15085 Fri, 08/22/2008 - 11:25am
By David Gill
NEW YORK–Manufacturers of blankets and throws are struggling to raise the bar on design and innovation, as they seek to lift this category out of its flat-growth rut with September market week just around the corner.
“Everyone is waiting for the next hot product,” said Dave Fraser, vice president of sales for the blanket division of JLA Home (which entered this business earlier this year with its purchase of International Home Fashions). He pointed out that the market got a bounce several years ago from the debut of plush and coral fleece blankets, and Egyptian cotton and ring-spun products. “Eight years ago, blankets topped out at $19.99 at retail,” he said. “After these products, those top prices pushed up to from $50 to $60 for queen sizes.”
Then, however, the growth those products brought flattened out again. “It began to slow down last year,” Fraser said, “because all of a sudden, everybody had these products.”
Normally, “there is a spike in sales for the fall season, but (in recent years), it’s not as significant as in years past,” said Liz Rapelye, brand manager for Sferra Bros.
The necessity for something new and innovative in blankets and throws has come to the fore with retailers’ recent reactions to the category.
“This is a very challenging economy, and there are retailers that have walked away from these products,” said Stan Mieskowski, vice president of sales and marketing for The Northwest Co. “Blankets and throws are a wonderful fourth-quarter promotional item, but a number of retailers have downsized the number of endcap promotions they intend to do this year, from as many as eight to just one in some cases. They don’t want to be stuck with the extra inventory the day after Christmas, and the extra expense that comes along with it.”
Northwest continues to offer its variety of sports-licensed throws, with the NFL, the NCAA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and NASCAR among its properties in this category. In recent years, the company has ventured into entertainment licenses, and now numbers Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, Betty Boop and Elvis among its products.
In terms of distribution channels, the blanket and throw business skews toward value-oriented retailers, especially in difficult economic times, according to Brian Munsey, vice president of sales and marketing for Biederlack of America.
“The big discounters, the warehouse clubs, and off-price and dollar stores (are those that could get more traffic from blanket shoppers). I don’t expect it to be a quantum change this year, but I think the economy will drive more consumers to these channels.”
Given these circumstances, new products have become the order of the day.
Sferra Bros. recently introduced its Delemont blanket, made of lamb’s wool from Italy. Soft constructions such as lamb’s wool, cashmere or cotton “are what does best for us,” Rapelye said.
Higher-end blankets, such as Delemont, is where some vendors believe that future growth lies.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity in the better-blanket business,” said Bob Christnacht, blanket/home division manager for Pendleton Woolen Mills. “With us, it’s all about wool. We continue to push the edge of the envelope as far as design, wool grades and weaving techniques. We are seeing a lot more interest in better-quality traditional blankets for warmth, in part due to the anticipation of (higher) winter heating bills.”
A newer category, blankets filled with down-alternative synthetics, have made some headway in the more non-traditional segment of this business. “Years ago, there were down-filled blankets,” Fraser said, “but then the bird flu incidents in China scared consumers away. So then down alternatives came into the market.”
Whatever the product or construction, innovation in all the key areas of the blanket and throw business will be critical to future growth, Mieskowski said. “We’re trying new things in throws to give consumers a compelling reason to buy, and maybe not at a promotional price,” he said. “This also includes new packaging concepts.
“I think things will get better,” Mieskowski added, “and it’s going to come down to newness and freshness. A retailer that runs the same stuff it’s been running all along will see its business plateau and decline. Those that run new constructions and designs will do well.”