Focusing on Fashion
By Allison Zisko
Reduced retail shelf space, coupled with the still-lagging economy, made the picture frame business in 2010 more challenging, but it also made manufacturers more resilient. The key to success in the frame business, they said, is to offer unique, value-added products that inspire consumers to buy. It is a fashion business that is only as good as its last best-seller.
"Every product needs to have a story," said Richard Feldstein, president of Prinz. "Being ordinary is not enough."
For the first nine months of this year, frame sales were flat compared to the previous year, according to overall vendor estimates, though some of them reported pockets of growth in certain retail channels or individual frame classifications. "The market has been contracting, but we're starting to see moderate, low single-digit growth," said John Kuypers, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Uniek Inc. "That's a positive thing."
The industry considers the frame business recession-resistant. Key price points average between $10 and $20 for tabletop frames and between $15 and $50 for wall frames, making them attractive to consumers interested in freshening, if not completely redecorating, their homes. "No matter how bad the economy got over the last two years, the frame business held its own," said Mike Wluka, vice president of Malden.
Sentiment or messaging-style frames--those that convey emotions such as "love" or "family" or recall special occasions using a few evocative words--continue to drive the business. Innovations, such as new materials and constructions, different finishes (bronze and antique copper finishes are growing more popular) and the addition of charms or other embellishments keep the category fresh. "I think the customer is still relating to that sentiment or relational aspect of the frame category," said Donna Donat, vice president of design for New View Gifts & Accessories.
Wall collages and other large format options are also selling well. "Wall collages have been hot," said Karen Trueblood, vice president of marketing for Burnes of Boston (the company has revived its former brand name because it is more recognizable to consumers than its corporate name, Burnes Home Accents, Trueblood said). Digital photography and the ease of re-sizing and printing photos has helped boost sales of wall collages.
"Retailers who did not have the space to display wall decor are now doing so, because it's an important part of the frame business," Feldstein said.
Color has also crept into the market. In the framed art category, current fashion colors such as teal and orange are translating into tabletop frames, said Wluka, while Kuypers said pops of color heighten seasonal merchandise. Some of the key fashion trends, according to Feldstein, include muted, earthy tones and, on the other end of the color spectrum, richer jewel tones, a palette that is playing out in other areas of home furnishings such as tabletop. Mixing patterns is also popular, Feldstein said.
Basic frames - simple 5-by-7 or 4-by-6 wood frames - no longer resonate with more fashion-conscious consumers, vendors said. "The customer really wants to see something additional on their frames," said Donat. There is still a customer for wood frames, but the frames need to have dimension, texture or an interesting finish. Vendors are layering woods, or combining two different stains - pairing, say, brown and blue or black and gray tones. The addition of words, or the aforementioned charms, make them stand out more at retail.
Standing out at retail is the key to survival. Mass merchants like Walmart as well as big box and specialty stores such as Kohl's and Bed, Bath and Beyond have cut back their shelf space dedicated to frames, and many of them are investing more in private label or house brands. Although this shrinkage at retail tends to be cyclical, Feldstein said, it underscores the need for manufacturers to be inventive, flexible and quick on their toes. "Each of us has to fight all the harder for existing space and additional shelf space," he said. "You have to have good basic product, but then really drive the business with something that creates an impulse with the consumer."
Because the frame category is going through a period of downward adjustment at retail, everything that is sold in has to sell through, added Feldstein, who said he is not above advising buyers about which of his products to include--or drop--depending on what is selling. He said he will tell buyers, 'That's not for you ... here is something better.'
"As good as we think we are, at the end of the day it's all about the numbers, getting the sales dollar per square foot," Feldstein said.
Other challenges for frame manufacturers include the rising cost of raw materials, labor shortages in Chinese factories and the difficulty in getting goods in time because of reduced and delayed container shipments, obstacles most other home furnishings suppliers are also experiencing. Frame manufacturers have addressed these problems in various ways. Some have the benefit of domestic or North American manufacturing plants. Wluka said his company is designing around cost increases by producing less expensive configurations, fewer screens and fewer attachments, but the consumer does not see the cut-back. Trueblood agreed: "We'll get creative with our design and manufacturing process."
Feldstein said he is working more closely with his retail partners and adding to his lead times to meet retailers' requested ship and delivery dates. "It's all gets down to execution," he said. Kuypers agreed. "It's all a function of better planning."