Home stores ache from home market's pain

They also recognize that more people now feel as though any furniture they buy needs to last, so it's "becoming an investment." That sentiment has led some retailers to revive more "safe colors," she says, such as beiges and browns that people are less likely to grow tired of.

HomeGoods, part of TJX tjx (which also owns T.J. Maxx and Marshalls), says its business continues to grow, and it credits its "off-price" discount model. The 289-store chain sells home "fashions," which stress smaller home-accent pieces rather than large-size furniture (though it does sell some big pieces).

"HomeGoods has been doing absolutely terrifically over the last three years," says TJX spokeswoman Sherry Lang. "We have always seen growth through recessionary times."

Still, even discounters need to make adjustments in this economy. Lang says HomeGoods has been keeping inventories leaner and has ordered its buyers to pursue merchandise more aggressively to snag the best deals.

Is home-related retail destined to suffer in these tight-fisted times? Not, Champion says, if stores learn some lessons from discounters including Wal-Mart wmt.

"They need to talk the money out of the pockets of consumers," Champion says.

Getting them in the door

Most important is simply drawing consumers into stores — something Wal-Mart achieved successfully over the holidays by focusing attention on a few tantalizing deals on home entertainment and other products. Retailers including Home Depot and Sears shld (which owns Kmart and Lands' End) are also offering deals linked to the tax rebates that many shoppers are starting to receive this week.

"If you put a good value in front of people, you can improve sales," Champion says. "There's money to spend, but it's discretionary."

Yet, while there may be plenty of merchandise for the home in stores, cutbacks in staffing could lead to customer service snags that might turn already wary shoppers away.

"It's more difficult to respond with service in these times," Champion says. "But there are things that the clerks in those stores can do, like make sure the consumer feels welcome and asking if they need help."

To that end, many home-oriented retailers are offering long-term periods — sometimes up to three years — before customers owe interest or even up to two years before they need to make payments on purchases. But Champion says he thinks that's probably a mistake for the stores.

"That's driving customers to buy who are questioning whether they are going to be able to pay," he says. "That's not a particularly good business model."

Besides, such deals often carry back interest when they aren't paid up on time, making them unwise for anyone except shoppers who know they'll have the money and won't forget to pay.

If someone can't make the payments after the term is up, the stores can always take the furniture back, but as Epperson notes, "What's left to repossess?"

Jean Brown of Charlotte isn't buying any furniture, or any other major items for her house, no matter what the deals. Her total home purchases of late? A ladder, paint stick and paint.

Krebsbach, too, says she knows that if she browses at home stores, she'll wind up buying products, such as bathroom mats or tissue-box holders, that she really doesn't need.

Still, she loves to score good deals, and, after all, you can't find them if you're not shopping. If gas and food prices eventually come down, she may step up her shopping.

"Then," she says, "I'd be more relaxed about it."

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