Design has been a powerful influence in the retail world in recent years. Stores such as Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Target have injected style into our homes in ways that are at once transforming and affordable.
In the furniture business, executives talk about how consumer "taste levels" have been rising. Even in the fashion world, the cutting-edge offerings of fashion retailer H&M are making an edgy, modern look more accessible to the masses.
So, I wonder, what is the deal with luggage? Walk into just about any luggage store or travel section of a department store and the blandness of the suitcases on display is positively overwhelming. Over here, six black boxes. Over there, five black rectangles. A smattering of navy and olive rounds out the main collection, with perhaps a few pieces in red.
If we can have beautiful chairs, elegant dishwashers, showy toothbrush holders and hip toasters, why is the typical suitcase still so uninspiring? If I see another black canvas box coming around the baggage claim conveyer I'm going to scream.
In fact, we must largely blame ourselves for this predicament. That, and the way luggage is sold, which largely prevents manufacturers or retailers from offering customers much of anything that departs from the norm -- even if they'd like to and even if customers routinely ask for it.
"People always ask for different looks and different colors, but they oftentimes end up gravitating back to the black again, to the same styles," said John Misiano, senior editor for Travel Goods Showcase, the magazine of the Travel Goods Association.
I'd never really thought much about luggage until I got a call this spring from Tumi, the super-high-end maker of cases and bags of all kinds -- generally black, generally boxy. I know Tumi to make a high-quality, durable product. But the company was interested in talking about its new retail strategy, including its first Washington area store at Tysons Galleria, along with its fashion-forward collections aimed at women.
"It doesn't take Einstein to look around any kind of business-class or first-class section to realize that it's not 100 percent male," said Chad Mellon, vice president of marketing for Tumi. "There's a lot of affluent, frequent-flying females who need good luggage, and no one's really targeting them."
But my trip to Tumi's store, and to several other luggage retailers, made it clear that the introduction of a design aesthetic in the travel-products industry is primarily happening on accessories and small bags. In totes and backpacks, purses and briefcases, one can find a distinctive and innovative look pretty easily (for a price). But the carry-ons, suitcases and garment bags? Still, for the most part, snoozers.
To be fair, it's clear the luggage industry has actually been working pretty hard at coming up with better products, but the redesigning has been all about function. The suitcase of today is lighter-weight, is easier to pull and lift, has more-ergonomic handle systems and sports better pockets, sections and straps. Great.
But where are the eye-catching styles? The interesting design details? The contrast stitching? The unique patterns (by which I don't mean tapestry!)? These are things that might make someone buy a piece of luggage simply because they want it, not just because they need it. After all, one of the industry's big complaints is that people buy luggage only when they're going on a trip and have to find something fast. Perhaps better design could help that problem.
The sad fact is, though, even when interesting styles are made, they don't sell. It's a point of great frustration for luggage retailers.
"You think it's boring for you going into a store looking at all black luggage -- working with it every day can be really boring," said Joe Hertlein, manager of Lane's Luggage, one of the Washington area's oldest independent luggage retailers, which has operated in the city since 1953. "Unfortunately, that's the state of the industry. The black is always going to sell, literally, four to one."
Retailers of all kinds say that shoppers come in, look around, sigh, and ask if there's anything more interesting, something that'll be easier to spot on the carousel. But in the end, most people pick something that won't show the soil, that won't attract too much attention when they travel and that will last a really long time. In other words, something black.
Lane's recently took a gamble on a new line of brown and burgundy Ultrasuede luggage by Hartmann Inc. It was washable and durable and different, Hertlein said.
"We were really excited about it, and I was excited about putting it in the window," he said. "We had a lot of people looking at it, but in that three-week period, we probably sold two pieces of it, and probably sell four pieces a day of Tumi in black."
That kind of consumer reaction puts both retailers and manufacturers in a pickle. When luggage makers go to the expense of using funkier fabrics, colors and contrasts, there's a higher possibility shoppers won't bite. Retailers, too, are leery of stocking anything with an edgier, more fashionable look for fear they'll get stuck with unsold inventory. Luggage stores tend to be small, and floor space is at a premium, so stores that have room to display only eight to 12 lines aren't likely to take a chance on something unknown.
"A lot of time the manufacturer will have something in different styles and different colors. It doesn't always make it to the store," said Misiano of the Travel Goods Association.
There is, however, some hope that the luggage industry may be getting a little hipper. The new, more fashionable designs for accessories and smaller bags are taking a category that also used to be earth-tone conservative into new areas of color, texture and cut. These eye-catching pieces are being displayed in the windows of all kinds of luggage stores and, better yet, they're selling. Industry observers are hopeful. No one's expecting change to happen quickly, of course. After all, it took 15 years to get from "pleather" luggage on a leash to where we are now.
But there are early indications that manufacturers are taking more risks. Badanco has teamed up with Diane Von Furstenberg to design some spiffy new pieces, while Atlantic Luggage is just unveiling a cool line of colored, wheeled luggage called Citrus. It comes in more subdued hues such as blueberry and plum, but also stands out in grapefruit and lime, and more bright tones are due later this summer. Right now it's a hard product to find, but a friendly, if frazzled customer service rep at the company is frantically taking orders over the phone. Ever since the line appeared in a full-page ad in Good Housekeeping magazine this month, Atlantic's phone has been ringing off the hook.
These days, good design simply works to sell products. Maybe even luggage.
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