Stewart's customers vow loyalty -- for now

Thursday, March 11, 2004

CHICAGO -- The preliminary verdict is in from Martha Stewart's customers, and the convicted queen of home furnishings should like it much better than the one delivered in a New York courtroom last week.

Many fans forgive her and, better yet, they seem to still be buying her products.

While it's too early to gauge sales totals that ultimately will determine the public verdict, early evidence from stores nationwide and some analysts suggests customers are standing by their Martha -- and her brand.

"She made a big-time mistake," Mohamed Abdullahi, a 32-year-old Chicagoan, said this week outside a Kmart where aisles filled with Martha Stewart items remained busy with shoppers. "But when I buy Martha Stewart products it has nothing to do with her. I'm sleeping with Martha Stewart bedsheets, I'm not sleeping with Martha Stewart."

Loyalty to the Martha Stewart Everyday line of sheets, towels and other products appears to be linked in large part to long-standing admiration for the woman who inspired them.

"The stuff she makes is really nice," said Blanca Torres, 30, who was looking at Martha Stewart bedspreads at another Kmart. "How she cooks and decorates, and the gardening, that's how I wish I could be -- except for the obstruction of justice stuff."

Retail consultant Walter Loeb said there is nothing to indicate people are buying fewer of Stewart's products since her conviction last Friday for lying to investigators about a well-timed stock sale.

"Kmart counts on that traffic, and if it's called Martha Stewart or James Stewart, it doesn't matter -- it's the merchandise that counts," he said.

Dennis McAlpine, a managing partner of the independent research firm McAlpine Associates, was less sanguine about the prospects for the Martha Stewart brand, which also includes magazines, books and a syndicated TV show. Other analysts, too, think the brand could take a big hit, though they admit there's no way to know just yet.

"There are a core group of enthusiasts that will stick with Martha regardless, but we don't know how big that group is," McAlpine said.

A survey of consumers taken just before last week's verdict suggested it could hurt sales. The poll by C. Britt Beemer of America's Research Group, a consumer behavior strategic marketing firm, found that roughly 33 percent of the 1,001 respondents interviewed last Wednesday through Friday said they would buy Martha Stewart products if she were found guilty, compared with about 39 percent if she were acquitted. The random telephone poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Stewart's magazine publishing business has suffered as some advertisers have shied away, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia said last week in reporting quarterly and annual financial results.

But book sales have been steady, Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said.

"The Martha Stewart titles are part of our basic backlist, and we have not seen any decline or upsurge in her books," Brown said. "Her customers continue to buy her books because they are well done and excellent references in the subjects they cover."

With Stewart's trial and travails now out of the daily headlines, she might be able to draw on deep support from her devotees. Shoppers questioned informally in six U.S. cities this week voiced continuing support for Stewart's products, and often for Stewart herself.

"I buy her stuff and I love it," said Mona Gay, who was coming out of a Bed, Bath and Beyond store in Tallassee, Ala. "I think she ought to stay on TV, too, even if they only did reruns."

Zoe Montgomery, browsing the Martha Stewart collection at a Kmart in Spokane, Wash., said she likes both the price and quality of the goods and that, if anything, she would be more likely to buy Stewart's products "because of what they did to her."

Like Montgomery, 63-year-old Pat Shurtleff of Raleigh, N.C., was sympathetic toward Stewart and feels she was victimized because she was a powerful woman.

"I feel like there were bigger fish to fry and there were other males that could have been prosecuted for the same thing," she said. "What she did wasn't right but it has probably been done by a lot of other people, male and female."

Renee Ujevich of Imperial, Pa., said the verdict won't affect her shopping. "I go for what I like," she said as she loaded two Stewart tablecloths into her shopping cart at the Kmart in nearby Moon Township. "I don't feel as a consumer what I purchase has anything to do with her private life."

But detractors are out there. The key for her brand's future is how many.

Theresa Martin, who was shopping at a department store in Spokane, said she has never bought any of Stewart's products and there's little chance she will now. "I was glad to see it happen," she said of the guilty verdict. "Justice was served."

------

Associated Press Writers Jay Cohen in Raleigh, N.C.; Hillel Italie and Michael P. Regan in New York; John K. Wiley in Spokane, Wash; Jennifer C. Yates in Pittsburgh; and John Zenor in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: