The frame category has fared far better than most home furnishings businesses this year as most vendors estimate that 2009 business will end modestly up.
The mantra is that frames are recession-resistant and that they make a great pick-me-up gift or room update at a very modest price. Even in tough economic times, consumers are willing to buy a frame. Vendors who serve a wide spectrum of distribution channels have used this inclination to their advantage, turning out a wide array of basic core woods as well as novelty items, most of which play to a consumer’s emotions. This has kept business thriving. There has been no lack of introductions in the frame category this year.
The first half of the year was soft, according to Mike Wluka, vice president of sales at Malden, “and then all of a sudden, things went nuts.”
After a disastrous fourth quarter last year, vendors agreed, retailers planned significantly down and then were in the position of playing catch-up by early summer 2009. The business became “hot as a pistol, because it’s such an inexpensive gift,” Wluka said.
Retail picked up “and everyone wants to get back into business,” he continued. “Everyone wants inventory.”
Executives at Burnes Home Accents agreed. “The year started like last year ended, with a lot of caution,” said Karen Trueblood, vice president of marketing. But as the year went on, said Mike Kirkland, vice president of sales, the company began to see a lot of retail replenishment, with month-to-month increases.
Other vendors, such as Melannco, which focuses more on the wall frame business, and Prinz, which focuses on the fashion end of the tabletop frame business, reported that business has been steadily good all year long. “We are having more than an OK year,” said Richard Feldstein, president of Prinz.
Sales among the various channels of distribution have remained the same, according to vendors. The online business is a channel that for frames is still in its infancy, a few said, but which has potential.
Retailers remain very careful about their business, said Burnes’ Trueblood. They are keeping a tight rein on inventory for better turns, she said, and assortments are more stable (i.e. fewer planogram changes), with new items layered in where it makes sense. “They’re looking at their business closer and smarter,” she said.
“In hindsight, it has made everyone stronger,” added Kirkland.
The driver of all business, according to Barry Gordon, is key items. Gordon is the group president of Home Decor for the Melannco and Elements divisions of Lifetime Brands. “If you give good product at great value, you will continue to sell,” he said.
More specifically, oversized collages with multiple openings for the wall, sentiment-based tabletop and wall frames, and occasion-oriented looks are what are making retail registers ring.
Sentiment-based frames, or those that convey familial or friendship ties, such as “family,” “sisters, “team” and so forth “are like a greeting card to express yourself,” noted Malden, particularly in an electronic age where reduced face-to-face conversations make it harder for people to say what they want to say.
Malden has manufactured so many sentiment frames that “we’re running out of words,” said Wluka. “We keep changing the medium, we keep adding new styles.”
Burnes has experienced similar success. “Sentiments or words are pretty much the strong statement,” said Trueblood. “If the retailer wasn’t in the [sentiment] business, they have gotten into it, or further into it.”
And Donna Donut, vice president of design and merchandising for New View, said, “We’re finding customers are growing toward the sentiment aspect of business, that’s what’s driving business.” One of New View’s most popular sentiment frames is “All Because Two People Fell in Love… .”
The collage business is one of the strongest categories, according to Donut. “Some of the business is shifting from traditional wall art to the collage business,” she said.
Collages are big business for Melannco as well. The company recently partnered with Command, providing frame sets and multiple opening frames that come with a template, a level and the 3M-engineered sticking material that allows consumers to hang frames on the wall without making holes.
“The wall decor business is very good,” said Feldstein of Prinz, including collages and large-format matted frames.
Frame sizes have increased from the common 4-by-6 size to 5-by-7 and 8-by-10. This is a direct result of digital photography, which enables consumers to take lots of photos, choose the best one and blow it up with relative ease.
Wood frames in dark colorations as well as wood and metal combos are the mainstays of manufacturers who serve the core part of the business. Color is applied sparingly as an accent. For those in the fashion end of the business, there are a variety of popular looks. New View continually adds embellishments, patterning and metallics to its assortment, said Donut.
“We’re constantly developing and designing and showing our customers new concepts all the time,” she said. “Something new and fresh is what the customer’s looking for.” Popular color combos include blue and brown, spice tones and traditional blacks and brown in combination with color.
Prinz follows fashion closely as well. “Watching fashion, watching colors is very important to us,” Feldstein said. “We’re broad-based in our assortment. We are in lifestyles—baby, wedding, tween, sports—things that relate to moments in one’s life.”
Many new collections from Prinz feature mixed mediums, such as the pewter and wood and leather and chrome combinations found in its Urban Loft collection.
“It’s been an interesting year but one of my most fun ones,” said Feldstein. “We’ve overcome many obstacles successfully.”