Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Over A Barrel

Are CB2's bright colors and lower-priced home decorating accents the new trend for twentysomethings?

By Elaine Richardson

JANUARY 31, 2000:  A newly married couple: She's a lawyer in her first post-college job, he's an engineer with a new Ph.D. and a post-doctorate university research job. Together their yearly income is enough to allow for comfortable, if not extravagant, living in downstate Champaign. They buy a condo and head upstate to shop for furniture.

More precisely, they rent a mid-sized U-Haul and drive up to Schaumburg's mecca of do-it-yourself Swedish décor, IKEA. After a day in the store, they load up enough to fill a living room, bedroom and office and drive home, knowing that with a few hours and an Allen wrench, their new furniture will be ready to go.

It's not that farfetched. If today's twentysomethings are united on anything, it may well be the search for affordable housewares and home furnishings. After all, for the post-collegiates who have left behind the Salvation Army decorating phase, but are not quite able to drop thousands on department store furniture, the pickings have been slim.

Then came IKEA, the super-cheap alternative to department stores, followed closely by Cost Plus World Market, the super-cheap alternative to Pier One. Even Target has grabbed a piece of the action, with funky dishes and foldable bookcases from its Furio line.

And these stores haven't been subtle in their courting of the mid-20s buyer. What other group is going to spend more than a hundred bucks on a bookcase or table made from pressed wood? It's a small price to pay for something that's fashionable and somewhat sturdy, and yet can be replaced without conscience in five years.

Yet they're beyond Urban Outfitters, says Susan Glick, fashion director for the Merchandise Mart-based Chicago Apparel Center. "They're looking for the right place to put the stereo and the TV, they're looking for a couch they don't blow up, they're looking for the right floor covering," says Glick. "They're out of the thrift stage but not ready to shop at Bloomingdale's. They're mixing and matching, looking for something that's Gap fashion for the home. And that sounds like CB2."

Northbrook-based Crate and Barrel joined this fray January 15, with CB2—a younger-themed and less expensive version of its big store. Featuring some furniture, some housewares and a lot of stuff that's "practical," according to Crate and Barrel spokesperson Bette Kahn, CB2 is fully geared toward the twentysomething market.

"It's not that it's different from Crate and Barrel, but that Crate and Barrel is different from it," Kahn says. "Over the years we've become more sophisticated, more of a gift store. We're very into our bridal registry. We've changed so much from when Gordon and Carole Segal started it when they were 23 years old."

Kahn says CB2 takes Crate and Barrel back to where it was thirty-eight years ago when the company began. "The 23 of today is not the 23 of the sixties. They're not as interested in gourmet cooking, but they are interested in what's around their computer, so we've shuffled the gourmet in favor of office."

While the exterior of the storefront at 3757 North Lincoln is a muted modernistic sweep of white and glass, the interior of CB2 screams youth. On opening weekend the place is packed, full of couples, college students and their parents and others in their twenties or early thirties, all looking for a bargain.

Bombarded by a host of colors and styles, from a multi-hued hard plastic chair, retail $79.95, to the rough-woven $40 throw rugs, $119 plywood chairs, $15 stainless steel dish racks and the $2.50 melamine plates, some fill their baskets happily while others look somewhat dazed. Even older couples, who might be able to afford items from the regular store, whisper excitedly, mentally checking the prices against Crate and Barrel's as they stock up on 95-cent salt and pepper shakers.

"CB2 and places like it: this is the wave of the future," says Glick. "There truly is, with the Net, a group of people in their 20s who are very savvy about what they are looking for."

Glick notes that the marketing push toward twentysomethings has spurred fashion designers Tommy Hilfiger into the market, which in turn has impacted what's available from other retailers.

"A lot of designers want to design the dress you wear and the things you have in your home," Glick says. "And you're seeing the crossover. The colors are there. If we're wearing khakis, that will be reflected in linens. New shades will all of a sudden creep into the home furnishings arena."

That crossover coloring is highly evident throughout CB2, from the muted metal shades of perforated aluminum bulletin boards, to deep indigo bedding and bathroom fixtures, to the bright metal shades of stainless-steel kitchen accents, with splashes of orange and green thrown in for good measure.

"This has allowed us to use more color, more materials, and to experiment with things that might not exactly fit into the mix of regular Crate and Barrel," Kahn says.

Those colors will also be coming to small electrics and other housewares aimed at the youth market, says Lisa Casey Weiss, lifestyle consultant for the National Housewares Manufacturers Association, which finished its annual show at McCormick Place this week.

"Manufacturers are starting to see that young twentysomethings are out on their own, setting up their own households, and they definitely need these products," says Weiss. "Kitchen electrics, vacuum cleaners, blenders are coming in colors to attract the younger consumer—iMac colors, translucent blues and greens and purples. One company, Gaggia, is putting out a high-end line of cappuccino and espresso makers in tangerine colors."

Weiss also notes that housewares manufacturers are aiming high-tech, higher-priced gadgets at the youth market, including an Internet-connected microwave convection oven that downloads recipes right onto an electronic panel. "Sunbeam has a whole line of appliances hard-wired into the outlet so it knows when your alarm goes off to turn on the coffeemaker," Weiss says. "This is the computer generation, they're into high-tech. But some of this may be cost-prohibitive though, so younger people will go to a Target or a CB2 saying 'I can't afford this, but I can get something similar.'"

So is this the first salvo fired at IKEA, which, with its "affordable solutions for modern living" motto and similar put-it-together furniture has drawn crowds to its mammoth suburban superstore? "People have said that, but I think our quality is better," Kahn says.

But CB2 isn't exactly IKEA, or Target for that matter. Moving into urban areas, CB2 simply can't find that much space—the new store is 6,000 square feet of kitchen, bath, bedding and other items organized under little icons that look a lot like the universal signage found in Europe.

In the kitchen section there are stylish metal-topped mops, flip-and-twist space-saving tables, colanders, recycled rubber mats and coasters and even sets of tumblers, coolers and the other glassware people tend to associate with Crate and Barrel—cheaper, but not quite the same styles.

"In a sense we're not copying ourselves. Our Crate and Barrel customers we see as married or settled in their first home. We don't know exactly, but that's how we feel," Kahn says. "Here we're expecting people with four bare walls and a computer. And maybe one of the first things they'll want to buy is a translucent power strip that matches the color of their iMac."

And like most children, in some ways CB2 is diametrically opposed to Crate and Barrel. They've got a pet supplies section. "This is the first time we've ever had that," says Kahn. "We swore we'd never sell a doggie dish, but pets are an important part of urban living."

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