Just a few months ago, Target rolled out its biggest-ever home-furnishings line, with 500 items designed by New York decorator Thomas O'Brien. But the brand, which includes everything from pleated curtains to a $500 sliding door chest, is already struggling. In September, retailer Linens 'n Things introduced 600 items by Chicago decorator Nate Berkus, and Oprah devoted an entire 10-minute segment to the event. Her view: "Love the frames, love the lamps, don't you love these?"
Apparently, not enough buyers agree. According to several people close to the retailer, sales of the Berkus line have been mixed so far. At Target, entire aisles of O'Brien lamps and tables have been marked down as much as 75%. Even former fashion designer Todd Oldham, who lent his hip moniker to La-Z-Boy chairs, hasn't been able to bolster sales in some areas. Many independent La-Z-Boy stores are showing only a few examples of his 300-item line on the sales floor.
-- "What's in a Name? A Discount," WSJ, Mar 17, 06
I remember looking at the Domino spread devoted solely to Thomas O'Brien's new Target line and wondering uneasily -- in between admiring glances at bath rugs -- if this weren't a new sort of advertorial adventure. The product line got a big launch and early buzz. The Nate Berkus line had the Power of Oprah behind it ("Berkus'n'Linens'n'Things: Oprah Star Goes Mass Market," WaPo, Oct 15, 05; "'O' at Home Fall 2005 Tours: Take Nate Berkus Home," Fall 05). Both garnered some buzz among the design-conscious bloggers/commenters: a search on Apartment Therapy shows a lot of results, and the Design*Sponge item demonstrates in a nutshell why the new lines have mixed reception.
"Cheap: It's Chic, But Is It Good?" (NYT, Oct 20, 05) pretty much points out why this stuff looks so attractive, but may or may not be moving consumers to buy:
The House & Home section asked a custom furniture maker and antique restorer, Bart Cisek of New Day Woodwork in Glendale, N.Y., to walk through several stores with this reporter and examine the furniture. Mr. Cisek, who has been in his field for 14 years, and whose clients include designers like Peter Marino, spotted hits and misses and made points relevant to any piece in the universe of cheap furniture.
Reviewing Mr. O'Brien's collection at Target, Mr. Cisek stuck his head under the hood, cross-checking design with construction.
At $399.99, Mr. O'Brien's two-tone console bureau had metal-slide hardware on the drawers, a mark of quality missing on most cabinetry at the big-box stores. But the wood, as was true of all the wood-colored furniture reviewed, whether chestnut or mahogany or cherry, was surface-dyed with sprayed lacquers, not stained. Any nicks or scratches will reveal raw wood. The rectangular cabinet was also not square; drawers didn't align and there were gaps between drawer and frame, exposing hardware.
But Mr. Cisek, recognizing the expectation built into a low price, acknowledged that many of the pieces he looked at were everything they could be at the cost, and that customers understood the implicit contract in buying cheap furniture. It has curb appeal - as in, that's where it might end up, without much remorse. Ultimately, shoppers and experts agreed, the decision will be a personal one. If a potential customer is pleased by the design, comfortable with the quality, the price is right, and the piece meets one's needs, then cheap is fine.
Customers should be aware that buying online, where handsome photographs enhance expectation and widen the divide between perception and reality, gets the goods to the door. But mild disappointment in a cabinet's quality might not push you to disassemble, repack and return it.
Another factor, however, may simply be that a lot of the new, branded ventures aren't appealing to the customers that Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart serve. While I personally find some of the O'Brien line adorable -- like this bathmat, which we have -- I figure it's not for everyone. For every shelter mag on the newsstand featuring a clean-lined, rigorously edited, mid-century-influenced aesthetic, you've got plenty more that encourage a shabby-chic look with plenty of blooms, flounces and warm pastels. Someone who digs Country Home Magazine may not be the person who will pick up a metal torchiere or cocoa-colored appliqued window panels.
Finally, I wonder if there's either a case of designer fatigue -- how many branded lines are out there now? It feels like five dozen -- or a case of anti-branding DIY going around.
What do y'all think? Is it the gap between presentation and reality? Missing the target audience, either aesthetically or price-wise? Branding fatigue? Or have your experiences shown something completely different, that Nate Berkus and Thomas O'Brien are practically flying off the shelves?