Fine China Breakdown: Blame It on 'Casual Carol'

By Joyce Gemperlein
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Yes, yes, we know we are what we eat. But now we learn we are what we eat on.

Never is this more obvious than when, as brides-to-be, we try to coordinate the price tags and patterns of dinnerware with our visions of ourselves.

"I'm a simple person," says Michelle Norris, 29, a Montgomery County teacher. "I hardly have time to cook, let alone set a table and clean up china," she adds in an e-mail in which she explains that she opted for simple, inexpensive dinnerware from Crate & Barrel when she was married last summer.

For Pam Danziger, whose Unity Marketing conducts consumer research, Norris is a classic "Casual Carol," one of four distinct personalities that she says make up today's rapidly changing tabletop market.

"Casual Carols" want nothing to do with formal china and account for 25 percent of the tabletop market, Danziger notes in her recently released Tabletop Market Report 2006.

"Casual Carols," along with "Formerly Formal Frances" (used to be a traditionalist but now marches to her own drummer and keeps the formal dinnerware in the closet) and "Neo-Conservative Conrad/Connies" (they spend money on casual but luxurious dinnerware), are among the market forces that are reshaping the industry.

In Danziger's study, "Helena the Hostess With the Mostest" (think Bree Van De Kamp of "Desperate Housewives") spends the most on formal dinnerware and uses it even for casual occasions.

The main takeaway from Danziger's research is the emergence, between 2001 and 2006, of a new dinnerware category called "casual luxury." In large part because of the popularity of this category (it did not exist in 2001), sales of formal dinnerware went from $1.122 billion in 2001 to $345 million in 2005 -- a 69.2 percent decrease -- according to Danziger's report.

Amy Stavis, editor and publisher of Tabletop Today, an industry publication, says high-end tabletop companies have been suffering through decades of demise because of copycats, outsourcing to Asia, company consolidations, bankruptcies, changing demographics and -- perhaps the biggest hit -- the entry of stores such as Target and Crate & Barrel into registries that can be filled with casual, modern, inexpensively made dinnerware lines.

Most fine china companies have incorporated casual (but still moderately expensive) designs into their offerings, and others are jumping into the fray. New York area retailer Fortunoff recently announced a revamping of its product line to appeal to younger shoppers who are flocking to Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma.

Lenox began adding casual designs with lower prices (and a mug instead of a teacup and saucer) about six years ago when it sensed the trend, says Betsy Bullard, the company's director of public relations and advertising. Lenox even has a line of acrylic and melamine plates for summer use.

But others are calling it quits because, they imply, people's taste and reverence for heirloom-quality merchandise has gone the way of the doily.


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