Tabletop categories are household staples, but the way in which people shop for place settings, flatware and dinnerware is changing, and independent retailers who carry tabletop are adapting as the category shifts gears.
Where the bridal registry was once the holy grail of tabletop sales, now many consumers are skipping registries; even skipping buying tabletop for wedding presents. But they are still shopping and gifting tabletop; think a housewarming party rather than a bridal shower.
“Tabletop has become a huge gift business for me, and I’ve expanded in kind,” says Ben Salmon, owner of South Orange, N.J.’s Kitchen a la Mode. “Polish pottery, Turkish pottery, shell platters, tons of fun Mud Pie pieces, this new titanium-coated porcelain from Tampa Bay and more.”
Tabletop sales related to home purchases or renovations are now larger than wedding-related sales and growing, says NPD Group researchers who found that the number of tabletop items purchased for the home were more than 50 percent higher than purchases made for wedding-related occasions.
“I do tons and tons of housewarming gifts plus birthday presents,” says Salmon. “Gifting has become a huge business for me.”
“Our tabletop category continues to grow, part of that is because we continue to add to it,” says Jill Foucre, owner of the Glen Ellyn, Ill. store, Marcel’s Culinary Experience. “To me, home decor falls under the broader category of tabletop, and home decor continues to grow as people look for new and unique things.”
That means consumers buying for housewarmings or kitchen remodels were far more likely to purchase new dishes than those shopping for an engagement party or bridal shower. That’s been another nail in the coffin of bridal registries for some retailers.
“Our bridal registry business was so dismal we pulled the plug on it earlier this year,” says Amy Pomp Lorette, general manager of Mrs. Cook’s in Seattle. “That said, even when we still had a registry the majority of our tableware business was non-registry.”
Dollar sales of tabletop categories purchased for wedding-related occasions saw double digit declines in the 12 months ending August 2017, while sales related to a housewarming or a new home or a kitchen remodel saw double digit growth, according to NPD’s Consumer Tracking Service.
The number of tabletop items purchased for a new home/housewarming or a home/kitchen remodel were more than 50 percent higher than purchases made for wedding-related occasions such as an engagement, bridal shower or even wedding in the past year, NPD reports.
“Tabletop purchasing goes well beyond bridal purchases,” says Foucre, who maintains a small, mostly local bridal registry. “My customers are taking their existing tabletop pieces to the second home and redoing their first home and buying new tabletop for it. We are also finding people giving their adult children some of their things and then buy more for themselves. Definitely the hostess gifts and housewarming gift are driving tabletop and home decor sales more than bridal right now.”
Pomp Lorette agrees. “Most dinnerware is purchased by the end-user customer, as opposed to being a gift,” says Pomp Lorette. “Most large dinnerware purchases are made by more mature customers who are replacing either stuff they received as wedding gifts years ago or are simply upgrading.”
And shoppers buying certain tabletop pieces were more likely to also be in the market for kitchen tools, NPD found. According to NPD’s Checkout Tracking Service, when beverageware or flatware is in a shopping basket, gadgets are more likely to be part of the purchase.
“The tabletop industry is sitting on an abundance of untapped opportunity that can be unlocked with some unconventional thinking,” says Joe Derochowski, executive director and home industry analyst at NPD. “Expanding the marketing traditionally associated with tabletop purchases and making tabletop a special part of a wider variety of key life moments will open new doors for the industry.”
For many independent retailers, tabletop is expanding into category space left open on shelves by the small electrics category, which has retracted over the years, says KC Lapiana, president of HTI buying group and owner of Pittsburgh’s In The Kitchen.
“Retail has changed dramatically,” she says, noting that tabletop has become an opportunistic category for stores. She says the top five categories have long been Cookware, Bakeware, Cutlery, Gadgets and Small Electrics, but that has changed, thanks to competition from big box stores and Amazon.
“It’s amazing to me how these categories have shifted,” Lapiana says of her meetings with members of the buying group. “We have been seeing a clear—up to 50 percent— increase in tabletop and textiles sales. Small electrics is no longer considered in the Top 5 because the independent cannot compete in that category.”
Rather, she says, tabletop is getting a new look as independent stores want to fill space left behind by small electrics products.
“The kitchen stores are eagerly looking for substitutes: tabletop and other categories like Pet and Travel to round out their assortments.” Lapiana and other retailers note that the Nora Fleming serveware and decorative “Minis” line is especially hot right now with independent stores.
“We’ve got small electrics down to virtually nothing and we might get all the way to nothing in the very near future,” says Marcel’s Foucre, who has moved her expanded tabletop and home decor sections into the former small electrics space.
Not every store is saying good bye to bridal registries, though. Tabletop sales for Martha Nading’s Greensboro, N.C. store, Extra Ingredient, are bridal focused.
“My tabletop sales are still very bridal- and wedding-driven,” she says. “I am fortunate that the tabletop lines I carry seem to be popular. Still, I do sell tabletop to kitchen remodel customers and downsizers looking for attractive and functional pieces. Many customers have different tastes than they had at the time of their weddings, so they are looking to change.”
Up in Ellsworth, Maine, at Rooster Brother, “We do have a wedding registry but it represents a relatively minor part of sales,” says owner Pamela Elias, pointing out that even then tabletop is not being given as gifts. “My impression is that most of the items on those lists are cookware, tools, knives and cookbooks rather than tabletop. I think most people in our store buying tableware are buying for their own house or as a non-wedding gift.”
Tabletop is a category that practically begs to be cross merchandised with kitchen tools, especially around the holidays. “We usually have various seasonal displays that cross merchandise tools with tableware and serveware,” says Elias, “We do focus much more on the tools and cookware.”
“Customers who buy tabletop frequently buy housewares,” says Nading, “We do cross merchandise. Somewhere I read that a large majority of wedding gifts have something to do with the kitchen, either cooking serving or entertaining.”
Salmon, though, points out that many tabletop lines have built-in merchandising stories. “Each kind of tabletop has its own little section and looks good together on its own.”
Even though The Chopping Block is primarily a cooking school, owner Shelley Young says she still offers an edited tabletop selection to customers. “We do pretty well with serving pieces, like bowls.”
For Young, a chef, setting the table is an important extension of her cooking classes. “You teach a customer how to make a steak and they nail the lesson. They are so proud of the way they can make that steak that they invite Mom over for dinner,” she explains.
“When Mom comes over is he going to give her a plastic fork and sit her at a card table?” she asks. “There is the experience of cooking and then there is the experience of eating. Tabletop sets the atmosphere that brings it all together.”