The Tabletop Market
The tabletop market is made up of three major branches: china, silver and crystal. “China" refers to the dishes that most families use about twice a year, or if you’re from a family like mine, almost never. My family saved those plates for if the Pope ever decided to drop in for a bite. Unfortunately, he never did. “Silver" means the flatware that, if you had the real sterling pieces, you had to polish if you got a bad report card. This is quite a punishment indeed, because it takes hours and lots of elbow grease to get a shine on the utensils. “Crystal" are the glasses that you have to take special care not to knock over. Stemware can range from frou-frou to Spartan in design. These fine glasses, usually contain a small percentage of lead, to make them sparkle. Better stemware resonates when you (carefully) tap the lip of the glass. It will also make a loud crash if you do it with too much force.
Matronly Patterns vs. Yuppie Patterns
The tabletop showrooms at 41 Madison have undergone a metamorphasis in recent years. Ten years ago the marketplace was awash with matronly china patterns like “Autumn" by Lenox and “India" by Wedgwood. These patterns worked decades ago, and they still work today, but the burgeoning bridal market demanded an infusion of fresh, yuppie style. Advances in technology have enabled vendors to introduce vivid colors, and unique shapes to their stables. The edgy “Tin Can Alley" by Lenox and the flamboyant “Java" & “Sumatra" patterns by Spode exemplify the novel appearance that manufacturers are bringing to well-dressed tables.
In keeping with novelty, tabletop houses have developed a symbiotic relationship with titans in the fashion industry. In looking to extend their respective brands, fashionistas like Kate Spade and Vera Wang have inked licensing agreements with Lenox and Waterford-Wedgwood. The result is a line of co-branded home accessories that the designer promotes as her own, and the tabletop manufacturer uses to elevate its prominence in the industry.
Department Store Chargebacks
With the influx of novel items like the boutique designers’ collections, and the myriad of limited-production items like the Waterford “12 Days of Christmas" collection, department stores have ramped up their “chargebacks. " A chargeback is the department store “charging-back" the vendor for unsold merchandise. It’s no secret that these monolithic purveyors make up a significant portion of the vendors’ business, and there’s not much that the vendors can do to prevent this from happening. With mall rents soaring to the stratospheric $100+ per square foot level, department stores can be faced with no alternative.
Western Europe vs. Eastern Europe & Asia
Foreign governments also impact the tabletop industry. Many vendors like Royal Doulton used to produce their wares exclusively in Western European countries, but as the governments of those countries becomes more interlaced with big business, it has become practically impossible to remain profitable. I recently heard a story whereby a manufacturer had to retain several employees who were making a lid for a soup tureen that was no longer in production. The company subsequently had a warehouse full of worthless lids. The employees in question had enough tenure that the government mandated that they could not be fired.
They also had the right to not be forced to get retrained for another job within the company. As Western Europe becomes more of a nanny state, it is pushing business to Eastern Europe and to Asia. The eastern part of the Continent and the Far East have been receiving these refugees with open arms. Countries like Poland and China are far more pro-business, and many vendors have moved production and invested millions in those nations. The American consumer has been practically desensitized to the fact that Guild manufacturers are no longer producing goods in their country of origin. The 21st century shopper is more concerned with an innovative product at a competitive price, than with the manufacturing process.
Internet – Rock-bottom Pricing
The internet is also keeping pricing low. Competition not only breeds a better product, but also a less expensive one. Business is highly contested online, and in the end, the customer wins. With many vendors selling direct to consumers, and with cross-shopping websites, today’s shopper is king. In the dark ages of tabletop shopping, the customer had to select from a dusty, dog-eared catalog, usually at least a few years old. Today, the same money is likely spent online. Instead of the tattered old book, the consumer has countless websites to find the latest wares, at the best prices. Brides-to-be can even access their wedding registry on the internet.
Brides can direct their guests to go to the brick-and-mortar establishment where they registered for their tabletop goods, or to the registry’s website. Shoppers can purchase a wedding present with a few clicks of a mouse. With this integrated technology, the bride avoids duplicate purchases, and unwanted gifts.
New Homes, New Stuff
Home sales are hotter than ever. With these newer, larger homes, buyers are more inclined to invite guests to see their new masterpiece. Vendors like Royal Worcester and Wedgwood have introduced lines of casual and transitional dinnerware to correspond to a more informal setting. Many tabletop shoppers desire a less tailored collection that can be used more frequently than their formal service.
Tim Zawislack has been in the tabletop and gift industry for 16 years. He owns The Cozy Pineapple, which can be found online at http://www.thecozypineapple.com