• Cecile Corral

Beach Towel Makers Get Creative

Whether we like it or not, the sun is not yet setting on splashy beach towels reminiscent of souvenir shops, including the usual collection of dancing dolphins, lofty lighthouses, sandy seashells, and florid florals.

But since last year, the tide is changing, giving new hope to chic beachgoers and posh poolsiders.

Responding to a much needed call for sharper designs and more elegant palettes relevant to current ready-to-wear — and specifically swimwear — fashions, beach towel suppliers are creating keener looks in somewhat upgraded constructions.

This new wave started to flow last year and is shoring up again in a bigger way for this season. And, suppliers say, an even greater fashion push will come in 2008.

While concrete numbers are hard to come by for this niche of the towel industry, suppliers surveyed agreed last year was the first time in several consecutive years that the beach towel category experienced growth — and at a fairly healthy rate, about 5%.

That brings the beach towel business, at retail, to a level of $110 million, they estimated. Last year HTT reported — also based on estimates from suppliers — that the category was worth $100 million in 2005, a figure we have revised upward to $105 million.

While admittedly a small segment of the overall towel business, the beach towel category's latest industry sales prove it is making a comeback under a new guise — as fashion accessory — achieved through hip design coupled with some subtle improvements in fabrications.

"Just because people buy a cheap product doesn't mean they want it to look disgusting," said Gretchen Dale, evp, Loftex Industries. "It's better design that has moved beach way ahead. You're seeing more than lighthouses and dolphins. Designs have become less what we think of a beach motif and more about trends in swimwear and more about what is happening in apparel. As we started using better weights and designs, the business has been pretty good the last couple of years."

Loftex revamped its beach product development approach last year, Dale said, creating design collections instead of breaking out designs by colorway.

"For example, we created our French Riviera collection, and rather than offer each pattern in a blue colorway and a red colorway for warm and cool looks, we combined them all into one colorway. And the retailers loved it," she said.

Springs Industries late last year brought on board beach towel industry veteran Michele Sinai to break the home textiles giant into the category. Her first line will debut in 2008, and her plan involves much terry.

"The void is in terry. We keep making velour and I don't want velour. I want a terry towel on my cabana chair," said Sinai, senior merchandise manager. "We'll devote a small percentage of our line to velour, but the majority, about 90%, will be terry. We need to remember that in bath, not many towels are velour."

Sinai explained that terry offers many benefits — including functionality and less waste.

"The market keeps trying to add value with appliqués and heavy velour, and our beach towels have become too complicated," she went on to say. "We're selling a towel for the summer and hopefully what we bring to the market will do just that — a fabulous summer product that dries you. We need a towel that doesn't fill up your entire tote bag with cotton. We need to go back to basics. The bulk of towels are bright and just a one-summer thing, and we need to readdress the fundamentals of that."

For a long time, Avonhome was "not seeing the fun" in beach towels, which prompted the company to add the category to its broad assortment over the past year, explained Chris Mooney, evp, sales and merchandising.

"There is no place where the consumer, retailer, or vendor should be having more fun than in the beach towel category," Mooney said. "Right now, the design priorities seem to be 'cheap' or 'safe'… The word on the street seems to be that the beach towel is a commodity item for a fickle purchaser. We're not finding that at all. Give the consumer a happy pattern that's refreshing in appearance, and color it the right way — and they'll buy it. And then do that 24 to 36 times to create a beautiful, enticing, whole plan-o-gram. We're just trying to do great patterning in exactly the right colorways and still make it work at the right margin at the already established price points for the constructions we work in."

Already-established price points are also getting facelifts, thanks to better product.

Hilasal sees heavier, non-commodity, 40-by-70 beach towels trending up. "Our strength has become the $19.99 to $24.99 price bracket, because the consumer is willing to pay for the better quality," said Larry Price, director of U.S. sales.

Another segment of growth for Hilasal — and for many of its competitors — is the teen to college market.

To attract the attention of these 13-to-19-year olds, Hilasal has created a mythological and fantasy-inspired design grouping, with dragon patterns and the like.

Loftex is also beckoning the younger consumer, but it includes the fashion-savvy pre-teen in its approach, Dale said.

"The juvenile segment of beach is becoming more sophisticated than old beach was," Dale said. "Kids today aspire to brands and fashion, and they've got the pulse of what's happening. You can't get away with stupid designs. They want cool looks, like camos [camouflage] or skull-and-cross-bones. Even cutesy things have to be more sophisticated. Juvenile beach towels can almost be adult."

Venus Home added beach towels to its bedding and bath roster in January 2005. Juvenile was not a focus until now, said Larry Martineau, who heads this division.

Based on the success Venus is having with small licensed program with artist Mary Jane Begin for kids' beach towels, the company is now "talking about building our juvenile program," he said. "We're thinking about adding our own Venus designs to our kids program."

Distribution Channels (% of total)
2006 total retail sales: $110 million

2006 2005
Source: HTT Research
Discount department stores 55.0% 55.0%
Mid-tier department stores 13.0 15.0
Home textiles specialty chains 11.5 10.0
Warehouse clubs 11.5 10.0
Department stores 4.0 5.0
Off-price chains 3.0 2.5
Catalogs 2.0 2.5

Cecile CorralCecile Corral | Senior Product Editor, Home & Textiles Today

Cecile B. Corral has been a product editor with Home Textiles Today since late 2000. She covers the area and accent rug, kitchen textiles, table linens, beach towels, decorative bath and decorative pillow categories, as well as some retail subjects.

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