Down for the Count
By David Gill
Thread count appears to be losing popularity as a selling point for sheets.
Under the merchandising focus that has prevailed until recently, thread count gives consumers a clear and numerical indicator of what they are buying. The higher the count, the better the sheet, the logic goes.
But bedding-industry executives now say that the logic could be as twisted as the yarns that go into the making of some higher thread-count sheets.
"It's now common knowledge that thread count doesn't always indicate the quality of a sheet," said David Greenstein, president of the Homestead division of Li & Fung. "This is because of the way the absolute number of threads are interpreted when you talk about twisted yarns, double picks and other tricks sheet makers use. Both of these cheapen the result, but you can still call it by its thread count."
Amplifying on this point, Arthur Viente, president of the Niche Bedding and Living brand for Eastern Accents, explained, "The right way to calculate (thread count) involves adding up all of the vertical and horizontal threads, warp and weft, in a square inch of fabric. But there are only so many threads you can realistically fit into a square inch and, generally speaking, anything over 300 is more perceived value than real value. Many companies exaggerate the number by counting the number of plys in a yarn, so a 300-count sheet using a two-ply yarn may be promoted as a 600 count."
And in fact, many consumers exposed to a sheet at thread counts of from 400 to 1,000, expecting these sheets to feel softer as the count goes higher, have come away disappointed by the stiff, almost twill-like feel of these fabrics.
"There were a lot of high thread counts that consumers found didn't work very well," said Bob Hamilton, director of marketing for Welspun. "Our focus groups have found them somewhat cynical about thread count. We got comments from consumers that once you go over 350 or 400, it doesn't matter."
To set a new direction in marketing sheets, Sferra Bros. introduced its Lose Count program last year. The point-of-sale campaign seeks to inform both consumers and retailers that the quality of sheets has more to do with the actual type of cotton used and the feel of the fabric, rather than how many threads there are in a square inch of the sheet.
Paul Hooker, president of Sferra, said, "We've gotten a lot of positive feedback (about the campaign). Our customers said it's really, really helped them at the point of sale. All of our customers know that thread count is not as important, but it's up to them to educate the consumer why it's not important."
One of the focuses in the Lose Count program is marketing higher-quality sheets as enhancers of consumers' quality of sleep, and other vendors have picked up on the fact that a higher thread-count sheet may actually impede sleep quality.
"The key element most people don't think about when purchasing sheets is how they sleep," Viente said. "Everyone perspires when sleeping, so ideally you would want a sheet that is breathable and absorbent, as well as being soft and comfortable. Higher thread counts mean a tighter weave and, consequently, a sheet that does not breathe as well, or a hotter sleep."
Other vendors are looking to elevate the importance of other quality points in marketing sheets.
"Brand, fabrication (sateen or percale), finishing and hand have all gained importance primarily due to the main substandard high thread-count sheets that have hit the market," said Scott Howard, vice president of sales for JLA Home.
Greenstein said fiber content could be a thoroughly viable way to establish a sheet's quality in a consumer's mind. "This is simply a matter of what are you making the sheet from," he said. "There are superior types of cotton such as Egyptian and supima. Also, the simple fact is the more cotton a sheet has, the better the sheet is."
However, Hooker has his doubts about talking about grades of cotton. "Supima and Egyptian would be a good way to speak of quality, but you can't prove which one is better than the other," he said. "I would not make the argument that Egyptian is better than supima. They're both beautiful, long-staple yarns."
Howard added that thread count "is still one of the more dominant attributes in the consumer purchase decision-making process." Greenstein said thread count does indicate the quality of the sheet "when it's properly done."
Avi Gross, president of Divatex, said, "Exaggerated (thread-count) numbers are still selling. People are still paying extra for anything between 400 and 630 thread-count. Four hundred and below is becoming more promotional."
Upper-end retailers still look to thread count as a key differentiator, according to Hamilton. "In the upper stratas of retail, where the presumption of quality is already there, thread count is the way to establish the best of the best," he said.
Down the road, thread count may become less about quality for sheets as a whole--but it will take greater efforts in this direction by manufacturers to establish this in consumers' minds. "Our focus groups indicate that retailers aren't educating the consumers very well," Hamilton said. "We see some catalogs educating consumers in cotton, but it's a small percentage of the market. It takes a lot of money to create the consumer mindset on these issues."
Sferra feels that thread count can be used as no more than an internal company indicator, Hooker said. "Our thread counts go up the scale and in price, but the reason for that we are using finer yarns for our higher thread counts," he said. "Thread count was never about quality, on our view. We don't use it as an indicator of quality, and we want retailers to do this too."