenty of closed-door meeting rooms for sensitive conversations.

About 800 miles to the east, the textiles show stood in marked contrast. With the demise of its once-linchpin 295 Fifth Avenue building—converted to office space by new owners—participating showrooms are scattered about midtown. There is one remaining showroom building of some critical mass at 230 Fifth Avenue, but the rest of the industry is strewn all over, as far north as the upper 40s and as far south as the upper 20s, from Third Avenue to Seventh. Some are temporary spaces, some are permanent, but often the distinction is in the length of the lease rather than the quality of the space.

While vendors are ensconced in their showrooms for the duration of the week, oblivious to weather, traffic and the vagaries of Manhattan street life, buyers are not so fortunate, racking up Uber charges, subway rides and wasted time that could have been spent working rather than walking.

Any sense of community, any chance for those serendipitous encounters that are often the most valuable moments spent at trade shows are nonexistent. So too are the events—educational, social or otherwise—that are key elements in most trade shows.

And then there’s the scheduling. Unlike the specific duration of housewares, the textiles show features soft openings and even softer endings that create hardships for vendors and further dilute the experience. Both Walmart and Costco—two of the five biggest customers—chose not to attend during the official market and told their suppliers they would be coming in afterward … and not at the same time either. Vendors have no choice but to come back to their showrooms for a second and third time to see both.

If you’re starting to see the differences between the two shows, you’re not alone. It’s a safe bet that senior retail management at the big-boxers chose Chicago over New York this week.

Is there any solution for all of this? At the very least, the two industries could do a better job coordinating market dates. Housewares may be less flexible due to the necessity of booking a convention center, but textiles can be more flexible. A more elegant solution would be to simply put the two shows together, given their overlapping attendee bases. There were discussions a few years ago about looking into this very idea, but they never went anywhere. (Another full disclosure: I was involved in those discussions, but the idea was stymied by Covid, inertia and just plain this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it thinking.)

In fairness, these two shows have two very different drivers. The Inspired Home Show is owned and operated by a nonprofit trade association, the International Housewares Association, and without the need to make money, it’s amazing what you can do to run a first-class show. The New York Home Fashions Market, on the other hand, is owned … well, it’s not owned by anyone, and it’s remarkable the disparate base can even agree on show dates.

Who stands to lose from all of this? Certainly retailers and their buyers, who would benefit from a more cohesive wholesale process. But also vendors, who have to expend a lot of extra effort to accommodate a confusing schedule. And let’s not forget that, ultimately, the buying public—consumers—stand to suffer from a system like this, as inefficiencies get baked into the cost structure for both manufacturers and retailers, creating pressure to raise prices.

For the housewares segment, its show is a once-a-year affair; textiles does this all over again in the fall without the scheduling conflict but with the same inefficiencies. Come 2025, the two markets are several weeks apart. But they remain universes apart in their approaches to conducting business.


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.

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.