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Decorating after divorce

Leila Mesghali, a psychologist in Los Angeles, didn't look back. When she walked out of her marriage of three years, she took only her clothes and some heirloom dishes.

"It felt cleaner that way," said Mesghali, 30. "Some of our clashes had to do with decorating."

A few months after she separated from her husband, the decorating urge kicked in. Even on a limited budget, she spent $6,000 on a dark teak armoire, sofa and bedroom set. "I had a lot of motivation to fill my apartment up quickly," she said. "It was an opportunity to do my own thing."

Kim Lombard, a television producer in Toronto, also refurnished from scratch _ though not of his own will _ after splitting two years ago. "When my wife left me, she took everything," Lombard said. "At first, I wasn't in the mood emotionally; then I started looking around."

Lombard, 45, quickly spent about $25,000 on a sofa, a good mattress and a 50-inch television. "I wasn't going to just get by," he said. "I wanted to wipe out her memory."

When two people untie the knot, there's rarely an equitable split of their possessions. One person usually keeps the belongings; the other goes shopping. Even though the number of divorced people has more than quadrupled in the United States, to almost 20-million in 2000 from 4-million in 1970, according to the Census Bureau, marketers have largely shunned them as too downbeat.

But divorced consumers are stepping out of the shadows as competition forces the furniture industry to focus more sharply on all types of buyers, including those in the D category. With about half of all marriages ending in divorce and the percentage of nuclear families shrinking to less than 25 percent, divorced people represent a buying bloc too substantial to ignore.

"The divorce rate is keeping the furniture business alive," said J'Amy Owens, a consultant in Seattle to furniture retailers and manufacturers. "There's no doubt that life stages are driving consumers. They buy when they get married; they buy when they get divorced."

Like newlyweds, the newly separated need to stock their homes with everything from dish towels to four-poster beds (for her), from recliners to flat-screen televisions (for him).

"Next year, at least half of the 2.4-million people who will get divorced in the United States and Canada are going to buy new beds," said Dan Couvrette, publisher of Divorce magazine. "That's over a million people. You can't find a bigger niche."

The divorced don't just need stuff, they need style consultants. In September, Divorce magazine will publish a furnishing column. It will be written by Robert Craymer, founder of RC Collection, a furniture business with three stores in California and a Web address, www.rccollection.com, that offers furnishing tips along with a dose of sympathy. (For now, put away that etching you bought together in London and flaunt that Calvin Klein tureen you picked up after the first session with the lawyer.)

"I know what they're going through," said Craymer, who survived a messy divorce seven years ago. "It's a very strange feeling. Everything's gone. Where do you start? It's scary."

Craymer said that 60 percent of his online customers are going through a divorce and solicit his advice on the angst of filling a big, empty room.

"My first suggestion is always to just pick a color and repaint everything," Craymer said. "Then start buying your biggest piece of furniture first." After his own divorce, he painted his bathroom stop sign red.

People going through a divorce, Couvrette said, "represent a tremendous market potential because they'll spend money to get stuff that makes them feel better."

The Toronto-based magazine, which has a quarterly circulation of 100,000, recently conducted a survey of its readers' buying habits. Of the 250 respondents, 78 percent of the men bought new entertainment systems, and 69 percent of the women opted for new bedroom furniture.

Retail stores like Crate & Barrel, Sears and Ikea are learning to recognize and accommodate the shopper who may be dazed and alone, trailing a long list of household needs. "Our salespeople say they sometimes feel like therapists," said Joe Dance, a Crate & Barrel spokesman in New York. "They know they can't be all bubbly around someone who might be upset. It's clearly a situation they haven't been trained to handle, and that demands their most sensitive approach."

Dance noted that in New York, at least, there's one group that rarely seems depressed: women who negotiated settlements allowing them to refurnish their homes at their ex-husbands' expense. They put it all on their charge cards, he added.

Mitchell Gold, a furniture manufacturer in North Carolina, has a staff trained to keep an eye out for shoppers with special needs. "In the past, most sales were concentrated on the consumer as a "she,' " Gold said. "We teach our sales associates to look out for that man wandering around. He may have just been kicked out of the house."

Sometimes saleswomen find themselves playing surrogate wife. As a home furnishings consultant at Ikea in Chicago, Sharon Klein provides design advice to customers as they shop. She said she is frequently approached by "gentlemen who want help from someone with a woman's touch in buying just about everything." She added that when it came to outfitting rooms for children, those same shoppers have bottomless wallets. "They always want a lot of extras to make their kid's new bedroom more exciting than the one at the other parent's house," she said.

Janet Simonsen, Ikea's U.S. spokeswoman, estimated that as many as one-third of the customers she worked with over five years as a design consultant at the store in Elizabeth, N.J., were ex-husbands. "These are men whose wives had made all the decisions about their homes," she said. "They come right up to you and say, "Help!' "

Advertisers are tentatively reaching out. In June, Sears tested the waters with a coy television ad about divorce. A once-loving couple, having split their washer and dryer, are each shown while shopping at Sears for replacement appliances. They smile awkwardly at each other. "It was a humorous look at a real-life situation," said Lee Antonio, a spokeswoman for Sears. "The response was mixed. People wanted to know why we were promoting divorce." The ad was pulled.

In 1994, Ikea ran a television ad that put a positive spin on shopping one's way to a fresh start. It showed a woman driving at night with her daughter asleep in the back seat. She muses aloud about her divorce and embarking on a new life. Flashbacks show her shopping up a storm in the aisles of Ikea. The ad was part of a groundbreaking series of lifestyle ads that also included a vignette about a gay couple. Though it was well-received by the press and the public, Ikea has no further plans to pitch directly to divorcing couples, Simonsen said.

Montauk Sofas was among the first to run an upbeat breakup ad. A smiling woman cozies up in the embrace of a $1,900 extra-plush armchair. The text begins in bold type: "He left me. Good Riddance." It ends: "Who cares . . . I kept the sofa."

The ad has generated such good feelings for Montauk, a Montreal furniture manufacturer with seven stores in the United States and Canada, that it has kept running it for five years.

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