Chintzy T-shirts and fake pockets hot in 2011

Soaring cotton prices could result in thinner T-shirts, 'Soaring cotton prices could result in thinner T-shirts, '"fake" pockets and "poly-cotton" clothes hanging in stores near you this summer. By Parija Kavilanz, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- As cotton prices keep setting records, clothing sellers are challenged to do everything they can to avoid passing the cost on to shoppers. If they raise prices, they risk losing their customers.

"Any retailer who thinks they can pass along higher supply costs to consumers needs to climb out from under a rock," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group.

Americans are feeling good about shopping again and retailers don't want to mess with this renewed enthusiasm said Cohen.

But it's not easy for retailers to ignore the fact that cotton prices have more than doubled over the past year. They hit an all-time high of $2 a pound on Thursday.

Thinner T-shirts: Some companies are taking creative approaches in order to use less cotton.

"T-shirts may get thinner," said Chris Callieri, principal with A.T. Kearney's retail and consumer practice.

Callieri said some of his clients are playing around with the "density" of cotton fabric, to see how they can use less of it. "But you have to be careful with that approach so that it doesn't affect the quality of the garment," he said.

Other creative tweaks like incorporating "fake" pockets could hold clothing prices steady for some garments.

"You can reduce the size of a garment, but add embroidery and buttons. This can reduce cotton costs as well," Callieri said.

The cotton crunch is also bringing back the go-to fabric of the 70s, polyester.

But before you break into a sweat at the idea of shiny disco shirts and skin-tight trousers hanging at your neighborhood Macy's (M, Fortune 500) this summer, Callieri said retailers are experimenting with blended fabric, such as a poly-cotton mix, to replace pure-cotton offerings.

The cotton crunch is hitting the bedding and linen industry particularly hard since consumers generally favor 100%-cotton sheets.

"What has more cotton in it that the bedsheet that you slept on last night?" said Andrew Tananbaum, CEO of Capital Business Credit, a retail supply chain finance company whose clients supply merchandise such as bedding and clothing to retailers in the U.S.

But companies are now warming up to using blended fabric. "A successful one is the 60-40 cotton-polyester blend," he said.

Tanabaum said high thread count poly-cotton blended sheets are about 30% cheaper than comparable all-cotton sheets. The lower price could convince cotton purists to at least try the product and save some money.

"Instead of paying $100 for an 800-thread count all-cotton sheet set, you pay $70 for the same thread count." he said. "So its cheaper, but the quality is still the same."

Another subtle way retailers will look to keep prices steady is by repackaging cotton products differently. While it won't seem like consumers are paying more, the repackaging will still come at some cost to them.

The most obvious example is with multipacks of cotton undershirts and socks that could shrink from five a pack to three a pack. So in effect, you are still paying more for less, NPD's Cohen said.

Ultimately, Cohen said the bottomline for consumers is that retailers can try to shield them from price increases through these methods but they won't be able to do it forever.

"No one knows when this trend is going to stop. Maybe the only thing that will stop it is if consumer demand for cotton items cools." said Phil Flynn, senior market and commodities analyst with PFG Best.  To top of page

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