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Hotel goods to go

Travelers already know they can buy that terry-cloth robe hanging in the hotel closet. Now you can ship home the mattress, bedspread and linens, too. Like the trash basket under the desk? It's for sale.

The concept of selling the rug underneath you isn't new in the hotel industry. Reinhard Neubert, hotel manager of the St. Regis Monarch Hotel in California, says he used to sell between 250 and 400 mattresses at the Four Seasons in Chicago at customers' requests. But when Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey chatted one afternoon about how each had purchased beds from an elite hotel chain, millions of viewers suddenly took note.

Hotel chains know a profit center when it smacks them on the television screen. "Why shouldn't a company sell its furnishings? They obviously can get them at a good price, turn around and sell them at a competitive price and still make money off it," says Reneta McCarthy, a lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. "And you have people talking about your brand."

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So thanks to the Internet, the Starwoods, Ritz Carltons and Four Seasons of the world began selling these goods through third-party companies such as Hotels at Home and Boxport.

Bed items rank No. 1 on the sales list. At the Waldorf Astoria, it's the down pillows specifically, followed by luxury flat sheets. A decent number of folks throw the pillowcases and duvet cover into their totals as well. At the St. Regis, customers have made mattresses the king of the retail sales. Totaled, the New York icon sells 138 items a month, for an average revenue stream of $12,000 per month, or $144,000 a year with minimal effort.

It makes perfect sense to the merchants. "It's try it before you buy it," says Robin Ware, a spokeswoman for Hotels at Home. "You can squeeze all the pillows you want at the store, but you can't sleep on them. This eliminates the risk factor."

And chalk up one for laziness, too. "A lot of people don't have decorating skills, so they say 'Wow! I like the way this room looks. I wish my house looked like this. Why don't I just buy it?'" McCarthy adds.

The price is right?

On the other hand, hotels have earned a reputation for outrageous markups. Consider the $1 per minute in-room phone calls, regardless whether they go through. Is this merely another avenue to soak the public?

"Of course there's a markup," says Cary Schirmer, president of San Francisco-based Boxport. "It's a for-profit venture. But we're buying containers of towels from India, Turkey and Italy. When you buy in that volume, you're able to pass it on."

He claims the retail price is generally in line with mainstream retailers' tags for similar quality, if not below it. The average sale at Boxport hovers at $425 per transaction. Waldorf's in-demand down pillow retails for $75 compared to the $60 version at JCPenney. The Waldorf's pillowcases cost $60, and the flat sheets sell for around $120. (Fitted sheets set you back $130.) Guests shell out $225 for the down blanket, and as much as $1,400 for the mattress and box springs.

"The person prone to stay in these hotels won't squabble about the price," says Debby Cannon, who heads Georgia State University's school of hospitality. "The consumer segment targeted here is more value conscious, and they're getting that for their money."

That's because as a shopping outlet, hotel rooms offer a quality consumers normally can't get their hands on, says Schirmer. His company has specialized in furnishing more than 1,500 hotels and resorts worldwide in the past 15 years, so it was a no-brainer to open a division to dangle the merchandise before the public's eyes.

Top-end hotels compete on comfort, so a majority of their selections require custom brands manufactured by respected names such as Sealy. The St. Regis even demands a customized version of the Heavenly Bed, which is a special brand designed just for Starwood Hotels properties -- and any average American who wants to order either version from the hospitality chain's Web site.

Second, every piece has to live up to contract quality -- a fancy phrase meaning the chair won't fall apart when a large person sits on it. Those 400-thread-count sheets will survive daily scaldings in commercial washing machines.

"You'll see prototypes that manufacturers are trying to launch -- hotels are where hip trends start," Schirmer says. "Consumer buyers here are on the cutting edge." But Average Joe can't track down the factory and call in an individual order. Hotels offer a middleman purchasing channel previously closed to even the most sophisticated consumer.

And never underestimate sheer snob appeal. According to Neubert, folks like to make up the guest bed and tell folks, "Tonight I'm treating you to the St. Regis." Be grateful for this attitude, however. It protects you from being bombarded with a 24-hour commercial each time you stop at a hotel along the interstate.

"It won't make sense for every hotel," Cannon says. "We're looking at upper end hotels who do this very well and can offer something unique people can't get in their everyday bed and bath type of store. Even the resort guests can expect a tasteful mention of items for sale in a desk brochure or direct-mailed catalogue rather than price tags plastered throughout their suites."

"I always say make sure we don't sell too much because we want our guests to come back to the hotel!" Neubert adds.

-- Posted: Dec. 1, 2004





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